An Interview with Julie Simonson, Ph.D from The Schwan Food Company

By: Hannah Dressen

39661c0Julie Simonson, Ph.D., Vice President of Technology Development at The Schwan Food Company

Education: Bachelor’s of Science in Food Science, Iowa State University; Doctorate of Food Science, University of Minnesota.

1. When did you realize your love for food?
Growing up, I was in 4-H for nine years and loved competing in the Foods and Nutrition category. My projects were all about experiments, such as mixing muffins too much, baking soda instead of baking powder, whole wheat instead of white flour, etc. When deciding on my college major, I had to chose between food science and music because I also loved playing the bassoon. Obviously, I chose the food science for my career and I continue to play the bassoon today as a hobby.

2. How did you hear about the Research Chefs Association?
When I was working at Campbell Soup Company and leading R&D for North American Soup, Sauce and Beverage, I realized that the culinary arts and the passion for food were being lost. I worked to champion a stronger culinary team; one that worked together across all of the categories and business units to celebrate the quality of our products and drive innovation. We launched the Campbell’s Culinary and Baking Institute (CCBI) and hired Chef Tom Griffiths from the C.I.A., Hyde Park to be its Director. Our chefs were active in RCA and we hosted a regional RCA meeting at Campbell’s during that time.  It was great to share the passion of our CCBI team with all of the RCA members and how we were challenging the quality paradigm of thermally processed foods.

3. What experiences in your career helped you out the most?
While at Oscar Mayer, we acquired the line of Boca meat alternatives and it was my job to integrate R&D into Kraft.  Our technical team worked to improve the existing product line, but we also developed a whole line of organic products for the natural foods channel.  The entire cross-functional team was focused on setting the brand up for success in the future.  This team approach of integrating Boca gave me direct experience with the business side of the food industry where I learned about profit and loss statements, consumer insights, sales perspectives, and natural channel brokers, which was entirely different from anything I had learned at school.  This end-to-end experience has been beneficial throughout my career in research and development because I am able to approach the development of a product from a total business perspective.  

4. Do you have a favorite food?
There are so many to choose from, but I do love Freschetta pizza!

5. What challenges did you have while developing Kraft Easy Mac?
When I started working in the Dinners category at Kraft,  we were challenged with how to make the iconic Kraft “blue box” Mac and Cheese more convenient for snacking or mini-meal occasions.  That is how we developed Easy Mac. Our R&D team had to develop new technologies and formulations while keeping the aroma, taste, and texture all the same as the iconic product.  How do you get pasta to cook evenly and quickly in the microwave. How can you mimic the cheese flavor and aroma without adding milk or butter? These were the problems we had to tackle. In the beginning, we actually targeted the product to be used by 10-14 year olds for after-school snacking occasions. No one had guessed that it would be so popular with the college crowd! It grew into a bigger business than anything we could have projected.

6. What was it like working for a food company overseas?
It was a few years into my career with Kraft that they asked me to move to Europe for an expatriate assignment. My husband and I were so excited to embark upon this unique and challenging experience, both professionally for me and personally for our family.  We ended up living in Munich, Germany for a total of 5 amazing years.  I must admit, the cultural adaptation was a bit hard at first, along with learning the language, but the experience was so rewarding.  During two of those years, I managed an R&D team that was spread out across central and eastern Europe in 9 countries, from Poland and the Czech Republic to Russia. It was especially challenging as I was learning a new technology with confectionery, learning new cultures and consumer insights, and learning to manage remote teams who didn’t all speak the same language. Talk about a challenge to drive innovation, but we succeeded!

7. Any advice for those graduating soon?
Don’t be afraid to take some risks and try out new opportunities during your career.  That includes stepping out of your comfort zone, volunteering for a leadership opportunity or special project, moving to a different part of the country, or going into a new role.  Some of these might be opportunities that you never imagined you were preparing for while in school.  Trying out new experiences is part of life!  Also, continue to network with colleagues that you meet in your roles. It is so much easier now with sites such as LinkedIn, and it’s important to keep in touch with those that can mentor you throughout your career.  



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