Philadelphia's 90-year-old Tasty Baking Co., which pumps out about five million cakes, pies, cookies and doughnuts a day, wanted to jump into the craze while it still was hot. It needed to make a major statement that it was serious about shaking off its stodgy image and expanding into new directions.
Sales had been stagnant for years, peaking at $166 million in 2001 and generating $6 million in profit. While low-carbs would not be the only salve for the company's flagging performance, its new chief executive officer, Charles Pizzi, had promised shareholders an innovative line in 2004 - and this was it.
"It was a wave, and we wanted to ride it," said Vince Melchiorre, the firm's chief marketing officer and Schutz's boss.
He also saw it as a first step toward an array of new Tastykakes targeted to health concerns.
But as of Jan. 6, Schutz's first day at the company, Tasty Baking had barely mobilized.
As the new director of business development, Schutz felt the pressure of this assignment. Companies usually need 12 to 18 months to get a new, innovative product line to market - from formulating and testing to assessing shelf life and designing ads.
The low-carb line had to be ready by fall. And she had to do it using existing equipment and manpower.
Schutz, an energetic mother with a food-science degree and a thick portfolio of marketing experience, kept her doubts to herself. After 20 years at Campbell Soup Co., she knew sauces and soups but not the world of baking.
In the blur of her first week at Tasty Baking, there was one constant: a barrage of e-mails from Pizzi, attaching articles on low carbs and requesting updates about the project.
In mid-January, Schutz got her first taste of the kind of low-carb snacks the company could go after.
John Sawicki, manager of research for Tasty Baking, helped arrange for an ingredient supplier to bring trial batches to the company's flagship six-story bakery on Hunting Park Avenue. In a conference room were a half-dozen other Tasty managers who would guide the project from production to sales.
On a table were trays of low-carb brownies, chocolate-chip cookies, blueberry muffins, and plain doughnuts.
Schutz bit into a doughnut. It was good - not at all like cardboard or hamster food, as she had feared. Using the supplier's mixes as a starting point, they would create a low-carb line - doughnuts, muffins and cookies - but they would have to taste the way Tastykake lovers expect.
Schutz warned everyone the project was a secret. Its code name would be Greta - as in Greta Carbo.
On Jan. 27, Sawicki and his five-member team started experimenting on a low-carb chocolate cookie bar.
During 22 years at the firm, Sawicki, 44, had helped create strawberry Krimpets, chocolate-chip cookie bars, and low-fat snacks when that trend was hot. With a food-science degree and years of baking experience, he felt confident that Greta was doable.
The challenge would be to replace most of the flour and sugar with ingredients that have few or no carbs.
The key sugar replacement in the brownie mix they were using as a starting point was a sugar alcohol called maltitol. Sugar alcohols are often used in low-carb products because they are more slowly absorbed by the body. Low-carb dieters usually don't count them.
In its crystal form, maltitol's bulk almost matches granular sugar. And it is nearly as sweet though less caloric.
But sugar alcohols can have a downside for some people who eat too much - abdominal discomfort, gas and diarrhea.
Sawicki felt maltitol was a good choice because, he said, it is less apt to cause digestive problems compared with other sugar alcohols.
Anticipating the batter would be runny, Sawicki typed out several recipes with varying amounts of gelatinous gum and modified corn starch to stiffen it up. Ellen McCrossen, a food technician, measured the ingredients into a 10-quart Hobart mixer. She made five different chocolate-cookie batches that day.
By the time the last one came out of the stainless steel oven, Sawicki realized the challenge facing his team. All the cookie bars had come out pancake flat. To fit a low-carb profile, they had been stripped of sugar and diminished of flour. But those same ingredients are critical to a cookie's structure and texture like beams in a building.
Over the next few days, Sawicki instructed his team to try more than a dozen different versions of the recipe. But the cookies became so tacky they stuck to the roof of Sawicki's mouth.
The results might be better, he thought, if his team cut back on the maltitol and increased the modified cornstarch content. Although cornstarch is a carb, Sawicki said it could be used more sparingly than flour and still provide structure.
The next five batches looked plumper. But the carb count was climbing.
Around the time Sawicki was puzzling over cookie batter in the bakery, Vince Melchiorre dropped by Schutz's office at nearby company headquarters.
He'd been mulling over an idea, but it would mean more work for the project team.
While leaning against her desk - a signal to Schutz that he would say something important - he gently asked: Could Greta be sugar-free?
