General Mills cereal products line a grocery cart. 
General Mills cereal products line a grocery cart.  - 

On a recent morning, Ryan Eick stood at a table in the middle of a Twin Cities grocery store, spooning up little plastic cups of food samples—roasted broad beans coated in chickpea flour.

General Mills Associate Marketing Manager Ryan Eick

General Mills Associate Marketing Manager Ryan Eick

“Hey, do you want to try a savory snack?” he called out to shoppers.

“Oh, I shall!” replied one shopper.

Eick, who sported an apron and a backward baseball cap, had the look of a concessions vendor. But he's an associate marketing manager at the Twin Cities-based food manufacturer General Mills.

Eick and several colleagues, including marketers, consumer researchers and a food scientist, had set up what they call a “lemonade stand” at the grocery store to gauge consumer interest in a snack made of broad beans (also known as fava beans). It’s in development under the General Mills "Food Should Taste Good" brand.

The team wanted to see if the snack was the kind of protein-rich, healthy snack consumers seem to want these days.

“I think it’s perfect!” shopper Kelly Leach told the team.

But Nora Beenshoof tried to hide her dislike.

“I didn't want to say it tasted like salted tree bark, because I didn't want to be too offensive, but it just didn't do it for me,” she said.

Eick gets feedback from a shopper on her impressions of a product that’s in development — a snack made of roasted broad beans (also known as fava beans). (Annie Baxter/Marketplace)

Most shoppers had never heard of broad beans, though that wasn’t always a barrier.

“So this gives me the impression it's healthy, right?” said shopper Betty Lindstrom. “It’s just a bean. It’s not made-up crap.”

Lindstrom went on to complain about the kind of food she doesn't like. Her example was Cheerios, an iconic General Mills product.

“They're adding so much sugar to foods. It makes me so angry,” she told one of the General Mills marketers. “I get Cheerios for my husband and find out it's full of sugar.”

No one from the team defended the company. In fact, they didn’t even identify themselves as General Mills employees, which sometimes led to comical situations where shoppers congratulated the group for having the guts to launch a new food product. 

If the team avoided flying the company flag, it may have been because they were trying very hard not to resemble General Mills, namely, the General Mills that is fighting a backlash against "Big Food,” and having a tough time of it. The company has been cutting costs as sales slump.

Anne Thompson, marketing manager in General Mills' Snacks Innovation division (far right), interviews grocery store shoppers Betty Lindstrom (left) and Kelly Leach (center) about their opinion of a product in development. (Annie Baxter/Marketplace) 

The other baggage they want to drop is the way General Mills, as a lumbering multinational food conglomerate, has traditionally taken years to develop new products.

“How do you compete with companies that don't go through all the hierarchy?” said Carlos Torrelli, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota.

Torrelli said small firms have the nimbleness to get products to market faster. And big food companies like General Mills are trying to mimic their entrepreneurial strategies.

“Instead of the old process of going in stages, and trying to develop a test market with a representative sample,” he said.

Liz O'Hara, global consumer insights manager for snacks at General Mills (right), asks a shopper to provide input on a product the company is developing. (Annie Baxter/Marketplace)

Those smaller, nimbler companies are increasingly big competitors, said Heidi Emanuel, vice president of strategy and innovation at General Mills.

She said smaller firms used to have a tougher time getting off the ground. But that's not the case anymore. For one thing, she said, the barriers to raising capital are lowering, thanks to crowdfunding sites. Building capacity, Emanuel said, is also getting easier.

Colleen Wright, O’Hara and Anne Thompson of the General Mills team debrief on what consumers said about a product in development, a snack made of roasted broad beans (also known as fava beans). (Annie Baxter/Marketplace)

“You can hire people to do your manufacturing, your distribution, your R&D, your sales,” she said. “Really, you can be a two-man show and outsource everything.”

The lemonade stands are one of the ways General Mills is trying to act like some of those smaller companies, including the company’s willingness to embrace consumers' criticisms of a product in development, such as the broad beans.

“We don't want it to be this most perfect thing and then be married to that execution,” said Liz O'Hara, global consumer insights manager for snacks at General Mills. “Because then we can come out here and learn what about it is incorrect. Because it will be wrong.”

Follow Annie Baxter at @anniebaxter123