Product Developer Daniel McDowell
of Marks and Spencer, London
Roman-Style Hunter’s Lamb? Char-Grilled Chicken
Linguini with Salsa Verde? These dishes are not on
the menu of a fancy restaurant. They are among the
many delectable selections of ready-made food available
at Britain’s most famous retailer, Marks and
Spencer. Meet the Product Developer whose job it is
to create these appetizing meals. It isn’t as
easy as you would think, but it sure sounds fun.
StarChefs: What drew you to work for Marks
Daniel McDowell: Marks and Spencer is the
most famous retailer in the UK. It is affectionately
known as Marks and Sparks. In my mind, they have always
been associated with the best quality meals in the
market. I always thought if I developed food for a
retailer, it would be them. I suppose otherwise I
would have remained a chef. It was, in my mind, a
way to bring my food concepts to a larger audience.
At the time I joined, we also sold our food throughout
SC: How would you describe the company
DM: There is great pride in working for Marks
and Spencer. You feel the history of the company and
the strong sense of values held by the founders. It
is a mixture of creative, commercial, and strategic
minds. The atmosphere is relaxed but with a serious
air, as this is a multi-pound business. We are always
told quality is the most important thing.
SC: Have you always been interested
in this area of work? How did you prepare for it?
DM: I have always been interested in creating
food but probably never envisaged doing it in such
a large-scale way. I now manage more than 140 fresh
prepared meal lines at Marks and Spencer for 350 stores
in the UK. It’s very different than running
six restaurants. You have to be a good project manager,
as well as knowledgeable in raw ingredients and food
preparation, and adept at packaging and marketing.
Flexibility is the key. My chefing background prepared
me for the food development and people management,
but not for the packaging and marketing. I believe
the job teaches you to look deep into customer satisfaction
– it is not about being a renegade chef. I suppose
it has forced me to grow up.
SC: What kind of training or education
DM: I suppose there are a few chefs like myself
doing the job, but others come from marketing or packaging
backgrounds. Chilled meals I find very challenging
because you are trying to create restaurant quality
dishes that will eat well for almost a week or more.
Restaurant food is so “à la minute.”
We need to give that excitement for over a week of
the customer’s life and not disappoint.
I have a four-year degree in Spanish and Italian
from Bowdoin College [in Maine]. This has helped in
my [meal line] areas such as Italian, Pizza, and American
as I travel to Italy and the Americas reasonably often
for work. I also did a year cooking course in London
and then worked as a Head Chef and Executive Chef
for 15 years.
SC: What particular skills, talents, or
personality traits are helpful in your job?
DM: Multi-tasking is very important for the
different elements of the job. Equally, one has to
be able to prioritize one’s time, as many different
aspects of the job pull you in different directions.
We often taste 30 or more dishes a day, so it is necessary
to have a good palate and be able to remember tastes
from previous dishes so as to be able to attain our
high quality standards. One has to taste the flavors,
as well as texture, consistency, and aftertaste. We
are trained in sensory perception, in addition to
business skills. Patience is definitely a key skill,
as well as being level-headed and uncompromising in
SC: What is a typical day like?
DM: Each day is quite different. It may involve
a trip to a supplier in Scotland, catching the 7am
plane to Edinburgh, traveling across the breadth of
Scotland to a factory, doing a factory trial of a
new product, tasting 30 variations of a recipe, and
returning on a 6pm flight the same day. Other days,
samples come to me and we examine every aspect of
the products on our shelves, from texture to flavor
to appearance. Yet other days involve traveling to
Italy to investigate a new range of pizzas with our
consultant in Italy. We eat 30 pizzas a day (just
a few bites) and decide on the best qualities for
our customer. We then write a comprehensive brief
to our suppliers. We decide whom to brief. They show
us concepts, and we work with them to attain the quality.
Then we move the recipe to the factory where it is
scaled up to huge proportions. This is the crucial
time where we must be strong enough to change [the
product] or not. It is an expensive process and can
be disastrous if it goes wrong.
SC: What is the most satisfying part of
your job? The most difficult?
DM: The most exiting part of the job is definitely
changing the tastes of the country. I have had some
success in moving people to think beyond lasagna and
spaghetti Bolognese to regional Italian cuisine, like
Neapolitan Shrimp Bucatini or Sorrento lemon chicken
made with lemons from Sorrento, Italy. It is satisfying
to move people into these new territories. I even
sourced my own lemons from Sorrento and arranged their
transport to the UK. No one understood why these were
so important, but I felt they symbolized the sunniness
and warmth of Italian food. They were also grown in
the organic volcanic soil of Sorrento near Mount Vesuvius
and tasted delicious.
The most difficult thing has been launching a wonderful
product and, for some unknown reason, the customer
doesn’t buy it. There is no way to tell what
will be the best-selling line. As a chef in the restaurant,
I was used to the customer coming to me for my food,
but as a developer I am the person behind the scenes.
It can be much more anonymous.
SC: What are the opportunities for advancement
in this field?
DM: I suppose they are very good as there
are two tiers above me, one being in charge of a category
of Developers, and the Head of Development. There
are also chances to enter other non-food related areas
of development. Our company encourages constant education
and training in management skills so other opportunities
often arise. The UK seems to be a leader in “Ready
Meals” and therefore it is more difficult to
find the same position outside of this country. Even
America does not quite have the same level of food
development within a huge retailer. We own King’s
Supermarkets on the east coast and often have an exchange
of ideas with their people. Marks and Spencer’s
tries to set trends, as opposed to following them.
SC: What advice would you give someone
wanting to enter this field?
DM: I was very lucky to have been selected
for one of the two jobs from thousands of applicants.
We have only hired 3 new people in development over
the past three years, so it is necessary to have a
wide selection of skills and experiences to stand
out. I had traveled extensively and worked in Italy,
America, Holland and the UK. I had experience cooking
many different cuisines. I suppose confidence is very
important and an ability to be adaptable. I found
an office environment to be very challenging, as I
was used to the quick pace of the kitchen where decisions
would be made rapidly. Now I find decisions have to
go through many people and can seem to take a very
long time. But then the stakes are much higher in
a multi-pound business.