It is a rare chef who invites her guests to spit out her food.
But in the test kitchen of Loblaws headquarters in Brampton, Ont., before presenting a meticulously assembled 12-course tasting menu, executive chef Dana Speers gestures to a stack of paper cups on the steel counter.
"These are the spit cups," she says cheerily. "We use them all the time, so don't feel like you're offending us."
Like sommeliers who could never get through a tasting upright if they swallowed every drop, the product developers standing around this counter are used to discreetly using their cups when sampling items such as caramel Greek yogurt or cake pops. At Loblaws, this is known as "group" – a daily meeting at 10:30 a.m., when the palate is fresher (fatigue sets in by 2 p.m., I'm told). It's where developers judge whether products are ready for market.
This exercise has become more complicated, both for the grocery giant and for marketers trying to win over consumers increasingly influenced by foodie culture. There's an effort to hunt down cutting-edge trends so that, by the time they become big, companies already have something ready to sell to aspiring gourmands.
Foodies' impact on the industry has never been greater. "Particularly over the last five years, we've seen a real, dramatic shift in consumer behaviour as it relates to food," says Robert Carter, executive director of food service at NPD, a market research company, citing a panel that NPD regularly conducts tracking the eating behaviours of roughly 100,000 Canadians. Those behaviours are changing, he adds. "We are in an environment where consumers are so much more educated about the food they're consuming. That's having a real impact on the types of products being launched in the market."
For example, Pinnacle Foods Inc., which owns the Vlasic pickle brand, launched a "Farmer's Garden by Vlasic" line last year that advertises an "artisanal quality" and is sold in Mason jars. Similarly, Canadians' appetite for trendy craft beers, which have enjoyed double-digit sales growth in recent years, has influenced the big brewers. Labatt launched its Alexander Keith's Hop Series ales in Canada this year, following the lead of parent company AB InBev's $39-million acquisition of Chicago craft brewer Goose Island in 2011.
"Everyone is more food interested than they've ever been," says Loblaws vice-president of control brand marketing, Cheryl Grishkewich. Once a niche cohort who would prattle on about the hottest restaurant, foodies are now more loosely defined and Canadians are more aware of, and more fussy about, what lands on their plates.
To capture a share of this growing segment, Loblaws launched its Black Label store brand in Ontario in 2011. After a strong start, it has now expanded to 380 stores across the country, with roughly 250 products that include umami paste, salted-caramel ice cream and white truffle-infused extra virgin olive oil.
"The overarching trend is that Canadian consumers are motivated by innovation, they're motivated by quality, and they're willing to pay for those items," says Carter. Black Label's bestselling products bear that out: They have seen brisk sales in the pastas, which tout their single-source wheat from Italy and are specially cut on bronze dies.
Taking on the mantle of a foodie brand means that already food-obsessed product developers have to work harder to stay on top of the trends than ever before. And at the same time, they have to be careful not to jump on every bandwagon – it's a fine balance between finding the next hot item and becoming too niche.
To draw inspiration, they go where the foodies are. That means eating out in restaurants regularly and attending food shows. But it goes even farther; most trends are informed by international cuisine, and so Loblaws developers spend a lot of time on planes.
Since Peruvian cuisine is "so hot" right now, the vice-president of food product development, Maria Charvat, recently flew south with one of the other developers on a whirlwind tour of Peru "just to dine out and try everything." The octopus ceviche and chicha – a drink made from purple maize – were among their favourites. Cristina Azevedo was dispatched to Mexico to take a class with celebrated chef Rick Bayless. Other chefs, such as Naomi Duguid and Vikram Vij, have been invited to the test kitchen to teach company chefs about food trends.
Loblaws developer Karen Jull, whose specialty is baked goods, recently did a quick trip to New York and visited roughly 15 bakeries in eight hours; she noticed that "pistachio was everywhere" and is now brainstorming what to do with that. And in mid-July, a number of the developers flew to Austin to visit the supermarket chain H-E-B, which is known for excellence in fresh foods. They all came back with bags of products that they will now analyze and discuss. (The addictive chocolate-covered figs did not survive the plane trip home.)
"Refrigerated coffee was everywhere," Charvat says of the Texas trip, so they are working on that, too. "If chilled coffee is not in your product plan, you're in trouble."
Of course, there is also a healthy fatigue among many for all this precious talk about basic foodstuffs. And even the idea of foodie hate has been used by marketers: Earlier this year, Boston Pizza launched a menu of new "gourmet" pastas, including pulled-pork penne, with an ad campaign warning its customers, "Be careful you don't become a foodie."
Even while sneering at foodie culture, the major chains have been influenced by it. Domino's offers "artisan pizzas" with ingredients such as Tuscan salami and feta, and the signature of the pizza maker on the box. Although, like Boston Pizza, the box also mocks the trend with a disclaimer that pizza makers do not "wear black berets.") Burger King, Wendy's, McDonald's and Taco Bell have all added posher-sounding dishes to their menus.
"In order to compete, the chains and independents are battling it out over culinary [development]," says Geoff Wilson, president of food-service consulting firm FSstrategy. Restaurants have already cut costs and can't fight it out by pushing down prices any more, so they have to compete with better-tasting dishes. "Go to five chains and ask for their menu today and their menu five years ago," Wilson says. "It would blow your mind."