Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Point taken: Local flavor

If you’ve ever driven on Interstate 40 through Greensboro, you know there’s an annoying pinch point on the east side of the city where the spaghetti strands of highway merge and then separate.

It’s affectionately known as Death Valley, and when I arrive there at rush hour, I can feel the traffic slow and my road rage rise. What I often do is this: I sniff the air for the smell of butterscotch. Then, I take a deep breath and realize everything is going to be all right.

The aroma’s source is Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, which has its factory and a separate warehouse off the exit ramp of Elm-Eugene Street. So, I followed my nose and wound up in the bare-bones office of President David Murphy, whose father and uncle started the business 70 years ago.

Murphy is an old-school salesman and raconteur, a good listener and a patient explainer. For the better part of two hours, we talked about flavor — everything from the taste of canned peaches to the rise of pumpkin spice to the soaring price of vanilla beans, which is hammering bakers and ice cream makers across our great land.

Mother Murphy’s customers include tobacco companies (both conventional and alternative), beverage companies, bakeries and distilleries. Murphy doesn’t like to name names, but yes, there’s a big doughnut company you might have heard of that gets the flavoring for its glaze here.

Let’s be clear: The flavor business isn’t the steel or auto industry. It’s not a symbol of or a metaphor for American pride, progress or prowess. We don’t need flavor to live. But perhaps we need it to live well. For that reason, companies that can deliver on flavor or fashion — what I would call essential nonessentials — win in the marketplace. It’s that simple. And that complicated.

One of the reasons that I wanted to meet with Murphy and his team was to discuss innovation, which is the buzzword that has launched a thousand seminars and strategic plans. Many of us have an image in our minds of what we think innovation looks like: a bunch of hoodie-clad millennials slurping coffee while hunched over MacBooks in some sleek workspace. But innovation happens in lots of settings, many of them outside the new economy, often in prosaic sectors and in cramped offices and laboratories such as those at Mother Murphy’s. They get too little attention but can pay enormous dividends to producers and consumers.

As Murphy sees it, flavor is what allows food manufacturers to innovate, to serve their customers better and drive growth.

The heart of the company’s operations is a team of flavor chemists, men and women who undergo a lengthy apprenticeship while they learn the craft. It’s part art, part science and all business. They develop flavors and also adapt existing flavors to work in different environments or with new ingredients. For example, consider the pivot toward more nutritious food, those so-called nutraceuticals packed with protein and vitamins. If the taste is wrong, consumers revolt and go back to their old dietary habits. And then there’s shelf life. People shop less frequently, let stuff sit around for months, and when the foil finally gets peeled off, want their grub to taste like it just came out of the oven.

These are the challenges that excite Murphy. He likes being a partner in innovation and working with food manufacturers. He says the company’s success has been linked to this sort of intensive and practical problem-solving. “Flavor chemists love to develop new flavors, but I love to duplicate flavors, because that means they’re already selling.”

Business is good and growing. There’s a third generation scattered through the company, moving up in the ranks. Consolidation has shrunk the number of players in the flavor industry, and Murphy’s is large enough to compete on R&D but still small enough to stress customer service. The company, which employs 125, is preparing to expand its powdered flavor production. Offers to sell come with frequency, but they’re not greeted with any urgency.

Flavor is experience. And like a lot of experiences, we crave both the new and the old. That’s what I think of when I try to imagine what an innovation economy truly looks like. It’s doing the familiar in new, better and more efficient ways. Sometimes, it’s hard to discern. But you know it when you see it. Or when you smell it.

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Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg is a writer who lives in Winston-Salem.

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