I get asked a lot why I decided to set up my beverage consulting business and lab in rural Indiana, where I grew up. Not just as an overt question but in the tone of peers when they inquire about my work as a Food Scientist. There is a curiosity about how my background and interest in food science led to beverage creation.
Growing Up on a Dairy Farm
That story begins for me as a child, growing up on a dairy farm. I was naturally curious about the work of the farm and how milk was produced, packaged, and sold. In my school agriculture class (yes, students still study Ag in rural Indiana and many other places across the country), we watched a video about careers in food science. I remember feeling excited as my curiosity about dairy production deepened and I learned the various roles people play in bringing food and drinks to a consumer’s table.
Finding My Passion For Food Science
I went home that night energized, feeling as though I had found my calling. Sitting at dinner I relayed to my parents my interest in the food science industry, and how it would allow me to transform my love of chemistry and my experience on the dairy farm into a career. That’s when I learned that my aunt was a food scientist! We could call her that night if I wanted to pick her brain. Of course, I replied with a resounding YES. My conversations with my aunt had a major impact on my belief that I could do this work, and that a woman could excel in a food science field. Spoiler: my aunt’s impact and influence in my life actually are a major reason why I personally want to give back to young girls pursuing science fields.
Becoming a Female Food Scientist
At Purdue University, I studied Food Science and honed my focus on Dairy Chemistry for my graduate studies. As a fresh graduate, I accepted a job with Johnson Nutrition, which was a good job and I learned a lot but when you are crafting infant formulas, there is no real creativity. Babies need to eat and so the formulations focused more on dietary needs rather than customer experience (i.e. what makes a customer enjoy a product).
I transitioned into a role with Kellogg’s Nutrition. I worked with protein bars, spent some time on Blue Sky soda formulations, and really enjoyed developing functional protein shakes. My work for Kellogg drove my interest in the customer experience. I started looking at ingredients in a whole new way. What is the mouthfeel? The texture? Could we formulate new and exciting flavors beyond chocolate and boring vanilla?
I wanted to dive into work that focused on increasing customer acceptance. The favorite piece of my work has always been being in the lab, working with formulations and client expectations, and developing creative solutions to challenges. If a client wants a certain flavor but the mouthfeel isn’t right or tolerable, how can we mix up the formulation in the lab to find a winning product? My first passion, of course, is still chemistry. No matter how much I enjoy the client work and intake process, my favorite work is being a chemist.
Leaving Corporate America & Becoming a Female Entrepreneur
I needed to get out of the corporate world. The work in a Fortune 500 company is pretty rigid, which I understand. Millions of dollars are at stake and there is very little room to play around with flavors and ingredients. So, I started consulting. I was excited to work with intriguing startups attempting to bring new and different products to market. Instead of chocolate and vanilla, my clients were exploring Thai mango, cookies, and cream, functional beverages with cannabis infusion, or diving into the exploding non-alcoholic beverage space. My world was expanding right alongside these brilliantly creative ideas. The best part is that the startup world can often move at a much faster pace than corporate beverage production and that was exciting too.
I was borrowing the Purdue lab to do work and at some point, it became obvious that I would need my own lab to continue to serve the level of clients I had. While I loved the Purdue labs and am infinitely grateful for their availability, there was a lack of consistency that my work and my clients demanded.
Building Our Own Beverage Lab
So I built my own lab. I designed it with the machines and specialized blenders and high temp homogenizers I need to produce consistent results. And I built it in rural Indiana. Being here, in the heartland of our country gives me access to clients across the country from the east coast to the west with the added benefit of serving as a training ground for students, young women in particular, who would otherwise not have access to such a specialized lab. Even though rural Indiana isn’t a hub for food science labs, this location gives me a chance to make a difference in my community and my industry. I get to invite local students to visit and play around in the lab, to explore and be curious, and to tinker.
With my own lab, I can take clients through an extensive intake process, get their ideas on the beverage they want to produce, discuss potential challenges, and learn about additional considerations like if they want a beverage to be gluten-free, sugar-free, organic, etc. and help them create something wonderful to bring to market.
Sure, there are challenges. Sometimes clients want to source specific ingredients or use custom bottles that present production problems. I get to guide them through those hurdles using my knowledge of the industry. We get to explore substitutions to Thai mango that provide similar functionality and taste. We can explore the longevity of ingredient availability so my clients won’t get stuck unable to source and continue production.
I get to work with people who want to be collaborative and make new and exciting products. I get to experiment with botanicals and fruit flavors my corporate counterparts would never touch. And, at the end of the day, I get to spend time with my family and work in my community, sharing a passion for food science and chemistry. I get to encourage kids growing up like me to pursue science, to be greater than the sum of their parts, just like the beverages my company helps bring to market.