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Q&A: Idahoan Foods CEO on the challenges of innovating in a classic category

The mashed potato category has remained largely unchanged for the last 50 years, but category leader Idahoan Foods is hoping to spark new interest in the segment with a mashed potato product designed to appeal to today's consumer.

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Idahoan Foods CEO on the challenges of innovating in a classic category



This post is sponsored by Idahoan Foods.

Many consumer packaged food and beverage companies are attempting to disrupt grocery aisles by adding trendy ingredients and flavors, shaking up their packaging and design, or creating a litany of limited time offerings. But brands competing within classic food categories often have to find other ways to innovate and cut through the clutter to appeal to consumers.

We interviewed Idahoan Foods President and CEO Drew Facer about how the company is innovating in the plain mashed potato category, which has remained largely unchanged for the last 50 years. The company developed a new way of processing plain mashed potato products that is a huge leap forward from the standard, dated method that caused many consumers to abandon the category altogether. In this interview, Facer discusses the challenges of reviving consumer interest in the mashed potato category and how Idahoan is positioning its new Signature Russets Mashed Potatoes to appeal to today’s consumer.

What inspired Idahoan Foods to overhaul a classic category like plain mashed potatoes? 

Until recently, the entire plain mashed potato segment had been using 1960s technology that created a sub-optimal product and consumer experience. Sadly, experience has shown that many consumers who have a bad first experience with the category never return.

Idahoan sees itself as the steward of the category as we’re the only brand that focuses only on potato products. As such, no one else has the same incentive to innovate and grow the category as we do. We began to focus in earnest on innovation in 1999, which has grown the category by 240% in the last 15 years.

Our biggest innovation hits supermarket shelves nationally this week. Utilizing a new 21st century proprietary processing breakthrough, we are formally launching new Idahoan Signature Russets Mashed Potatoes, which offer significantly better taste and texture than anything currently on the market in the plain mashed segment. To further improve the experience, Idahoan Signature Russets have been carefully made with a hint of butter and cream.

How will you convince consumers who have previously had a bad experience in the past to shop the category again?

Consumers have confirmed in taste tests that these are the best tasting mashed potatoes to ever hit supermarket shelves. But we know skepticism will be a barrier for initial purchase.

We recognize that when it comes to mealtime, Sunday dinner is the gold standard as it’s the one day of the week when you’re most likely to go “all out” and prepare a great tasting meal. So we are using the message that Idahoan Signature Russets Mashed Potatoes allow Mom to “Make Any Day Taste Like Sunday” as it illustrates to consumers that these potatoes taste as good as the Sunday dinner mashed potatoes that you peel, boil and mash yourself.

How are Signature Russet Mashed Potatoes positioned to appeal to today’s consumer?

First and foremost, it’s convenience. Moms today are pulled in a hundred different directions during the week, and they need to be able to get dinner on the table quickly. A successful weekday meal solution option will go from stovetop to table in five minutes or less.

But often overlooked is Mom’s desire to stretch the family budget by avoiding waste. In developing Idahoan Signature Russets, we used a pouch with a re-closable zipper because we learned a major benefit to our consumers was the ability to re-seal the product between usage occasions, helping to keep the product fresh.

But waste also occurs when dinner plates arrive at the dishwasher with uneaten food. Mom wants to feel confident that when she purchases a product, her family will like the taste and texture enough to finish every bite.

Ingredient authenticity and the story behind where their food comes from is increasingly important to today’s consumer. How is Idahoan incorporating this trend into the brand and playing up the story of Idaho potatoes with its new Idahoan Signature Russets?

We are very proud of our Idaho-based heritage and are the only major mashed potato producer headquartered in Idaho. We know the best potatoes in the world are grown in Idaho’s rich volcanic soil during its warm summer days and cool summer nights. So, unlike our competitors, we only use Idaho-grown potatoes in our products…in fact, more than six pounds of premium Idaho russet potatoes go into every 16-oz. pouch of new Signature Russets Mashed Potatoes.

Beyond using only Idaho potatoes, we’re the only category player who has all of its potato processing plants located within Idaho, which shortens the distance from field to fork.

Idahoan Foods President and CEO Drew Facer grew up in the potato fields of Idaho. He remained in the Gem State for his college education, attending two of its universities and earning a degree in marketing and social behavior from Idaho State University before completing his post graduate studies at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. He joined Idahoan Foods in 1998.

As the leader of one of Idaho Falls’ largest employers, Facer is committed to ensuring Idahoan Foods’ potato farmers and employees have a rewarding experience that allows them to raise their families and grow the community in the valley they love.


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