This is part of a new series at Food Dive of Q&A’s with iconoclasts in the industry doing interesting things and challenging the status quo in the food industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Name: Porter Long
Where do you live: Portland, OR
Occupation: Research & Development Manager, Bob’s Red Mill
After stints at Chobani, where he was a big influence in the “Flip program,” and at vertical farming innovator Fifth Season, Porter Long landed at Bob’s Red Mill at the start of 2023 as their Research and Development Manager. And Long, who was born and raised in Provo, Utah, couldn’t be happier, since his personal food mission aligns very much with the employee-owned brand’s core values. ”I want to create foods that are not just good tasting, but healthy, and attainable to the masses,” he says. “I want food to be equitable.”
When Bob Moore and his wife Charlee founded Bob’s Red Mill back in 1978, their focus was on making wholesome whole-grain ingredients available to the masses. And the key to growth for Bob’s over the years has been all about innovation, which is where Long comes in. With a Masters in Agriculture and Food Science from Washington State University, Porter cut his teeth at yogurt giant Chobani, where he juggled enzymes and probiotics and created both dairy and non-dairy products and new flavors for the brand. (One of his favorites is the “S’mores S’mores Chobani Flip, which for a while was the brand’s best-selling Flip.)
FOOD DIVE: What was the first job you ever had?
PORTER LONG: My first influential first job was of the unpaid variety—we worked on my family's overly ambitious gardening initiatives, including way too many cornrows through trees. We started with just a few squash plants that turned into hundreds of squash zucchinis but this was impactful because I spent so many hours weeding and watering, but also harvesting and processing. That focus on healthy nutrition and exposure to locally grown produce definitely shaped the way I see the food industry now.
My first paid job was actually as an assistant to the chef at an international restaurant. I was exposed to different flavors, and got to see how consumers interact with the food—and how we made changes based upon consumer feedback. My first job in the industry was at Chobani in Falls, Idaho.
FOOD DIVE: What inspired you to focus on your current work?
LONG: I’ve always had a passion for food—since I was very young. My mom told me that I had a weird affinity for spicy foods at a very young age. The other day my mom sent me something I made in second grade. I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said a baker.
I got a kick out of it because here I am, a couple decades later.
I'm not technically a baker, but I am a product developer, so here I am, living the dream, a couple decades later working with Bob’s Red Mill—one of the premier baking industry brands.
I grew up loving to try new foods and recipes and I was the odd one in the family that likes to eat weird things. I’ll try anything.
And then the other piece was, I spent some time living in the Philippines, and I saw the impact of food on people's lives. Or, more accurately, the lack of food and nutrient deficiencies. That was really impactful, to see how people's lives really revolved around food and thinking about food.
When I came back from the Philippines—this was in college—I thought, you know, I have this passion for food, but I didn't necessarily want to be a chef. So what opportunities are there to apply this skill set and to bring high quality food to more people and to help you know contribute to solving some of these issues with hunger and nutrient deficiencies?
I found an intro to food science class. Different brands from the industry came in and shared their products and told us about what they did. It was the perfect fit for me; it marries my passion for food, but also I love learning about chemistry and biology and using these skills to produce products for the masses. So that's how it came together. For me, I think it’s the most fun job you have. Not only can you work with food products, you can eat your experiments too.
FOOD DIVE: What is the biggest change you have seen while working your current role?
LONG: Consumers are a lot more focused on clean-label products. People want things that they understand and relate to, so this has become more and more important. And I've noticed also, that sustainability and knowing where your food comes from, is becoming even more important.
People are really looking at labels, they care about what's in their food, and they're very passionate and vocal about it—and they have channels that they can share those thoughts on social media—so there's this instant feedback. In most ways, the food industry continues to get better because consumers are demanding higher quality, higher transparency, and they're no longer satisfied with mediocre foods.
There's a lot of disruption in the industry because there are so many opportunities to make things taste better, to be more clean label and to be more sustainable.
FOOD DIVE: What was harder than you thought it would be? What was easier?
LONG: Probably the most difficult thing is changing processes and how things are done. Working with a company like Bob's—they’re an amazing company with a long legacy of developing products that meet consumers’ needs. So I don't necessarily want to reinvent the wheel, but I learned a lot of things from my time in the vertical farming industry and then in the functional beverage space, that I think can be used to create some great innovation. And I have some more agility and processes that I've learned that can be applied. Getting people onboard is always the hard part, but I think once people start to see the excitement of what we can do, and what kind of products we can launch, they get on board and are super excited to push Bob's Red Mill to the next level.
FOOD DIVE: What is a misconception that people have about you when they first meet you?
LONG: When I tell people I’m a food scientist, they think that means I’m a chef.
I have to explain the work we do and I explain that all those products in grocery stores were developed by food scientists—people in research and development. I have to explain that it's not going into your kitchen and baking up one cake and calling it a day. There’s a lot more that goes into it—sensory testing, business development, marketing, finance, chemistry, quality assurance—all these pieces that go into making a product launch successful from a food safety and quality perspective.
FOOD DIVE: What do you think will be the biggest change in the industry in 10 years?
LONG: I’ve worked in the vertical farming industry, and to feed a growing population, it takes innovation, whether that’s fungal fermentation or growing lettuce and other crops indoors. It's going to take not just developing new products, but also new processes. In addition to that, I think that sustainability and the impact on the climate is going to play a very important role, with millennials and members of Generation Z coming of age and demanding a higher sense of transparency into how processes impact the environment. I think that companies are going to continue to adapt to that.
FOOD DIVE: What do you wish someone would have told you about your current role or position when you started?
LONG: I'm the type of person who actually likes surprises and exciting new challenges. So I don't think I would’ve wanted to know anything in advance because I like to learn. I like seeing what challenges there are and figuring out how we can solve them. Maybe just like, ‘buckle up and get ready because it's going to be a wild ride!”
FOOD DIVE: What would be the foods of your last meal?
LONG: As a food scientist this is the hardest question. I drive my wife crazy because I never want to eat the same thing twice. I always like to try new things. But if I was forced to choose a final meal, I think it would be some amazing bowl of noodles whether that's my favorite Khao Soi, Tonkotsu Ramen, or Szechuan Chongqing.
For my beverage—because I'm also the type of person who always has like two or three different beverages in front of them at all times—I would pick a dirty chai latte and a home brewed kombucha.