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Knechtel's Bob Boutin is Go-To Innovator in Candy Business

By:David Sterrett April 26, 2010 : Crain Communications Inc.

The cutting edge of the food business can be found in a drab Skokie office building, where Robert Boutin is developing top-secret candies and snacks for the world's largest food companies and the U.S. military.

Mr. Boutin's Knechtel Inc. has long been a go-to innovator its scientists are credited with developing everything from Frango Mints to edible underwear and its services are in higher demand than ever as foodmakers look to outsource expensive product development and tap Knechtel's renowned laboratory.

"People don't come to us to teach them how to make regular candy, but they expect us to really push the envelope," Mr. Boutin says. "Companies are more open to new ideas from outside firms than they have been in the past."

He won't discuss most of the company's inventions or work because they involve big corporate clients that want to keep their product development a secret. He will, however, energetically explain an assignment from the Pentagon.

Knechtel is developing candy from healthy ingredients with the military in mind.
Knechtel is developing candy from healthy ingredients with the military in mind. The purple sweets are made from yogurt; the jelly beans contain protein. Photo: Stephen J. Serio

In Knechtel's lab, Mr. Boutin shows off small candy balls designed to give soldiers the same benefits as a cup of yogurt. Knechtel also has come up with protein-rich jelly beans, as well as edible bowls, cups and utensils designed to make it easier for soldiers to eat on the battlefield.

Knechtel's 10 food scientists test new ingredients in a laboratory kitchen lined with beakers, blenders and cabinets full of starches and sugars. Each scientist works on a half-dozen projects at a time, and the laboratory is accustomed to juggling more than 30. "Candymaking is an art based in science," Mr. Boutin says. "It's all based on mixing carbohydrates, proteins, fats and oils."

BIG BUSINESS

That knowledge also can be used to reverse-engineer candies helping foodmakers produce knockoffs of competitors' products. Knechtel is working with companies in emerging markets to develop new gum brands as demand in those countries grows thanks to the marketing efforts of Western companies like Chicago-based Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.

But the majority of Knechtel's business comes from big companies like Wrigley looking to save time and money on research and development. While many companies take years to create a new line, Knechtel can design a product and have it ready for the market in six months.

Mr. Boutin won't comment on specific clients, but candy industry executives say the firm works with industry giants such as Nestl S.A., Hershey Co. and Mars Inc.

"Knechtel is involved in some way with a lot of the innovations in the industry, but you will never hear about their involvement," says Patrick Huffman, president of Warrell Corp., a Pennsylvania-based candy company. "Also, whenever I have any technical problem, I call Bob and he knows the answer."

Mr. Boutin, 62, studied chemistry at Roosevelt University and then worked on government research involving artificial hearts and the space program at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1960s. He helped develop Nerds and Gobstoppers in the early 1970s for a company now owned by Nestl, then took a job at Wrigley.

Mr. Boutin joined Knechtel in 1984 as a partner with Herb Knechtel, who founded the firm in 1955.

Mr. Knechtel died in 1987.

"They are the most respected research and development firm in the industry,"says Salvatore Ferrara II, president of Ferrara Pan Candy Co. in Forest Park

Robert Boutin of Knechtel
Robert Boutin, left, president of Knechtel Inc., and the lab's manager, Tom Hinkemeyer, prepare granola mixed with antioxidants, omega-3 and plant sterols. Photo: Stephen J. Serio



LOW-CAL SODA

Mr. Boutin says his team spends roughly 20% of its time developing products it can either sell to major food companies or use to learn about new trends. A pile of licorice in Knechtel's lab is the focus of research into derivations of the staid novelty, such as chocolate-covered or cream-filled varieties, Mr.Boutin says.

Also among Knechtel's recent work: a soda made with half sugar and half stevia, a zero-calorie sweetener derived from a South American shrub. Mr. Boutin won't say who the product might be sold to. PepsiCo Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. have looked at putting stevia in drinks, but neither has used the sweetener in its namesake soda.

Knechtel recently developed a peanut butter without peanuts, for people allergic to the nut, but Mr. Boutin says the taste still needs refinement. The company also is working on a fruit roll-up-like snack for adults that comes in bar form and provides the health benefits of an orange.

"I love when people say something can't be done, and that is always the challenge," Mr. Boutin says. "The rush comes from seeing all of your babies you developed become successful, even if no one knows you are involved."

by Crain Communications Inc.