The essential guide to ideation for F&B innovation

A conversation with Phaedra Ruffalo, CEO of Surge Innovators

Ever found yourself staring blankly at the wall when you're supposed to conjure up genius ideas? Turns out, waiting for inspiration to strike randomly is like waiting for your coffee machine to deliver some brew-tally honest life advice along with the caffeine kick – not very likely (...yet). 

Whether you're picking a next big flavor for your beverage brand or figuring out if it’s worth sourcing that organic spice from a remote Pacific island, the struggle is real.🌿

Enter brainstorming and ideation, the superhero powers your creativity didn't know it needed. It's not just about throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks; it's a tactical maneuver, a strategic dance of the brainwaves. Picture this: your mind, armed with a battalion of creative ideas, storming the fortress of a problem, and creating a solution. That’s ideation in action! 

But how do you go about making brainstorming/ideation effective? That’s where GourmetPro expert Phaedra Ruffalo, CEO and founder of Surge Innovators (Consultancy), comes in. We talked to her about the importance of brainstorming and ideation in the journey to food and drink innovation. 💡📈 

Read on to ignite the spark of innovation. 


  • 📰 In The News: Sustainability galore, frozen fruit snacks, and more…

  • 🚀 Innovation Deep Dive: Phaedra Ruffalo, founder and CEO of Surge Innovators, lays out the importance of ideation to the innovation process.

📰 In The News

A curation of our favorite F&B innovation stories from the week. Can be read in less than a 🧻 break.

This year’s Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – COP28 to friends – just kicked off in Abu Dhabi. While the big shots do their “global stocktaking” in terms of where we are in fixing the climate crisis (spoiler: nowhere good), it turns out that global warming is affecting much more than the environment or food production or the usual culprits. It’s putting haiku poetry off its seasonal game. So, while we take stock of how else climate change will impact high culture, here’s this edition’s F&B news, in haiku. 


COP28 unfolds,

Climate role of food foretold,

Sustainable goals.

COP28 is bringing the food and drink industry into focus as a major contributor to the climate crisis. Food systems account for a third of greenhouse gas emissions but haven’t really been given much attention in previous years.

That is all set to change this year. One day will be dedicated to discussing food, agriculture, and water; there’s a separate food pavilion; and there will be a formal declaration to work towards resilient and sustainable food systems.

Several sessions will focus on sustainable solutions for the industry, right from production down to dissemination. Topics expected to be covered include overhauling food systems, upcycling, plant-based foods, and even revamping school meals to be more climate friendly.



Bakery waste transformed,

Precision fermentation's art,

Alt oil, waste's new start.

UK-based biotech company Clean Food Group is using its precision fermentation technology to convert bread waste to an oil that is “structurally similar to a high oleic palm oil.” Alt oil is well on the way to becoming an important category.

While this is not the first company to create an oil using precision fermentation, its use of bread as a base has positive implications to reduce food waste. Such alternative production methods for oil also have significant potential for a world where palm oil has become a bit of swear word.



Danone, methane quest,

Enteric R&D invest,

Cattle's burps addressed.

Dairy bigwig Danone has teamed up with the Global Methane Hub to tackle bovine burps, the world's sneakiest gas emitters. Danone is now the first corporate sponsor of the glamorous-sounding Enteric Fermentation R&D Accelerator. The fund has raised US$200 million and the moolah (get it?) will be used to work on solutions to reduce enteric fermentation, which results in methane production in cattle.

Danone is looking to reduce methane emissions by 30% from its fresh milk supply chain by 2030. 



"Snackfection" blooms bright,

Hershey's frozen fruit delight,

Mindful snacking's flight.

The company responsible for “snackfection” – Hershey’s – has launched a range of frozen fruit coated with its own chocolate brands, in collaboration with Golden West Food Group. 

This is not the chocolate major’s first fruity foray, but as mindful snacking becomes an important aspect for consumers, new ways to make produce exciting are taking root.



AI, coffee blend,

Brew innovation transcends,

Flavors dance, trends extend.

The whiplash-inducing drama at ChatAI may have made the tech industry the new entertainment industry (oh, don’t tell me you haven’t doomscrolled through every bit of digital ink expended on this story), but it hasn’t stopped the march of AI into every sector imaginable. Including F&B. 

AI and the coffee industry may not be obvious bedfellows, but that is set to change. A few companies in this space are looking at ways of using AI to jazz up your brew, right from fancy machines to exciting flavor options. It’s still early days, but the possibilities are endless. I’m imagining how success with coffee can help expand AI into innovation in other beverage categories, including flavor-forward craft beers and craft spirits.



