For anyone with a sweet tooth, coming up with new flavours of ice cream sounds like a dream job.
Head of innovation at Tip Top, Esraa El Shall, would have to agree.
Along with taste testing a lot of ice cream – “lucky I’m not dairy intolerant” she jokes – she works with a team to create new and exciting flavours for New Zealanders and the export market.
After completing a Bachelor of Food Technology at Massey with honours, majoring in product development, El Shall secured a job as a quality control officer for another company in the dairy industry, but she knew even then that her heart was in product development.
“I like that you can be in charge of creating the flavours,” she says of her current role.
“There’s something really cool about seeing someone pick up the product that you worked on, trying it and loving it.”
She joined Tip Top not long after the team had finished a project that took just over two years to reformulate every single product to only include natural flavours and colours.
“When they hired me, they wanted to start getting back into innovation because they had spent the last two years formulating existing products,” she says. “It’s been a journey of growth.”
As much as she loves taste testing the products at all the different stages of the development, El Shall says nothing beats the feeling she gets when a product undergoes its first factory run.
“It is that moment during your first production when you run a product for launch. There is something truly magical about it when you remember the journey. Some of our products can take up to a year or a year and a half to launch, so seeing the product running well, and then going into the beautiful new packaging with the beautiful artwork and design and seeing it at the point of sale – there is something incredible about that moment.
“When you go to the supermarket and see it on the shelf, you think about how many people were behind this one product and what it took for it to get here in the supermarket.”
As head of innovation, El Shall also needs to stay on top of the latest trends emerging from the ice cream sector. One of these trends is currently plant-based products.
“Plant-based is huge right now and it’s growing significantly. Even in the past 2-3 years we’ve seen significant growth in that area, and it is reflected in our development.
“For every range we make there is almost always a plant-based option. There is a huge need for it in terms of giving people the flexibility whether they are lactose intolerant or they are just flexitarian and want to opt in and out of dairy.”
Convenience and snacking is another trend taking off she says.
“It’s all about how you eat something on the go. Do you eat [ice cream]sandwiches or bar type products? Snacking is a really big segment because people are on the go all the time. Except for in lockdowns when everyone reverted to buying tubs [of ice-cream].”
As far as what it takes to make great tasting ice cream, it seems that love is the most important ingredient for El Shall. But like most things made with love, she says sometimes it’s just as important to get a second opinion.
“When you work in innovation you are so connected with every other function in the business – marketing, sales, food quality, operations. I like to think of us [innovation]as the heart of the business, but the other branches might disagree.
“Honestly, sometimes you get so involved in the development of it, you think it’s so beautiful and you don’t want to let go, but sometimes you need someone to tell you, this is not the next big thing.”
But that’s part of the joy of creating she says – the highs and the lows, the wins, and the losses.
“Any post the company puts up on social media about a new product, we are there reading the comments. You can’t help it because it’s taken so much time and effort. I love that part about it, and I love that my team are passionate enough to care what other people think about it. There’s something really beautiful about that.”