With a great new area to work in and all the resources I need, it’s time for me to switch gears and get back to my Laboratory of Doom ® and begin to develop some new tobaccos. While I’m working on some of these items, I figured that it might be interesting to take you through my process, a step at a time.
The first consideration is the “why?”. What’s the reason for developing the blend? Is it that we’re doing something for a club? Are we filling a gap in our lineup? Maybe I just had an idea that I want to work on. The “why” is most important in regard to timetable. If it’s to be introduced at a show, then there’s a definite deadline for completion. In adding a new blend to our current series, we usually want to have the introduction coincide with a holiday or some other event, like IPSD, so once again, the project has a particular completion date. If I’m just working on a new idea, I’m free to take my time. As an example, Classic Burley Kake and Fusilier’s Ration each took in excess of two years, but Larry’s Blend took fifteen minutes. In any case, the timetable will have an impact on how I proceed.
Next is the goal. Do I have a specific blend type in mind for the project? Is there a request for a certain strength level, aroma or flavor profile? For example, I’m working on a whole product line for a top-secret project. There will be four blends- a Burley, a Virginia, a Latakia mixture and an aromatic. By the way, I love secret projects. I keep hearing “Anticipation” by Carly Simon running through my head when people know that I’ve got something cooking and I can’t give any details.
Once I have the concept for the blend, it’s a matter of selecting the components. This is the part that’s like walking through the woods at sunset. You’ve walked the path before, you have a good idea of where you’re going, but the results aren’t guaranteed. I know what each tobacco brings to the table, but I’m constantly surprised by the result of combinations I haven’t used before. Logic might dictate an outcome, but reality often rears its’ ugly head and expectations go out the window. After each trial comes testing, and though it sounds like fun, tasting some of the mixtures can be torturous, especially if they don’t turn out as expected.
From there, I move to tweaking. I start by adjusting quantities, or adding or subtracting elements. Many times, I’ll hit on what I’m looking for, but on occasion, some little details just won’t work. When that happens, I might try heating the tobacco, pressing it or switching up the method by which it’s put together. In about 95% of cases, I’ll okay the product, but in that remaining 5%, I may decide to go back to the drawing board.
Most of the time, I’ll find people who I think will be interested in the blend to give it a trial run. There are very few people who can test any given tobacco, so it just makes sense to have certain people to analyze Latakia blends, Va/Pers and so on. After the feedback, I may have to rework some element(s) to achieve the desired result.
Next comes the part that bores me, but is absolutely necessary- cost analysis and pricing. I once put a blend together that I was ready to roll out at our standard Hearth & Home pricing. It’s a good thing that Bob Gates had me figure the cost, because at our regular price, we would have lost two dollars a pound. If we come in a little high and we feel that the blend is worth the extra price, we’ll have to set a higher retail, or we may need to rework the blend a little to bring costs in line.
We also have to figure what format it will come in. Is it going to be bulk only, in tins, bags, pouches? There are any number of reasons for the choice, If we’re really not sure if the blend will fly, we might introduce it in bulk, and add tins later if the demand is there. If it’s a higher-end product, we’ll probably do tins only. The big project is, most likely, going to be in pouches because it will be a mass-market item.
This is where we have some fun. The blend needs a name. Sometimes this is taken out of my hands because a pipe club may want to do their own naming. Other than that, it’s kind of like a game of volleyball. We’ll toss out ideas and bat them around until we’re happy. To say that we’re a little unconventional in our approach to naming would be an understatement. Any brand that includes items called Distinguished Penguin and Vermont Meat Candy indicates that the product names are developed by some pretty odd people.
Then we have to design the labels. When we started off, I had to develop the blends and make them, and then design the labels. My efforts were, to be kind, crude at best. Now I have a team of very talented people to handle this part for me, and I couldn’t be happier. At one point, I not only designed them, but I handled the printing and even cut the labels myself. To have professionals deal with these issues, and do so far more quickly, much more efficiently and way more attractively is a dream come true.
The last part comes when we bring it to you. We have to plan the release, prepare the web pages, do the pricing, enter the product in our system and spread the word. From start to finish could be a matter of weeks (yes, we’ve done that before) or it could take years. But at the end of it all, it’s a lot of fun, even though the deadlines can do some real damage to my blood pressure.