Midwest Culinary Experiment

The gourmet scene gets more adventurous all the time, and there’s no shortage of weird ways of serving food, whether it’s an edible menu, a plate of rare ingredients frozen in liquid nitrogen, or sushi portioned onto a naked woman (nyotaimori). But none of those sends quite the mixed gastronomic message of being placed in front of a computer desk, and after clicking on the screen, seeing a gloved hand slide a dish in your direction through a trap door in the wall.

That is until you take the first warm, savory bite of sausage, egg, and cheese and remember that there’s no wrong way to be presented with a breakfast sandwich.

As peculiar as it is to have plates of food handed through a hole in the wall, the first glance at the guts of the operation are nearly as surreal. Through the portal, there is a cramped galley-like corridor with five flapped openings to either side, lit from above with an eerie red light. Three people move back and forth between the corridor and an adjoining kitchen, distributing sandwiches with their gloved hands. This bizarre scene isn’t some type of nouveau clinical-themed restaurant though; the computer room, red-lit corridor, and kitchen comprise Ohio State’s Consumer Sensory Testing lab.

“It’s not beautiful, but it’s very functional,” said Melody Leidheiser, the program’s manager.

The small but tidy kitchen is a busy and efficient hive of activity, as student workers and one part-time employee transition between tasks while the steady beeping of microwaves fills the room. About 80 taste-testing human guinea pigs make their way through the lab in groups of 10 during the day’s experiment and are rewarded for their troubles with a $15 Target gift card.

This particular trial evaluated two versions of similar breakfast sandwiches, but the lab tests far more, including items from Bob Evans, Charlie’s Subs, and Donato’s. The lab helped Speedway identify a new house-blend coffee over the course of two and a half years – several thousand people blind taste-tested various flavor profiles with the goal of finding a product that was equal to or better than what Speedway was currently serving without alienating any existing customers. The company was so happy with the results that a recent commercial featured Leidheiser and the testing center.

The lab has ramped up scientific research for corporate clients since Leidheiser came onboard as the manager in 2008. She gained sensory-testing experience from her previous job with Wendy’s, and the OSU lab now holds panels for everything from fast food and grocery store fare to edible nutritional and medicinal products. They have also asked consumers about packaging options, and Leidheiser said that companies routinely do sensory testing on things as diverse as automobiles and kitchen appliances.

Though OSU’s lab works with clients at many stages of the product-development cycle, Leidheiser prefers to begin right when creative insight sparks a new product. That way she can guide clients through all the decision points, all while weighing consumer opinions against factors like supplier logistics and operational price-points.

“What you don’t want to get to is the very end of your project when you’re ready to launch this, and it’s down between a few different products, and you haven’t tested it on anybody. You don’t really know what they like,” she said. “That’s all we’re looking for: honest feedback from people who say, ‘Yeah, I’d eat this every day, every week, every month, and this is what I expect.’”

In a classroom just around the corner, lead sensory science professor Dr. Christopher Simons teaches a class about olfactory anatomy and physiology. He discusses the loss of smell (anosmia) as well as why aroma is tied so closely to emotional response and memory.

Back in the sensory lab, the student workers sample the foods for themselves to see if they can identify the differences being evaluated. Leidheiser often takes time to review the results of the day’s trial to drive home the connection between theory and actual testing. In this way, the lab combines academic learning with practical experience, from building a survey to food prep, which typically comes with rigorous instructions to replicate the conditions of a restaurant chain’s kitchen or a consumer’s home.

Sometimes the lab even provides a pathway to a full-time career through its work with clients that send representatives to oversee the tests. The interaction with students, who are well-versed in a discipline that is still fairly uncommon in the private sector, frequently leads to internships and jobs.

“I didn’t really know sensory science existed,” said Lisa Budd, a senior who now wants to go into the sensory field after spending more than a year working in the lab. “There’s so many different things that go into it. It’s very detail-oriented.”

The lab also serves as a resource for students and faculty who need help designing sensory tests that will yield useful results for research problems. Many clients and researchers like the lab not just for that expertise but for its location in Columbus, long considered one of the country’s richest test markets. Leidheiser mines its demographics via a detailed online database containing approximately 5,000 willing participants, an idea she pioneered at Wendy’s and brought along to the sensory lab.

“They used to call [Columbus] the ‘Melting Pot of the Midwest’ because we had someone from every subgroup,” she said. “The best part about Ohio State is I not only have the melting group that Columbus has, but it’s exaggerated. There are clubs and groups for every ethnicity on campus – anything you can imagine.”

Just like the thousands of diverse and eager Columbus residents who show up to taste everything from coffee to pizza to frozen oriental food, each of the sensory lab workers has a personal favorite trial. One student tells me hers was cottage cheese, and I can’t help but be thankful I got breakfast sandwiches…no matter how they were served. •

For more information about Ohio State’s Consumer Sensory Testing lab, visitwww.sensorytesting.osu.edu.