Kraft's plant-based quest,

NotMac&Cheese aims the best,

Taste and texture test.

The Kraft Heinz Not Company just dropped the first plant-based version of its iconic mac and cheese in the US. Kraft NotMac&Cheese is looking to address the main pain points that plant-based mac and cheese buyers bring up – taste and texture – which deter repeat purchases. 

Image source: Kraft Heinz Company


🚀 Innovation Deep Dive: The role of ideation in enhancing F&B innovation 

A deep dive into an F&B trend. Can be read in less than a 🚋 ride.

If you’re a company looking to formalize your innovation process, this is your starting point. Whether you’re an F&B conglomerate or a start-up, there are only benefits to ideation sessions to find the next big idea for your product development. 

Read our interview with Phaedra Ruffalo where she talks about the value ideation sessions bring to the process of food and drink innovation.

GourmetPro: I know it seems like a really basic question, but could you explain to us what the difference is between brainstorming and ideation?

Phaedra Ruffalo: Brainstorming and ideation are both creative processes aimed at generating innovative ideas, but they differ in structure, duration, and objectives.

Brainstorming is an informal and typically shorter activity, lasting 1-3 hours. It involves a group of individuals coming together to share ideas on a specific topic or challenge freely. These sessions are known for their open and spontaneous nature, encouraging participants to think creatively without judgment. 

Brainstorming is often used to generate a wide range of ideas quickly, making it suitable for improving processes, developing creative campaigns, or brainstorming names for products or projects.

On the other hand, ideation is a more structured and in-depth process that involves gathering insights, defining challenges, and exploring potential solutions. Ideation sessions can last longer, often spanning 1-2 days, and require thorough pre-planning and post-follow-up. During ideation, participants engage in both divergent thinking (generating a multitude of ideas) and convergent thinking (narrowing down and refining ideas). The goal is to explore various possibilities and eventually focus on the most promising concepts. 

Ideation sessions are valuable for tackling complex problems, developing new products or services, devising business strategies, exploring revenue streams, or uncovering new business angles. To facilitate ideation effectively, a skilled moderator typically guides the process.

In the context of the food and beverage industry, ideation plays a crucial role in exploring innovative product possibilities and leveraging diverse perspectives to enhance innovation.

Overall, brainstorming and ideation serve distinct purposes within the creative process, with brainstorming being more spontaneous and brief, while ideation is a structured, in-depth process aimed at tackling complex challenges and generating well-refined ideas.

Phaedra Ruffalo

GP: Ideation can sometimes be overlooked as part of the process of creating new products. Could you explain why this process is crucial in the F&B industry, and how it sets the foundation for innovation?

Phaedra: Brainstorming is the birthplace of innovation, ideation cultivates the ideas. In the F&B industry, where trends and consumer preferences evolve rapidly, staying ahead requires constant innovation. Ideation allows us to tap into collective creativity, explore new and diverse concepts, and identify opportunities. It's the foundation for bringing fresh and exciting ideas to the market, while also ensuring we create products that resonate with consumers. Without it, we might miss out on valuable insights and creative solutions that drive innovation.

GP: Ideation sessions need to be collaborative efforts involving multiple team members. How does collaboration enhance the ideation process, and what are the benefits of involving diverse perspectives in generating new ideas?

Phaedra: Collaboration is crucial for ideation as it brings together diverse perspectives and experiences, enriching the pool of insights and ideas. It ensures a more holistic approach, helping us consider various angles and create products that appeal to a broader audience. Diverse perspectives bring a richness to the process, ensuring a holistic exploration of ideas. It broadens our approach, leading to products that appeal to a wider audience and cater to varied consumer needs.

Having diverse perspectives challenges assumptions and leads to more comprehensive solutions and well-rounded concepts that may not have emerged in a siloed approach.

I like to have people from different teams – including R&D, culinary, marketing, manufacturing, finance, packaging, supply chain, and sales – present during these sessions, in addition to leadership. This is because you want to gain stakeholder approval from the get-go and as soon as possible to minimize conflict later on. 

Having people in sessions from different teams means that participants get to hear diverse thoughts as well as challenges to any ideas that might come up. For example, there may be suggestions of using really trendy or niche ingredients from one team, but other teams may chip in and highlight cost issues or supply chain difficulties. These are some of the conversations that you might want to have right from the start, and this is how collaboration will ensure the feasibility of innovation.

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GP: What are some of the challenges or roadblocks you could encounter during such sessions? How do you deal with them?

