In Bentonville, Arkansas, there’s a building where delicious things are happening. It’s the Culinary & Innovation Center — just opened in June — where Walmart’s private brands team is developing new items, testing them to ensure they meet customer needs, and showing that the same results can be easily achieved in stores and in homes, all in one facility.
Here's an inside look at how it all works.
Theater-Style Kitchen: Outfitted with a variety of equipment and a central prep area surrounded by room for an audience, this kitchen is used to experiment with different recipes and demonstrate cooking techniques — in person or in videos — to associates who will create the dishes back at their store.
Kitchenettes: These six meeting spaces are perfect for meetings with suppliers to evaluate new products. Each kitchenette is equipped with ovens and microwaves, with ample space to prepare and taste a large selection of products at once.
By working with suppliers firsthand, we can pinpoint what product elements need improvement. Our merchants can then work out a strategy to address the issues and make sure the products are still delivered at the best price and value.
Sensory Lab: This is where tastings occur. In a kitchen, the center’s staff load prepared items into a revolving chamber. On the other side, tasters open the chamber to get access to the item and input their impressions on a computer. This helps ensure the tests are done blind, and kitchen staff can keep track of what tasters have tried.
Tests can happen quickly and don’t always focus on taste alone. If complaints come in from store associates about a particular product, staff can pick up samples in the morning and have a tasting by the afternoon to address any problems and begin working on a solution. For example, after hearing that a recent spice packet was tough to open, staff brought samples to the lab for testing. The problem (too much glue) was identified quickly and fixed in the first production run.
Meet the Tasters: Tasters are usually Walmart home office associates who volunteer. They’re screened based on tastes and preferences.
And the Tasting Monitors: Tastings are carefully monitored by associates like Angela Hebert, senior sensory manager. “I encourage tasters to give as much information as they can, even if it sounds crazy,” Angela said.
Innovation Room: This kitchenette is for testing and demonstrating new products that Walmart’s product experts believe will meet customer needs based on marketplace trends. Here they test samples and deliver feedback to suppliers on how to make the products as delicious as possible, all while keeping costs low.
Consumables Lab: This area tests non-food items: everything from Great Value cleaners to Equate items, Pure Balance pet food and Parent's Choice baby products. Packaging and presentation are evaluated, and to keep costs down, cleaning products that are tested in this room – like detergents – are used on the center’s linens.
Results in Stores: Keep an eye out for Marketside Applewood Bacon Seasoned Loin Filet. Every element of it, from its flavor to its packaging, was developed by the team at the Culinary & Innovation Center—and associates helped find the perfect flavor.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Walmart World, the magazine for Walmart associates.