Schutz's stomach did a flip-flop. She knew it would be hard to wring out all the sugar. It's in milk, blueberries and chocolate chips - all ingredients intended for Greta's line of low-carb doughnuts, muffins and cookies.
Melchiorre asked her to let him know.
The sugar-free goal had been a reversal in his thinking. When he joined Tasty Baking in early 2003 from Pepperidge Farms, healthy was not on his radar. He said he even told the company board the brand would be about "sweet, indulgent rewards."
But friends were getting results on the low-carb Atkins plan. And he kept hearing from his sales staff that customers wanted a Tastykake to fit their diet.
Then, last October, while straightening a Tastykake shelf in a Weis Market, an elderly woman asked him:
"Do you have any Tastykakes that are sugar free? I grew up with them and I love them. A lot of people are like me. They get diabetes as they get older and they can't eat them anymore."
She reminded Melchiorre of his grandparents who helped raise him in South Philadelphia. His grandfather wasn't supposed to eat Tastykakes because he "ran a high sugar."
"I needed to address the issue of people who had grown up on Tastykake who can't eat it any more," Melchiorre, 43, said. "It was good for business, and good for them."
The company estimates that one million people have diabetes in its core Mid-Atlantic market. Many more are overweight.
Schutz wrestled with the no-sugar request for a few days. Sawicki had so much on his plate besides Greta. She feared overloading him.
She finally whipped off an e-mail to him. "To make things more interesting, can these low-carb products be sugar free?"
Two hours later, he answered: "Possibly. It probably depends on the product. Should we be targeting this?"
Sawicki, who hides his stress behind a good poker face, didn't complain. Schutz soon ratcheted his anxiety level higher yet.
The company had penned Greta into its launch schedule for late June - three months earlier than Sawicki had expected. Barely four months away.
Every aspect of the project, from research to pricing, would need to happen almost simultaneously.
By Feb. 20, the researchers had made about 24 experimental batches of low-carb chocolate cookies. They'd abandoned the brownie mix and were now using the regular Tastykake fudge-bar recipe as a guide.
The new cookie formula omitted granular sugar and high fructose corn syrup. In their place, Sawicki's team added maltitol and sucralose - a product derived from sugar, but with no calories.
As before, they substituted modified cornstarch for some of the flour to cut carbs.
The numbers, from the low-carb dieter's perspective, were working out. Although the new cookie had 28 total carbs, 20 of those were from maltitol - and thus didn't count toward "net carbs." Nor did its one gram of fiber. The result: a cookie with only seven net carbs - one more carb than in one serving from an Atkins Quick Quisine Cookie Mix.
Sawicki brought the chocolate cookies, chocolate-chip cookies and blueberry muffins to show Schutz and the Greta team who had gathered for a taste-testing meeting.
Sawicki passed around two varieties of low-carb blueberry muffin sticks. Only one tasted good to the group.
Schutz liked the stick shape even though they were muffins; they'd be fun to dip into coffee. Sawicki had turned a problem to a plus. No Tasty products were baked in muffin pans and no money had been budgeted for them. Instead of spending $40,000 on pans, the research team used Tasty's "Creamies" pans for the sticklike shape.
As for the cookie bars, the group liked the sweet flavor but said they looked bare without a topping.
Sawicki pulled out another tray to reveal the problem: After a few days on the shelf, the dark brown icing on the low-carb cookies had "bloomed," turning a shade of white because the cake was sucking water from the icing. It was a cosmetic concern but a hard one to fix.
The group also examined two possible chocolate-bar shapes - one wide and flat like a plain chocolate bar, the other round and thick with ridges. They weren't wowed by either.
"People eat with their eyes," said Schutz, reminding the group that the bars must look good.
Before the group broke up, Schutz reminded everyone that the Greta line - muffins, cookies and doughnuts - had to be ready to preview at the March 10 board meeting.
It would be no small task: the doughnut mix had not yet arrived; the real blueberries in the muffins sank; and the un-iced cookie bars needed work.
Sawicki raced to get everything done for the board meeting. He even helped arrange the snacks on serving trays early that morning.
The board members liked what they ate: large and small plain doughnuts, blueberry muffins, chocolate-chip cookie bars, and the upgraded chocolate cookie bars - with chocolate chips. They thanked Schutz for moving so quickly.
Schutz came away from the meeting pleased - they were on track for the June deadline. But as she was chatting on the phone that afternoon, an ingredient company salesman mentioned he couldn't eat any products with maltitol.
She asked why?