Phaedra: Some of the challenges you could encounter include diverging opinions, potential tangents in topic discussions, or difficulties focusing on a specific objective. Sometimes, ideas may not align with the overall company strategy.

There may be some combative or disinterested people who may not see the value in the exercise. 

There is also the fear of judgment which may deter participants from voicing their opinions or ideas. Time constraints could be another issue.

This is where a trained facilitator/moderator comes in. 

  • It’s important to set the stage beforehand in terms of themes or topics to be discussed and also make sure that a judgment-free environment is established. 

  • Setting aside specific time for this can help with time management.

  • With effective facilitation, you can ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to speak and to be heard.

  • The facilitator can also help with ideas to diverge and converge – it's all about managing divergent thinking and bringing the focus back when needed.

  • In addition, facilitators can also help park ideas that are good but too far from the current scope for future discussions. They can also help push forward thought if participants get stuck with a specific idea.

As a facilitator, managing the number of participants is also crucial. While larger sessions with 40 people can work, this is a pretty unwieldy size. Ideally, sessions with 10 to 12 participants lead to richer conversations.

Broadly, these are crucial to ensuring a productive and outcome-oriented ideation session.

GP: What is your preparation process for a brainstorming/ideation session?

Phaedra: Preparation is essential for successful brainstorming and ideation sessions as it helps set expectations and fosters a productive atmosphere.

For brainstorming sessions, simplicity and alignment are key. These sessions often stem from the need to solve specific company problems. Start by ensuring everyone understands the issue and aligns with the project's objectives. Providing a theme can help categorize ideas. To kickstart creativity, consider having participants bring in relevant images or objects and spend 20-30 minutes discussing their choices to stimulate conversation.

Ideation sessions demand more extensive preparation. For instance, when dealing with a Foodservice National Account client with a particular menu design in mind, thorough groundwork may involve research and identifying inspiring restaurants through a food trend tour.

During the session itself, I always recommend a pre-read. Depending on the trend or innovation, this might include images, the agenda for a food trend tour, the chosen methodology for the ideation session, and expected outcomes. It's crucial to prepare all team members, encouraging them to approach the session with an open mind, as they'll be exploring new ideas and addressing questions. This approach generates excitement and motivates participants to contribute to the company's product growth. Visualizing potential stimulates creativity.

In our fast-paced world, people often need a moment to disconnect. Encourage participants to put away their phones during sessions and consider using techniques like the Pomodoro method—a focused 45-minute block followed by a break—to boost concentration.

The preparation process is substantial, involving various tasks depending on the session type, such as research, trend analysis, creating pre-read materials, coordinating product tastings, logistics, and equipment arrangements. It's a demanding process, but the results can be incredibly rewarding.

GP: Are there any specific strategies or methodologies that have consistently worked for you?

Phaedra: The Six Thinking Hats method is a personal favorite. It provides a structured approach to explore different perspectives. It's the best way to engage everyone, ensuring it's not just one person talking. You need a facilitator to control the conversation, especially with extroverts who love to talk and introverts who may have brilliant ideas but don't shout them out. Having someone to facilitate and dictate time limits ensures everyone contributes.

I also incorporate elements of design thinking into the sessions to spur ideas, and the Six Thinking Hats method dovetails well with this. There are usually a lot of divergent and convergent thoughts coming through the session, and these techniques help home in on the best or most feasible ideas which then allows for in-depth exploration of these ideas. 

GP:  What are some of the key factors for a successful ideation process?

Phaedra: Successful ideation sessions are the cornerstone of innovation. A successful session should yield a concrete platform or concept to build upon. But it doesn't end there; sharing the outcomes with your entire team is equally vital. I've seen instances where the results were never communicated, leaving participants feeling undervalued. To nurture support throughout the process, it's essential to keep everyone in the loop. A simple 'thank you' goes a long way in acknowledging their valuable time and contributions.

The next step involves crafting a brief that outlines the top idea and the next 2-3 promising concepts, along with a roadmap for what comes next. This brief should be shared not only with leadership but with all parties and stakeholders involved in the ideation session.

Following this, consider a follow-up plan, which might involve exploring shortlisted ideas or conducting concept testing on the top three concepts discussed. Sharing the results of such testing can further engage your team and address potential issues early in the process.

Crucially, remember that every member of your organization is a stakeholder. If you're an innovator within a company, it's your responsibility to engage internal stakeholders from the very beginning and sustain that engagement throughout. Some companies employ processes like Stage Gating to keep everyone informed and involved along the journey of innovation.

Want to leverage Phaedra’s expertise for your own product innovation?

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