Whole Note Food Company
Creating an app to manage the manufacturing and supply chain processes for a start-up food company
My dad was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2006, which meant no more of many of the foods he loved — pizza, pancakes, muffins, anything with gluten. He was bummed out, but he had always been interested in food, so he began trying to recreate some of his favorites without using wheat. After all, he figured, he had the rest of his life to work on it.
By 2012, after years of trial and error, his recipes had gotten really good. When my mom shared some of his baked goods with autistic students at the school where she volunteered (many of whom couldn’t have gluten), the parents excitedly asked where they could buy this stuff. They were really disappointed to learn that they couldn’t! That got my parents thinking, and they decided to start Whole Note Food Company, so that more people like my mom’s students could enjoy the gluten-free baking mixes my dad had invented.
In 2013, after a year of selling locally and online to an enthusiastic response, the mixes were ready to go into grocery stores. I joined the company around this time, and the biggest project I helped tackle was to upgrade our manufacturing process. Everything had been done manually up to this point — from blending the flours together to writing down orders — since it was a small-time operation. However, this clearly wasn’t going to work at the scale that grocery stores would require.
As part of this effort, my dad thought it would be nice to have an iPad app that our manufacturing workers could use to step through the recipe of whatever product they were making. We had been relying on print-outs of the ingredients and amounts we needed when mixing a batch of product, but as we learned the hard way, it was very easy to lose your place and skip an ingredient, or add one twice.
I had previously been working as an app developer, so this was a pretty simple project.
However, as I participated more and more in the manufacturing process (we all wore many hats at this stage of the business), I realized that the app had much greater potential.
As a food manufacturer, there was a lot of information we had to track: product inventory, ingredients inventory, ingredients needs, orders, incoming deliveries, gluten tests … the list seemed to go on and on. Most demanding of all, however, was batch code tracking.
If you’ve ever noticed what looks like a random string of letters and numbers on the side of a product, that’s a batch code. Manufacturers use them to track each item they produce and record information about it — when it was made, what it contains, and where it went. This is essential in the case of a recall. The manufacturer has to know which of their products are compromised and where they went so that the people who bought or sold them can be notified.
For us, this meant that, for every batch of baking mix we made, we had to write down the batch code for each ingredient that went into that mix, then record them all in an increasingly massive spreadsheet. It wasn’t exactly difficult, but it was tedious in the extreme.
I longed for something that could handle this for me, and one day I had a thought: maybe the app I built to display our recipes could do it. After all, each ingredient popped up right there on the screen — why not record its batch code there as well? It would have to be synced to a back-end service so that we could have a spreadsheet with all the information, but this was doable.
I then realized that if the app could do this, it could do a lot more — all of our data were recorded in spreadsheets. And since all of these data were interrelated, the app could update them simultaneously and intelligently.
In other words, it could manage all of the record-keeping for our manufacturing, supply chain, and quality assurance processes.
As someone who had been slogging through spreadsheets for weeks on end, this was extremely appealing. My dad was also enthusiastic about the idea, seeing that it had the potential to make scaling up our operations much easier in the future.
Before diving into such a large project, I surveyed the market to see if there was an existing solution that we could use. However, nothing really fit the bill. Most programs were very complicated and expensive, designed for operations much larger than ours. These would have been overkill for us, not to mention way outside our budget.
We also had some unconventional needs — for instance, in order to be certified gluten-free, we were required to test specific batches of our products and ingredients for gluten. By building our own software, we could customize it to exactly fit all of our needs.
I was already familiar with our operations, but I sketched out a diagram of the whole process to ensure that everything would be accounted for.
Defining the Scope
The first question was how much the app should do. Should it pervade every aspect of our operations, or should it focus on one or two key areas? To help answer this, my dad and I sat down and made a list of the biggest pain points we had faced thus far that the app could potentially address.
I translated these pain points into a list of requirements that served as a guide for the scope of the app and dictated what key features it should have.
I next created some basic mockups in Sketch for how the app could be laid out. The requirements for the app distilled down to two concepts:
- Take Action — Mix a new batch of product, with the relevant data automatically updated
- Get Information — Quickly view important data, with the ability to edit them
I therefore made the home screen of the app a table view with two sections — one for taking action, and one for getting information.
The screen guiding the user through mixing a batch — now accessed by tapping “Mix” — didn’t need to change much from the original app. It still had big, tappable buttons to move between steps and large-print displays of the ingredient and amount for each step.
I designed the screens that showed our most important data to be easy to read. For data with many components, like orders that were shipped, only the most basic information was displayed on the first screen. Users could tap individual items to get more details.
With this basic structure in place, I created user flow diagrams in OmniGraffle to work out every single screen each section of the app would need, and then I started coding.
Once the app was complete, we tested it by deploying it live in our operations. We were small enough at this stage that if there were any errors, they could be quickly caught and dealt with, and wouldn’t cause any major problems.
Overall, we were really happy with the results. Instead of diligently filling in scads of spreadsheets, the app now effortlessly took care of this for us. And instead of going into the storeroom and counting boxes and bags, we could now just whip out our phones to see how much of our products and ingredients we had on hand.
After mindfully using the app for a few weeks, one way to improve it became clear to me. There were certain tasks we did repeatedly that were more cumbersome than necessary.
For example, one of these was recording orders that we shipped out. We would often open the app solely for this purpose. To start this, however, you had to tap “Orders”, then tap the “+” button to create a new order.
This was only two taps, but we did it frequently enough that I noticed it was annoying. There was more friction than necessary when trying to use this feature.
I realized that the fundamental cause of this friction was that the data-editing functionality resided in screens accessed in the “Get Information” section. It made sense for these functions to be there, alongside their data; however, whenever we opened the app for the express purpose of recording some information, it felt more natural to go to the “Take Action” section to accomplish this.
To remedy this problem, I added shortcuts to our three most common tasks in the “Take Action” section on the home screen. This made it much easier to open the app and quickly complete one of these tasks. I also removed the “Mix” action on the iPhone, since we used this exclusively on the iPad at our factory.
Overall, the app has been immensely beneficial to our business, helping us easily stay on top of our manufacturing and supply chain needs. It has allowed us to expand from a single Whole Foods location in the Houston area to a variety of stores across the country without making any major changes to our processes.
The app makes training employees much simpler as well, and helps guard against the errors that tend to come with bringing in new people. All of this has freed us up to devote more attention to other aspects of our business — a huge boon for a tiny company with limited time and resources.