Dreaming up your next doughnut

Before any new food item makes its way onto the menu at either a Dunkin’ Donuts or a Baskin-Robbins shop, it has to earn the approval of Dunkin’ Brands Group VP Katy Latimer, BSc’90.

Story by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

February 2018

The next time you’re tempted by a newly introduced treat at Dunkin’ Donuts, or by an intriguing new flavour of ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, you’ll have Katy Latimer, BSc’90, to thank – at least in part.

Latimer is the vice president, culinary innovation, for Dunkin’ Brands Group, the parent company for both Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. There are more than 20,000 Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins restaurants around the world and Latimer is the executive who oversees the process that results in new menu items being introduced in all those locations.

Katy Latimer is the vice president, culinary innovation, for Dunkin’ Brands Group

“Our job is to give consumers something that they didn’t know they wanted,” says Latimer. She has more than 25 years of experience in developing food products and it all started with a summer internship at Kraft while she was still working on her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at McGill. She made a good impression that summer. Kraft offered her a fulltime job after she graduated.

“I started out in basic research and they encouraged me to try a rotation in product development,” says Latimer. She decided early on that if she was going to be any good at the job, she needed to understand food better. She successfully lobbied her manager to send her to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world’s top food schools, for training. “It was literally a boot camp. [I was] learning the culinary arts and basic cooking principles.”

It turned out to be a solid investment. She was assigned to the Canadian side of Kraft’s business and dealt with Shake’n Bake and Stove Top products. She developed and launched three new flavours for Shake’n Bake and one in particular proved to be a big hit. “My claim to fame is the ‘extra crispy’ Shake’n Bake and it’s still on the market today,” says Latimer. “They launched it in the U.S. too.”

After more than six years at Kraft, the last two as a research scientist working on Jell-O products, she moved on to Seagram and then landed a job at Pepsi that broadened her scope of responsibilities. As a food scientist at Kraft, she had learned a lot about how food got made. At Pepsi, working in consumer research and development, her focus was on what customers wanted to eat and drink. She moved up the ranks, eventually becoming PepsiCo’s vice president research and development for its global beverage category.

“I think at Pepsi one of my proudest products was Mountain Dew Kickstart,” says Latimer. Introduced in 2013, the fruit-flavoured beverage quickly became a rival to energy drinks like Monster and Red Bull (Pepsi didn’t overtly market it as an energy drink, arguing that Kickstart had much less caffeine than the beverages typically labelled as energy drinks). “We were able to grow the business quite a bit with that product,” says Latimer.

She joined Dunkin’ Brands last September, taking on a job that draws on her background in both food science and consumer research. She says any new doughnut that you might encounter at Dunkin’ in the months ahead has travelled a long and complicated path before it makes its way into the world.

“It all starts with our culinary experts and the lab,” says Latimer. “We work very closely with our marketing partners and our franchisees, our operations and commercialization [teams]. The testing process is rigorous – we really try to weed out the bad ideas. It takes a village to launch a new product and we get feedback from a lot of folks as we’re going through the development process to ensure that it’s a fit with our brand, as well as a fit with our stores.”

At the same time though, Latimer has to be careful not to be too innovative. Longtime Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins customers are fiercely loyal to their favourite items. They might not react well if the menu was completely revamped overnight. On the other hand, if interesting new items aren’t introduced regularly, you run the risk of looking like you’re stuck in a rut.

“It’s a balancing act,” says Latimer. “Our customers love our brands, so it’s important for us to delight our core customers. But then we also look at how do we grow our [customer] base and how do we get that future customer to come into our store?” One strategy is to use “limited time offers” to stir up interest in potential new offerings.

As a McGill student, some of Latimer’s favourite food haunts included Carlos & Pepe’s (for the sangria) and the Peel Pub (to celebrate the end of exams). “I remember my freshman dorm, we had students from the Dominican Republic, from Japan. There were kids from all over Canada, and basically all over the world. It was a really broadening experience.”

A small town native from New York State, Latimer supported herself through school and received funding assistance that made it possible for her to complete her final year. “Someone’s contribution helped me to finish and for that, I’m forever grateful.”

Does Latimer have any hints about new menu items that might soon be popping up at either Dunkin’ Donuts or Baskin-Robbins? Keep an eye out for an expanded selection of espresso flavours at Dunkin’ Donuts, she suggests.

Whatever changes might be in the offing, it sounds as if at least one classic flavour of Baskin-Robbins ice cream has a powerful champion who will protect it.

“Pralines ‘n Cream is my favourite,” says Latimer. “I worked in a movie theatre when I was in high school, and there was a Baskin-Robbins around the corner. We would trade movie tickets for ice cream. So that’s where I really fell in love with Pralines ‘n Cream, that’s what I ate all summer.”

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