Chew Innovation CEO on the Future of Food

By Hadley Thompson |  August 9, 2023

When Adam Melonas, the CEO and Founder of Boston-based Chew Innovation, was working with contractors to design and decorate the company’s space, he decided to add an “ideation garage” into the plans. He said the inspiration came from startups that spent their formative years in garages. 

And when he chose a door for his garage, which overlooks Fenway Park, he picked “the loudest one — so everyone knows what’s happening [when they hear it open].” 

Melonas said he brings members of his team together in the ideation garage to begin the process of developing new products. He said the garage’s layout — tables that directly face one another so everyone can look at each other as they exchange ideas — helps encourage open communication and playfulness.

Melonas oversees operations at both Fastfood, a new brand of sports nutrition products, and Chew, an independent food innovation lab that has developed more than 4,000 products since it was founded in 2013. Chew works with large companies in over 25 different food and beverage categories. 

After a tour of Chew Innovation Lab, we chatted with Melonas about food trends, sizing markets, and the pursuit of perfection.

Could you explain your background and how it ignited your desire to start a food company that specializes in nutrition? 

Adam Melonas, CEO and founder, Chew Innovation Labs

Why I got into food was quite simple. My parents always had this business from home, and they never really had time to spend on making great food. It was always an afterthought. …

I always had that itch that I hadn’t scratched yet which was, how do I create impact with food? How do I make this — beyond what I’d contextualize the first phase of my career to be expensive food for rich people — into something where I could truly democratize good food and not only for the top 15 percent of the population, but for the bottom 85 percent? 

What does success look like for you? What are the short-term and long-term goals? 

In this particular market right now, [success] is adjusting faster than the market is. Pre COVID-19, the market was overheated. It was so filled to the brim with innovation. Then COVID-19 rolls around, and it’s almost like we go into the dark ages of innovation again. 

I was asking fundamental questions, “What does the old world have that the new world doesn’t need?” and then, “What does this new world need that it doesn’t have?”

Could you give an example of the importance of communication around innovative ideas and new products within your organization?

That part is… a work in progress. Everything we do is very confidential. In the early days, we used to even silo the internal teams, and it probably took us a couple of years to figure out that there is a difference between true IP and information that can be openly shared out across these teams. There’s a net benefit from that sharing, but there are very clear rules of engagement. 

We use data. We especially try to remove as much of the emotion as possible.

I wanted to get out of the good idea business. I had a realization that we were all, somewhere, complicit or complacent in these tragic statistics of 84 percent of all new products that go to market in the first two years fail.

We use data. We especially try to remove as much of the emotion as possible. We plot it out on a timeline, making sure that we can also demonstrate the level of urgency as to when something should be launched and attract channels of interest. If we can’t show that there is a path to something that’s impactful and meaningful, we just don’t do it.

What do you think about food trends for the second half of 2023?

I’m not a big fan of trends because, typically, trends cost a lot. You’ve got these companies that are always chasing their tails.

I think the extreme still exists, but I see moderation [as] the new trend. We’ve gone through all of those different [diets], like Keto, Paleo, Atkins — all of these different fads that have us either rewarding or chastising ourselves with food, and everything is so extreme. … This middle ground, I think, is the new place people will be. I hope people will learn that it’s not about the micro, it’s about the macro. 

Talk us through how you scout and vet for partnerships with large companies in the food and CPG spaces to solve problems collaboratively.

The picnic-style tables set within the lab.

There’s a little bit of outreach, and there’s a whole lot of inbound. Typically we’ll look at some big movements. For example, everyone’s witnessed what’s been happening in the plant-based meat analogue space. Everybody’s crying that this is the end of the world. We don’t see it like that. 

Once you start to go to the mainstream, you lose the early adopters. The early adopters are the ones who will physically hold their nose to consume a product. … 

That’s what we’re witnessing right now. People aren’t going to consume something just because it’s plant-based. There is an experiential piece that’s missing; it doesn’t taste as good as an 80/20 grass-fed beef burger. We say the category is just beginning. That then arms us with the things that we need for the outreach to say, “You want to be part of wave two, [and] this is what needs to happen.”  

How do you ensure that the products that you’re working on serve a large market, and are scalable in the long-term?

For us, the way that we ensure that they are addressing the largest possible total addressable market size is very simple; we will quantify what it is. What pain point are we solving for, or what opportunity are we solving for? What does that market look like? What are they going to fire in order to hire this product? Is it going to be category accretive, or is it going to be dilutive to the category?

Perfectionism is really just another form of procrastination.

We quantify this upfront. We identify existing technologies. If it’s an internal manufacturing opportunity, we will get our people to put boots on the ground in those manufacturing facilities to make sure we get eyes on specific technology. If it’s not internal, we will then source and find contract manufacturing externally. The only way that we can guarantee the successful output is by making sure that we’ve ticked all of those boxes before we proceed. 

Start with the end in mind first.

What is one thing that you would like people to know about your team or your organization that they might not know already? 

The wall’s decor that leads into the lab.

We don’t believe in perfection. … I think that we’re still in a world that is seeking perfection. We look with such admiration at these perfectionists, and perfectionism is really just another form of procrastination. 

Our responsibility is to continue to tinker on this path of excellence. Perfection is about some mythical destination. I believe in perfection, but I believe it’s fleeting.

In our industry, something that’s considered to be perfect today, [is] imperfect by tomorrow, because we should know something more tomorrow than we know today.