Sita Kacker grew up eating shepherd’s pie, poutine, curry and pineapple upside down cake.
That’s what happens when you come from Indian heritage and grow up in England, Montreal and Oakville, Ont.
Being exposed to all this food diversity eventually influenced Kacker’s career choice, but as a young person she wanted to become a doctor.
Kacker, now 32, studied nutrition and nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph, and followed it with a master’s in human philosophy and nutrition, thinking she’d go to medical school.
But then she took a course in product development as part of her degree. “This is exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she thought at the time.
A friend working in the food industry hooked Kacker up with her first job after graduation. She helped a small gourmet food company develop things like tapenades and flavoured oils for high-end food stores.
Two years later, she got a job interview at Loblaw’s — where Kacker dreamed of working. It was an intensive interview process that included tastings to assess her palate. She got hired in 2005 and is still with the company.
Kacker has worked on a number of different food categories over the last five years. “Now I have the best category,” she says, creating frozen entrees, pizza, frozen fruits and vegetables, ice cream and beer.
Kacker works on a team with a product manager and a quality assurance expert. The food development process starts with an idea, which can come from the numerous books and magazines she reads, other retailers, eating out, Loblaw’s customers, staff and the manufacturers the company works with. And travel: Kacker recently went to Mexico to taste authentic local cuisine and to London to check out packaged foods.
After an idea is proposed and gets basic approval, Kacker starts cooking, either in the test kitchen or with staff at a food manufacturer’s plant. She’ll create numerous versions of the dish and share them with the company’s other product development teams during daily tasting sessions. (If she works on anything Indian she’ll often pass it by her mom to make sure it tastes authentic.)
When the team gives its okay, Kacker will take her recipe to the factory and they’ll do a pilot run of a large batch.
When a product makes it this far and is ready for production, staff that deal with packaging and marketing take over.
And then, for Kacker, it’s on to the next great food idea.