Lunchables legend

Richard “Rody” Hawkins, a Texas Tech alumnus, came up with the idea of the popular packaged lunch, Lunchables. He then developed his own consulting company, Research Develop and Implement Foods.

At Sam’s Place on Texas Tech campus, one popular food item enables students to make their own lunch.

Lunchables come in many different varieties, some including items to make pizza, nachos, chicken nuggets and crackers with cheese.

More importantly to Tech, these snack packs originated from a Tech alumnus’ idea.  

Richard “Rody” Hawkins attended Tech from 1982 to 1985 and received his Ph.D. in meat science with an emphasis in muscle physiology and meat biochemistry, and went on to work for Oscar Mayer without ever making a hot dog before.

“I never dreamed it would be a big product line as it is today,” he said. “I just knew it could be successfully done.”

Hawkins was recruited to Tech to become a founding member of the meat science program, which he said has grown significantly and is glad to see it thriving today. He said after his graduation, he began looking for a teaching research position.

After searching with no luck, Hawkins had a mind change that involved ditching his initial preference of obtaining a career in academia.

“I begin to think, ‘This is silly,’” he said. “’I’m waiting for a position, and why not go into the industry and see what that’s like?’”

He sent his application to Oscar Mayer, but when asked by employers why they should hire him, Hawkins had no experience with processed meats or sausage manufacturing. He told them he would become familiar with the formulations and processes in a few months, so the employers decided to compromise.

They told Hawkins he would be hired for a six-month review.

“I kept thinking, ‘I need to do something really, really good for Oscar Mayer,’” he said, “in order to secure my position there.’”

Hawkins’ epiphany formed while attending a food technology meeting in Dallas. There, he met the vice president of industrial sales at Kraft Foods and exchanged an important conversation with him, one that would secure Hawkins’ job.

The vice president showed Hawkins a new product Kraft created, which was a package of Handi-Snacks. The package contained crackers, cheese and a red spatula.  

“He said, ‘You know, we’re not the first company to launch cheese and crackers,’” Hawkins said, “’but for the privilege of spreading your own cheese on your crackers, people are willing to pay two or three times more for our cheese and crackers.’”

This idea sounded appealing to Hawkins. In 1986, he immediately began developing a prototype of a tray, and submitted the dimensions to a packaging engineer at Oscar Mayer. A couple of weeks later, the engineer handed Hawkins a tray developed from a wooden mold that is almost identical to the current Lunchables trays.

Hawkins filled the tray’s compartments with crackers, small slices of ham and turkey, two different types of cheese and an Andes mint with an Oscar Mayer logo across it.

He took the model to the marketing team, and told them, “This is what we should be selling.”

The marketing team took the mold, and by the end of the week they begin questioning Hawkins about the success of the product.

“I told him, ‘You don’t have to give me a salary,’” he said. “’Just give me 1 percent of the profits when you start selling them,’ and he laughed at me.”

About three to four weeks later, the marketing team developed a new project using Hawkins idea, calling it Snack Pack — later changing it to Lunchables. They issued the project to Hawkins and another Tech alumnus, Terry Rolan.

Hawkins and Rolan developed the project and then presented it at a test market in Denver.

The results caused high surprise for Oscar Mayer employees.

“It came back with the highest scores Oscar Mayer had ever had on a new product,” he said, “so they got kind of excited about it, but were still worried it wouldn’t be a success.”

Instead of launching the project nationally, Oscar Mayer decided to release it only in Washington State, that is, until a competitor entered the picture.

Bryan Foods, owned by Sara Lee, came out with their own version of Lunchables and began releasing it to market.

Oscar Mayer refused to let Bryan Foods take the lead, though.

“They ramped up production,” he said, “and they jumped from Washington State to the Southeast and started flooding the market with Lunchables.”

This is the best thing that could have happened to Lunchables, Hawkins said.

“What turned out to be a product that wasn’t making a lot of money in the beginning became a big success because of competition,” he said. “Competition makes you work harder, and that did.”

The name of the product changed from Snack Pack to Lunchables because the product empowers people to make their own lunch, Hawkins said. As the popularity of the product grew, so did the variety of foods contained in Lunchables.

The many necessary compartments of the trays even caused Lunchables to be sent before Congress as an example of one of the most over-packaged items on the market, Hawkins said.

“I thought that would hurt it, but it actually got it more notoriety,” he said, “and people were actually wanting to see what it was, so they started buying it.”

At one point, after Oscar Mayer merged with Kraft Foods, Hawkins said the vice president of marketing and sales for Kraft named Lunchables as the No. 1 new product of the past 20 years.

“I thought it was kind of ironic for two things,” he said. “One was Kraft didn’t own Oscar Mayer when Lunchables was launched; however the idea of what the marketing angle was for that product actually came from Kraft.”

Although Lunchables is a product developed by Hawkins, he has never actually enjoyed a fully packaged one.

“There’s no such thing as a free Lunchable,” he said. “I always joke about that.”

One and a half years after he developed the concept of Lunchables, Hawkins left Oscar-Mayer to begin working for GoodMark Foods because he became interested in shelf-stable meat. His work there, such as extending the shelf life of Slim Jims, led the U.S. military to ask Hawkins to help expand its technology and develop long-time shelf meat in 1993.

He has worked for the U.S. military ever since, helping develop meat-filled sandwiches and pies that can last up to three years. They are distributed to disaster victims as well as militaries in the following countries: U.S., Britain, Scandinavia, Turkey, Italy and France.

Hawkins left GoodMark Foods after four years to develop his own consulting company in research, titled Research Develop and Implement Foods. Now and for the past 10 years, this company is contacted by various food companies and manufacturing facilities concerning assistance with technical problems or developing new products.

“What I enjoy about it is solving these hard problems that other people cannot solve or have a hard time solving,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling.”

As Hawkins continues to work for his jobs and other confidential projects, he said he credits his success to Tech.

“I’m very proud to say I’m from Texas Tech,” he said. “They promoted entrepreneurial spirit, and I think that helped make Tech a little more special.”

Students should not be afraid to follow their dreams, Hawkins said, and always ask questions.

“Don’t think there is only one way to solve a situation in front of you,” he said. “There’s always another way to do something.”

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