I make new cereal flavors at Post. Yes, I eat cereal every day and never get sick of it — here’s what my day looks like.
- Ellen Johnston works as an associate director in research and development at Post Consumer Brands.
- She studied food science in college and got her start at Kellogg's working on cookies and Pop-Tarts.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Ellen Johnston, a 35-year-old associate director of research and development at Post Consumer Brands in Lakeville, Minnesota, about her job. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I started working for Kellogg Co. in August 2012 as a product-development scientist making new flavors of cookies and Pop-Tarts. In November 2015, I started my work at Post Consumer Brands as a product-development scientist creating flavors of ready-to-eat cereals.In September 2018, I was promoted to research and development manager, and in June, I became an associate director of research and development, where I currently lead a team that works on cereal innovation.
I studied food science in college and went on to earn both a Master of Science in food science and an MBA. Here's what my job is like.
I grew up in Minnesota, but after graduate school, I started working in Michigan at Kellogg's
In 2015, Post announced that it was acquiring Malt-O-Meal and relocating the company headquarters to the Twin Cities. I saw this as a terrific opportunity to gain experience in a new product category and move closer to home.
I applied and moved from application to initial offer within two and a half weeks.
While I did eat cereal for breakfast growing up, learning how it's produced has helped develop my excitement for it. My passion for food started at a young age. I remember making Christmas cookies with my family each year, which grew into a love of cooking and baking.
During my junior year of high school, my mom suggested food science as a college major, and I ended up loving it. I took a variety of food-processing classes, including some about cereal processing. That led to an internship with a local oatmeal company after my sophomore year. Cereal has been a lot of fun to work with, both because of how enjoyable it is to eat and because of the nostalgia so many people have for it.
Each day in R&D is different, which is one of the many things I like about my job
My typical hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. I start my day by meeting with members of my team to review updates on their projects. The 10 of us focus on product design, recipe, and flavor delivery. I ensure no challenges prevent them from preparing for plant trials or reviewing prototypes with our cross-functional teams.
The middle of the day is for product tastings, which usually take place between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Some days we have more tastings than on others. Most days, I like to eat a noncereal lunch, just to maintain a balanced diet.
To prepare for the tastings, we might also review products with the same flavor type that are currently in market. For example, a few years ago, Post launched a caramel-macchiato cereal licensed with Dunkin' Donuts. To prepare for tastings, our team reviewed caramel macchiatos from coffee shops, ice cream, and about 10 other products. We also did this for the mocha-latte flavor. This helps us understand what consumers expect when they taste a new product that we've developed.
In the afternoon, I might meet with an ingredient supplier. At the end of the day, I'll catch up with my counterparts in research and development to learn about what's going on outside innovation work, which could include sensory studies, projects to help our cereal lines run more efficiently, or learning about new cereal packaging.
Sensory studies are used to give consumers prototypes that have yet to be launched. We'll share the product with consumers who have limited background information and ask for their opinion on how to make it better.
We typically work with an external research firm who helps us find people who match our target consumer for testing. The research firm maintains databases of consumers and their shopping habits. Participants are paid for their opinions.
For example, when we were preparing to launch our Honey Bunches of Oats Granola Chips, we searched for one group of people who already ate and enjoyed Honey Bunches of Oats and granola and another group of people who may not eat the product but who're often on the go.
I learned a lot about cereal design during the 2018 launch of Nutter Butter cereal
The first cereal I launched was Malt-O-Meal Cookies & Cream in 2017. It was the project that taught me how to make cereal, and seeing it on grocery store shelves for the first time was extremely fulfilling.
After a successful launch of Oreo O's, we wanted to follow up with another cookie concept that looked like the Nutter Butter cookie — peanut shaped with a crosshatch design. Reimagining this shape and detail in a cereal piece was no small feat, and the project took about nine months.I learned so much from our principal engineer who designs many of our extruded cereal shapes. Extrusion is the process we use to make grain flours into a dough, cooking them under high heat and pressure. The dough is forced through a small opening into normal temperature and pressure. That change in conditions causes the pieces to expand, like when you pop popcorn.
We also experiment with seasonal items, like Halloween Fruity Pebbles and our summer Malt-O-Meal flavors: Key-lime pie, strawberry shortcake, and orange dreamsicle.
I get asked often what my favorite cereal is
While there are so many cereals I love to eat, I have two favorites: Oreo O's, because I learned so much developing that as a product, and Great Grains Raisins, Dates & Pecans. It has so many delicious ingredients mixed in and always makes me feel like I'm eating a fancy treat.
In 2018, I launched a pair of Honey Brunches of Oats flavors to celebrate National Cereal Day on March 7. The flavors were maple-bacon doughnut and chicken and waffles. I loved them because I love combining sweet and savory, but they were met with mixed reviews.
In my role, I eat a lot of cereal — dry, with dairy milk, with almond milk, hot and cold (we make oatmeal, too), day and night. I'm not sure whether it's nostalgia or just deliciousness at play, but I can't think of many times when I've tired of it.
I do try to mix up my breakfasts, so I might eat eggs on the weekend, but during the week, I truly look forward to trying the new cereals that our team is working on.
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