Before the guy in charge of innovation stated his credentials, Roman Meal’s marketing guy blurted Patrick Finney’s bona fides:
“Doctor of Cereal, Capt. Crunch University.”
Finney, like a grizzled but good-natured professor ignoring mid-lecture wiseacres, didn’t correct his teammate’s teasing.
Finney, in fact, holds a Ph.D. in cereal chemistry from Kansas State University. For most of his life, Finney worked in United States government laboratories, evaluating wheat for agricultural and commercial applications – from aiding Third World nutrition to ensuring that brand-name breakfast cereals crunch.
At Roman Meal, the 80-year-old Tacoma-based company known internationally for its “nut brown food” and whole-grain breads – “fuddy-duddy” products, according to even Roman Meal’s brand marketing director – Finney’s title is “vice president new product innovation.”
“What is innovation?” Finney asked with the passion of a philosopher devoted to studying how food nurtures bodies. “It’s science. It’s art. It’s prayer. It’s hope. It’s daydreaming. It’s night-dreaming. It’s communication and interaction with people.”
Finney turned to Todd Kluger, Roman Meal’s brand marketing director, the soft-spoken guy who made the Capt. Crunch crack.
“And it’s about love, too,” the cereal doctor said seriously. “If I can’t stand this guy, how am I going to create with him?”
As newcomers in a family-owned business whose roots in baking date to 17th-century Germany, Finney and Kluger are creating Roman Meal’s future while preserving the company’s principles.
Their first new product is now in stores: snack bars made from whole-grain wheat, rye, flax and barley, plus dried fruit, cocoa powder, sugar and salt.
“They have everything you have in your kitchen,” Kluger said. “You could make these yourself.”
Whole-grain crackers are in development at Roman Meal’s crimson, gold and white art deco headquarters on South Tacoma Way.
While the marketing for an upcoming line of instant hot cereals is sweetened by modern-day culinary claims – the cereal’s recycled packaging boasts of organic, fair-trade and identity-preserved ingredients that can be traced to the plots of land on which they were grown – Roman Meal’s Elements brand harkens to the original whole-grain cereal mix on which the company was founded in 1927.
To educate consumers on the benefits of balancing their diets with whole-grain cereals that have not been stripped of fiber and micro-nutrients in pursuit of soft, white-bread consumer wonders, Kluger and Finney will soon be blogging.
“This is the tip of the iceberg compared to what’s the potential,” Finney said, pounding a box of Elements cereal, each serving of which contains nearly 25 percent of the 48 grams of fiber the Food and Drug Administration recommends in a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
STALK OF LIFE
Finney, 66, grew up in wheat. His father ran a wheat quality laboratory for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service in Manhattan, Kan. Finney worked for his father from age 9 to 25.
“I did all the kinds of stuff that people do in an experimental lab, where you evaluate thousands of breeders’ varieties of wheat,” Finney said. “I sure as hell was never going to be in this business, because that’s what my dad did.”
Finney joined the Peace Corps in 1966, landing in Iran. He pursued a Ph.D. in creative philosophy at Penn State. But sure enough, wheat was ingrained in the scientist’s son. Working once again with his father, Finney ran the research service’s Soft Wheat Quality Laboratory in Wooster, Ohio, for 20 years. Prior to joining Roman Meal in 2004, Finney worked at the research service’s Western Wheat Quality Laboratory in Pullman for 10 years.
“Somehow,” Finney said, “I managed to get in my dad’s business and get a Ph.D. in that sort of stuff.”
For his cereal chemistry dissertation, Finney traveled to India, which at the time had made the world’s largest purchase of seed wheat, the semi-dwarf Siete Cerros cultivar developed by ARS researchers in Eastern Washington.
While living abroad, Finney experienced an eating epiphany that would serve him well at Roman Meal, a company founded on the wheat-rye-bran-flax breakfast mush that Canadian physician Robert Jackson concocted around 1910 while seeking a cure for his own vitamin and mineral deficiency.
“In India and Iran, my foods were no longer common,” said Finney, a meat-and-potatoes-born Midwesterner. “It enlightens one that maybe there is something to vegetarianism. I really began to be a believer in the concept that we are what we eat.”
In America, we are also what we are marketed, a concept Finney struggles with.
“In my ideal world as a scientist, I didn’t have to worry about marketing,” Finney said. “Man, it was about truth. Now I’m competing for flavor, texture and nutrition. Welcome to the reality of what it takes to get a product into a competitive world.”
MEET THE MARKETER
Kluger, 39, knows marketing reality. During seven years at Starbucks, he worked on the coffee company’s foray into chocolates. At Essential Baking Co. in Seattle, Kluger learned the artisan bread business and established Essential Chocolates, which spun off as Theo, an acclaimed line of exotically flavored fair-trade organic artisan chocolates.
“It was exciting to see a trend and be a part of it,” said Kluger, who joined Roman Meal a year and a half ago. “But I was at odds with it. I wasn’t delivering on my passion for delivering healthy products, because the fat content in chocolate is so high.”
For a company whose products retail at both Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, on supermarket health-food shelves and in snack-food aisles, Kluger believes the new products and blog will help Roman Meal connect with consumers beyond its core demographic – women age 50-plus.
“It’s an old fuddy-duddy brand, and that’s why we’re trying to revitalize it,” Kluger said. “Most of the bread industry is focused on kids. We decided to take a different route, but trying not to be just ‘my grandmother’s product.’”
The upcoming blog will communicate more than Roman Meal’s message. Declaring himself a “hard-core organic liberal type of person,” Kluger is opposed to genetically modified crops.
“And yet, in my time in chocolate and coffee, I realized that GMOs do have a place in certain areas of the world where you cannot get certain species to grow or so that people can get iodine in their diet through GMO rice,” Kluger said. “Yes, it’s Frankenfoods, but there are benefits. There’s a fine line.”
Kluger noted that Roman Meal doesn’t use GMO ingredients but said, “As educators in whole grains, we have to look at the world at large and see that there is a place for GMOs.”
Ed Murrieta: 253-597-8678