It gave him side effects, he told her.
Me, too, she responded.
When she hung up, Schutz quickly called Sawicki. He, too, was having trouble eating the low-carb snacks.
She knew other people had eaten Greta with no problems, and had thought the pangs in her lower intestines signaled that she simply was more sensitive to maltitol.
Schutz asked herself: "Why are we making a product with side effects?"
The next morning she got right to the point with Melchiorre. The company needed to reduce the maltitol levels.
Melchiorre needed no convincing. He'd had abdominal discomfort, too.
The world beyond Tasty Baking also was starting to ask questions about low-carb foods.
Just two days after the board meeting, Food and Drug Administration officials said they planned to define the terms "lower carbohydrate," "reduced carbohydrate" and "carbohydrate free." Companies would need to abide by them when making product claims - or risk sanctions.
Tasty's project was now two weeks behind schedule. Schutz didn't want to get bogged down in an unsettled regulatory web - and the potential controversy to follow it.
Sugar-free, she decided, would be Greta's major selling point. It had a huge market and staying power. Diabetics must watch total carbohydrates including sugars. Low-carb would be important, but secondary.
Schutz started to consider a name, Sensables, to evoke diet moderation. She figured it could be be used again and again for future "wellness" snacks.
While Schutz was thinking ahead, Sawicki had already squeezed some of the maltitol from the Greta line.
Besides the digestion issues, maltitol - in big demand because of the low-carb craze - was pricey. It was nine times more expensive than sugar.
To reduce maltitol, Sawicki added polydextrose - a carbohydrate that's not fully digested and has one-fourth the calories of a regular carb. He also added glycerin, a sugar alcohol with even less chance of digestive issues than maltitol, according to Sawicki.
And he decreased the portion sizes of the cookies. Schutz saw that as another health-plus at a time when Americans are grappling with portion size.
But with the changes came new problems during the end of March. The muffins had shriveled. The edges were uneven in the chocolate-chocolate chip cookies. And the researchers were having a hard time figuring out a doughnut glaze without using maltitol.
Schutz wanted the final formulas ready by mid-April to prepare product packages and labels.
Nine hundred pounds of chocolate-chocolate chip cookie dough started to stream out of eight holes in a stainless steel tank at 7 a.m. on May 6.
The dough dropped onto a moving band and quickly disappeared into a 180-foot-long oven. After emerging, a guillotine chopped the dough into 4 1/2-inch bars. The bars then chugged to a 250-foot cooling spiral before being sorted, wrapped and packed.
Each one had a total of 21 carbs and 7 net carbs. And no sugar.
In six days, the bars would make their debut in a meeting before Tasty Baking's 60 district sales managers.
The lineup was finally set. The blueberry muffins had been set aside because they still had too much sugar. In its place, Sawicki had created two finger cakes - an orange and a chocolate chip. He had no luck with a doughnut glaze, either. He settled for two cakelike doughnuts - plain and chocolate. Plus, the two cookie bars.
Schutz said she and others at the company had eaten plenty of the reformulated products with no ill-effects. Still, like other low-carb products, the Sensable label would caution that eating too much may have laxative effect.
Everything went down to the wire for Wednesday's meeting with Tasty's sales managers.
They listened attentively while Schutz breezed through her presentation. She told them that the message would be no-sugar, low carb and portion control. Sensables would be ready to ship to the stores July 15.
They liked what they heard, and tasted. And then something unusual happened for a Tastykake sales meeting.
All the managers rose to their feet and applauded loudly. The ovation lasted about a minute.
"It was heartfelt," said Jim Roche, who manages sales in a large swath of Pennsylvania. "This is a winner."
Contact staff writer Marian Uhlman at 215-854-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How This Story Was Reported
Inquirer staff writer Marian Uhlman spent four months getting the inside story of Tasky Baking Co.'s efforts to develop its new line. She went to meetings, product tests and tastings to observe the process. Interviews with company officials helped reconstruct events she did not see.
Tasty Baking Co.'s New 'Sensables' Line
In a break from the past, Tasty Baking Co. is adding a line of products aimed at consumers with diet and health concerns.
Launch date: July 15
Products: two doughnuts, plain and chocolate (large and minis); two finger cakes, orange and chocolate chip; two cookie bars, chocolate chip and chocolate-chocolate chip.
Price: about 20 percent above regular Tastykakes.
What's different: No sugar; net carbohydrates cut to 4 to 8 grams; portion control to reduce calories to an average of 150 calories.