Trader Joe's has long been a favorite among the frugal foodie crowd, but the retailer has been known for being relatively mum about the details of its business.
Now however, executives are giving shoppers a glimpse inside the inner-workings of Trader Joe's, including the tasting panel that tries the different concoctions whipped up for the retailer.
On an episode of its new, five-part podcast "Inside Trader Joe's," executives at the company explain that everything is taste-tested before the brand decides to sell it. (Many of the company's products are made by third-party manufacturers and sold under the Trader Joe's label, according to Eater.)
The tasting panel takes place in a tasting kitchen, which is shrouded in secrecy, says Matt Sloan, the vice president of marketing product at Trader Joe's. He likens it to an interrogation room.
"It's a harsh environment," Sloan says on the podcast. "Fluorescent lighting, gleaming, white countertops, no fun inspirational posters. There's no kitten saying, 'Hang in there,' although maybe we should put that in there.
"There's nothing in there that makes it comfortable. It's like a cold war interrogation booth, because we want the products that succeed to go through this like ultra Darwinian exercise to say they could stand up even to that harshest light of critical evaluation," he says.
On the podcast, Sloan reasons that it's easy to enjoy a glass of wine on Italy's Amalfi Coast, but that the same wine, "tastes differently at 10 a.m. under florescent lights on a Thursday." If that glass of wine is still great in the latter's conditions, they know they've got something good.
"So we want to remove the romance for a little bit," Sloan says.
He explains that tasting panels are also private.
"We want the tasting panel to make decisions on behalf of our customers. So none of our vendors, our suppliers, can buy access or be present or help sway those decisions," he says.
"We once let a newspaper reporter into the tasting panel, and photos were taken only if the tasting panel wore bags over their heads," Tara Miller, the marketing director at the grocer, which is based in Monrovia, California, says.
During the podcast, Sloan and Miller peek in on a tasting panel in progress.
"So [restaurant name bleeped] is known as probably one of the best Italian restaurants in L.A.," says the person leading the panel. "They have a dish there called tagliolini al limone and it's, yes, it's one of my favorites, too. ...
"Our version is made with cream, parmesan cheese, butter, lemon juice concentrate, basil, salt and spices, so very simple ingredient deck. So we would be in this 15-ounce jar for $3.49. This is served with spaghetti and a little bit of shaved parmesan and romano on top and a little bit of pepper. I have the sauce on the side if you just want to taste it."
"The flavors are so bright. ... It's heavy and creamy, but it kind of still tastes light, which is magical," says one panelist after tasting.
The panelists decide it passes muster.
But a cinnamon toast version of Trader Joe's famous Joe-Joe's cookies isn't as popular.
"Does anyone think the cinnamon has something approaching like … it's like Big Red gum," says one panelist, while another agrees the spice is overwhelming.
"If I'm going to promise cinnamon, I want to deliver cinnamon," says the person leading the panel. "But if there's too much, we can definitely back it down."
The executives on the podcast say "membership" on the panel "is granted," and the "diverse array" of people "eat with intention." In a 2006 New York Times report, the secretive panel was described as "the company's best-trained palates."
And when the executives promise the panel tries everything, they're not kidding.
"Someone might say, 'Well, you have dog treats. I mean, who tasted the dog treats?' The dog treats get tasted by panel members' dogs," Miller says on the podcast.
To which Sloan responds, "I will cop to having eaten some biscuits intended for animals other than humans recently, but I can say with conviction, we taste everything."
Whatever the brand is doing, it seems to be working. Trader Joe's is known for developing a cult-like following of customers who love the chain for its dirt-cheap prices and flavorful quality products. A number of chefs have even raved about Trader Joe's products, from its buffalo jerky to its wasabi peas, and the retailer is so beloved by its loyal customers that there are even Trader Joe's fan Twitter accounts. Last year, the grocery store chain was ranked second on Market Force Information's ranking of America's favorite grocery store chains.
In another episode of "Inside Trader Joe's," Miller, the marketing director, recalls the day the tasting panel approved what is now known as the grocery chain's most popular product. It was in 2002, when the panel approved what would become Trader Joe's iconic Mandarin Orange Chicken, which has been the overall favorite Trader Joe's product for nine years in the retailer's Customer Choice Awards survey, according to Miller.
"I do remember the day because it was a phenomenal tasting panel," Miller says on the podcast. "Everyone's like, 'Oh my God, we need to bring this in.'"
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