It’s an everyday paradox: junk food is terrible for you yet tastes great. A healthier diet is a lofty goal, though not easily reached when many healthier foods are just, well, not very satisfying. But imagine if foods were not only healthier but also tasted great. Chicago-based CoreFX Ingredients is working to create food ingredients which not only improve nutritional quality but also taste great. The end goal: a revolution in nutritional thinking and eating habits.
With advanced research capabilities and production techniques, CoreFX can create food products uniquely suited to growing food markets and consumer tastes. Converting liquid fats and oils to a dry powder form, the company works with larger food producers to provide high quality food ingredients. These products marry higher nutritional quality with increased flavor appeal.
The forgotten customer
CoreFX founder and CEO Denis Neville has a breadth of experience in food production, working his entire career in the industry. But over time, he saw how others were breaking a central business rule: “I was seeing that established organizations were not putting the customers first,” he says. Further, while new technologies made innovation and disruption possible, he saw that industry leaders at the time were not seizing the opportunity.
In response, Neville launched an ingredient business, CoreFX, in 2009. Starting as a segment of leading dairy trader MCT Dairies, the company went independent three years ago in June 2016 in partnership with Ornua.
Neville experienced firsthand the double-edged sword of corporate independence, as his company now had free reign but faced the daunting challenge of repurposing an existing plant for new production. “We didn’t stop to look around and take a breath; we had to get going,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a choice, anyway. A lot of people put in a lot of effort to keep the show on the road.”
Quality over quantity
Three years later, CoreFX has a home office in Chicago and a fit-for-purpose manufacturing plant in the small Illinois town of Orangeville.
Neville is proud to say CoreFX has now tripled its production output, describing it as a conservative move. “This output could have been actually a lot more, but we consciously decided to focus on lower volumes and higher value rather than the alternative,” he explains. “This is an approach that works best for our customers, associates, employees and stakeholders.”
This ‘quality over quantity’ philosophy permeates CoreFX, which also aims to embrace new customer markets through its products. Neville speaks proudly of “the desire and the enthusiasm at CoreFX to put the customer first.” For example, he had noticed that many existing food ingredients were not suitable for vegans or others with discerning palates, another issue that spurred him to start his own company. So CoreFX now offers many differing variants of its core food ingredients, including vegan, halal, non-GMO, kosher and organic.
This agility and adaptiveness allows CoreFX to easily shift gears and address changing consumer tastes. As head of a startup, Neville says he is fortunate to have associates who can “just get it done and, when things don’t quite go right, dust ourselves off and get on with it.”
This flexibility and increasingly health-conscious attitude is central to the company’s production strategy. By combining fats and oils with natural emulsifiers, CoreFX is able to produce food systems that combine healthy, natural ingredients that also please consumer palates. Combined at the right proportions, the fatty acids used in CoreFX’s products result in dry ingredients loaded with protein, butterfat, minerals, and micronutrients, with lots of flavor and functionality. “That really is a big part of our focus on our consumers’ health,” Neville says.
CoreFX uses unique spray-drying techniques to convert liquid fats and oils into its signature food powders. Cheaper than freeze drying, spray drying is a better choice for thermally-sensitive food products. The end result is a high quality, dry, powder food ingredient, ready to be shipped to food producers as needed.
As a food component producer, success for CoreFX products relies on sophisticated research and development making breakthroughs in food science. “We spend a lot of our time investigating, researching what fats and oils do optimally when combined in the right way,” Neville explains. “We continue to research, continue to make sure that we’re at the leading edge of those oils that work best.”
Being located in the Chicago area, CoreFX is privileged to be close to so many labs and universities. While technological research is conducted in-house, CoreFX continually utilizes these nearby resources for food science research. But the scope goes beyond Chicago: “There are so many really good food universities in the U.S.,” Neville says, and he has built strong relationships with many such institutions through his own background in food science.
CoreFX also benefits from strong partnerships with other food producers, mostly due to Neville’s long stead in the industry. The company has also maintained a long and fruitful partnership with Irish dairy co-op Ornua, which helped CoreFX become an independent entity in 2016.
Ireland’s leading dairy supplier, Ornua works closely with Irish farmers to deliver high-quality dairy products and ingredients worldwide. With Ornua’s North American office in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ornua and CoreFX have forged a close and mutually beneficial partnership bringing CoreFX’s quality products to the American market.
CoreFX has forged strong partnerships of late, among them California-based distributor Stauber, which boasts extensive product infrastructure in nutrition, food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and pet care. With this and other distributor partnerships such as Mitsubishi, CoreFX has access to exciting new markets and distribution networks, while distributors gain access to CoreFX’s versatile and high-quality food powders.
But even with these strong partnerships, CoreFX remains a young company with the customary unavoidable growing pains. Neville confirms that finding qualified personnel for the company’s production plant remains “without doubt” the company’s greatest challenge, something we’re seeing across many sectors. Illinois’s Stevenson County, home of the company’s primary plant, had an unemployment rate of just 4.7 percent in 2017 – the latest available number from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Neville says the company needs employees willing to sign up “for the long haul.” As a startup, CoreFX needs versatile workers who want to work hard to create innovative products that contribute to the success of the organization. “It’s a challenge, no doubt about it,” he shares.
To meet this challenge, CoreFX is now working closely with local high schools and community colleges, showing that “a career that’s not specifically university-driven is still a respected career.” New on-the-job training programs help new hires rapidly gain the work skills they need to succeed in plant operation and maintenance, and the company is also networking heavily through community job fairs. Neville says the end result is “a lot of small initiatives, which hopefully combine to get the right quality candidates and keep them.”
The company is also dedicated to a smaller environmental impact. Neville says CoreFX’s plant uses heat, and therefore costly energy, to convert liquid fats and oils into a dry powder form. As the company celebrates its third anniversary, Neville describes a new program he calls “Phase Two” of the company’s development. He says a lower environmental impact will be a top priority—both using less energy and using energy more efficiently. “That’s always a big initiative for us,” he says, “to ensure that we’re reducing waste and then handling it in the right way.”
As CoreFX enjoys this milestone, Neville reiterates CoreFX’s commitment above all to its customers. “Our customers are our big focus, and our pipeline is our lifeline.” Further, he recognizes the company’s need for innovation. “If we’re not being creative, we’re going to be dead in the water.”
While CoreFX has no plans at this time for international expansion, Neville anticipates that may occur once the American market is secure. He believes CoreFX’s products can improve consumers’ diets and sees the company’s business model spreading internationally. “I think, in time, for sure, what we’re focused on will become very important in other parts of the globe,” he says.
This highlights the company’s much loftier and long-term goal of improving human nutrition. Neville says, “We would like to think that we’re going to enhance people’s well-being by improving what they consume.” Through better marketing and public knowledge, he hopes CoreFX can change consumers’ perspectives regarding processed food items.
He admits the company is working with some fats and oils that, while healthier than traditional offerings, are “not as appealing” in taste as some other oils. “We’ve got to work a lot on making those appealing, as well as good for you.” But with CoreFX’s remarkable team of scientists working to improve human diets, the company is poised to spearhead a change for the better in Americans’ eating habits.