Before they reach store shelves, food and drinks proposed to be made for Kroger Co.'s brands must pass muster with taste-testers who are paid in nibbles and sips and in-store coupons.
Seven at a time, volunteers fill a row of cubicles down the hall from the lobby at Kroger's downtown Cincinnati headquarters, helping Kroger assess its store-brand lineup, which has nearly doubled in five years. They sit facing slots from which trays emerge with individual samples.
Some furrowed their brows one recent morning, others closed their eyes to savor tidbits of peach ice cream. Then they tapped out answers to multiple-choice questions from a computer about taste and texture and how likely they would be to buy the product if it hit stores. Hundreds of volunteers — local office workers, for the most part — test 500 to 600 possible new products this way each year.
"They usually zip in and out in 10 minutes," said Mayro Kanning, who manages Kroger's taste center. "But when we have pizza, they're standing in line."
In the high-rise's lobby — the building includes law offices and other businesses as well as Kroger's corporate offices — a dry-erase board announces the day's tasting schedule to attract new volunteers and let regulars, who include Kroger employees, know what's on the menu.
Some products are sent to other regions for assessment by volunteers more likely to have the palates they're intended to please — salsa to a panel in Texas and rice milk to Oregon, for example.
The volunteers tasting the peach ice cream put it on a glide path to stores; an earlier version that incorporated pieces of pie crust was dropped. Meanwhile, company officials in marketing, merchandising, supplies and other departments tasted possible Kroger sausage products against national brands in a room nearby and decided which to send on for consumer testing.
About 70 percent of the items that make it to tasting panels pass. Those that seem unlikely to measure up against national brands are reformulated or scrapped.
"You just can't force it," Kanning said.
Sometimes, products already available in stores are brought back for feedback if they're not selling well or customers complain. On a recent afternoon, volunteers checked Kroger's "Southern Style" potato salad against a Southern regional competitor after an Atlanta panel rated the competitor's version better.
The early returns here were similar as volunteers compared the two between nibbles of crackers and sips of water. One woman spit a sample into a napkin. Whether she was saving room for later or simply didn't like the salad, she told only the computer.
Kroger officials now must decide whether to tinker with the ingredients, change the product's marketing, drop it or do nothing.
Experience shows it takes about 100 testers to accurately gauge a product's prospects, Kanning said. Having Kroger employees among the testers doesn't skew the results, she said, because they don't know what company has made each item they taste.
Justin Boyle, a cook at a nearby restaurant, often comes over on breaks to join a tasting panel.
"They usually have some good things, they give me some ideas," he said. "Then they give out coupons for free stuff, and that's always good."