Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Denver Post: Boulder's Sterling-Rice Group works to know what Americans want to eat

Boulder's Sterling-Rice Group works to know what Americans want to eat
By Douglas Brown
The Denver Post

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They spent the afternoon in a third-floor conference room in downtown Boulder, talking about the ideas emblazoned on dozens of sheets of paper taped to the walls. Hummus doughnut holes. Hummus-coated granola bars. Hummus in sushi and wraps.

Would people buy a "Lunchables" with hummus instead of processed cheese?

For Sabra, the food manufacturer visiting the Sterling-Rice Group, choosing the right path to the future for hummus — the company owns about 55 percent of the national market for the blend of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon and oil — can make the difference between commercial triumph and corporate collapse.

So the New York company forsakes the 10 gazillion consultants and agencies in Manhattan New flavors of hummus await a taste-test in the Sterling-Rice Group Boulder kitchen. for Sterling-Rice, called SRG, a 140-person shop in Boulder that revolves much of its expertise around helping companies thrive in the tough world of the food marketplace.

"The window of success is getting shorter," said Dennis Peters, Sabra's senior innovation manager. He had flown in the afternoon before, and was taking a red-eye out of Denver that evening; the point of the visit was to figure out ways to grow the product line, particularly in the "grab 'n' go" realm. "If you keep launching things and they don't do well, the retailer begins to wonder if you know what you are doing. The cost of failure is so much greater. That's why we work with SRG."

The company, founded by a pair of guys who worked for Hain Celestial Group in Boulder before starting SRG in 1984, offers clients a variety of traditional advertising services. But it's SRG's fluency in broad consumer trends and how they affect food that especially sets it apart.

Among other things, the SRG crew helps clients peer into the future, to understand how the landscape might look in six months or four years.

It's not soothsaying, exactly. But by leaning on a wide variety of sources and collaborators, the company has a knack for figuring out how people are eating, why, and what it means for the rest of the food bazaar now and in the future.

It helps, too, that the company is based in Boulder.

"I always call Boulder the Silicon Valley of food, and Sterling-Rice is a key part of that," said Steve Hughes, the co-founder of Earth Balance. The Boulder company, which works with SRG, makes healthy butter substitutes, peanut butter and other products.

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