28 APRIL 2023

With her background as a classically trained chef and many years of experience in the hospitality industry and Emirates Airlines, Sandra is literally bringing innovation to the table. Working closely with a team of food specialists and scientists who understand food's technical and scientific side, she bridges the commercial side, research, and innovation, translating the culinary aspects.

- As product designers, we need to understand the core of the business: we're not just an ingredients solution but so much more. We must know where we fit in the food world and where we can help the industry. So whatever ideas we have, I translate them into something market-ready and the other way around, such as how we translate customer or market needs and turn them into innovation.

When 19-year-old Sandra went to culinary school, she wanted to be a Michelin-star chef and have her own restaurant. But she didn't settle between the four walls of a kitchen. Instead, she found her own way to work with food and innovation.

- I enjoyed being challenged and developing a solution that wowed the guests. That theme has been there since day one, but progressively, I've gone from being a lot in the kitchen to moving out and being more in front of people. I've learned a lot about answering the customer's needs, and those elements have carried on throughout my career.

In her spare time, shockingly, she cooks a lot. Growing up in a food-loving family with generations of restaurateurs meant the dinner table was always the natural gathering place. Food is how she relates; despite having moved around a lot, family reunions always occur around the table. Even her dream vacation spots are food centred.

- At the top of my bucket list is visiting Japan and exploring the food. I love their philosophy and ingredients, which is just taking ingredients in their purest form, and they respect the ingredients. I love the ceremony around it and the neatness.

A big part of her job in product development is customer-centric. It includes listening to what the customer wants and understanding their needs. Sometimes, it's about anticipating their needs and designing something they will want. 

- Developing new products is about understanding what the customers are looking for and how we can assist them in reaching their goals. So we're following the whole process, from idea to testing what recipes to develop and ingredients to use, down to implementing it in a finished product in a box on the store shelves. 

To realise the vision of changing food manufacturing, Sandra argues the need to understand more than simply how an ingredient works. It's also pivotal to see the bigger picture and how to convince chefs, manufacturers and customers that this is the food of the future. That's where she comes in, to provide a hard link to the culinary world and understand how innovative ideas fit on the market. 

Coming from the outside, with a non-scientific background and the classic culinary side, you stick to the ingredients you know. Unfortunately, for many, this is still unknown territory, for many, which is challenging to understand. 

She continues:

- But then the lightbulb moment comes; it's a natural ingredient that we've just not tapped into, and it's fermented, a natural technique we've known for centuries. So I would love to see alternative protein become the norm, not labelled as vegan or plant-based, and no one has to think twice; it's just part of our natural food system.

One of the most challenging aspects is packaging the most creative ideas and packaging them into a solution. Ideas are abundant, but the challenge is to take all the creativity and ideas forward and get it out to the masses. First, we must evaluate the scalability and when it's ready. 

- There will be hiccups and failures along the way, but I'm a big believer in learning from them, and failures are not always failures. They're just bumps in the road that redirects your strategy. Sometimes we find that something doesn't work, but it might lead to other solutions.    

Innovation could look very different, according to Sandra. It could mean creating something new but taking something that exists and repackaging or reworking it to be more efficient.

- Innovation is anything that finds a creative solution; it's not always about something that's never been done. It can be an old solution to a new problem, repackaged the right way. Any problem can have an innovative solution. We need to challenge the norm, not redesign everything.  

Fun fact: She was on Celebrity Masterchef Ireland as a supporting chef, training contestants to replicate her dish and serve a jury of top chefs. 

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