At Innovative Solutions HQ on South William Street, focus group participants get paid €20 to taste food.
When I arrived yesterday morning, I found a big table in the middle of the room where the products were laid out.
I don’t know what we are there to taste, but I see soda bread, crackers, butter, and jam. This looks good, this looks great – anything is fine by me so long as it isn’t fish.
The other participants in the focus group arrive. There are eleven of us: three men and eight women.
We are people of all ages, some neatly dressed some more casual. Many of the others seem to know each other.
The Tasting Trade
“It’s about competitiveness and finding out what is working and not working,” says Don Collins, the managing director and owner at Innovative Solutions.
Some tests are for new products, but many companies also want advice from consumers about how to improve products that are already on sale.
Collins says Innovative Solutions has helped taste-test for lots of big names: the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Pepsi in Cork, and Kerry Ingredients.
They also recruit tasters for Guinness, who undergo six months’ training to recognise 35 different shades of taste. Not many make the cut.
“We interview the potential recruits first, and then screen them for their tasting abilities. Out of 150 people we screen, we’ll hire eight or nine expert tasters,” says Collins.
While Guinness taster sounds like many people’s dream job, Collins says it’s demanding, with validation checks every couple of months to make sure the taster is still tasting well.
A recent advert for tasters for Naked Apple Cider drew thousands of applicants, he says.
They also signed up a group of children to say whether something was yucky or yummy. “We recently ran taste tests for jelly sweets, for which we had to recruit children and we had smiley faces and inverted smileys,” he said.
Collins says these days, they also send products home to people for testing and get them to respond online.
In the South William Street testing room yesterday, each of the tasters sits at a small desk with a computer.
A staff member in a white coat and gloves serves the bread – it’s more operating room than silver service.
It turns out we are tasting a new healthy bread, which is being developed by an Irish company. It’s still top secret until it is officially launched.
First step: a detailed feedback form on what the bread tastes like on its own. Texture? Colour? Crumbliness?
It smells of home-baking, but tastes a bit salty with a glue-like texture.
I have to fight the urge to be polite and complimentary. It’s honest feedback we’re supposed to give, after all.
Feedback forms complete, we are now allowed to toast the bread and add condiments. Buttered and toasted, it is tasty.
A discussion starts and we go through a rigorous dissection of the product.
Ula Wesolowska, the energetic facilitator, outlines why it is healthy. She runs through a string of questions.
“How much would you pay for it?” “Who would buy it?” “Where should it be sold?” “How could we improve it?” “What do you think of the colour of it?”
Some tasters speak more than others. The representatives of the company, five women in total, sit around the room and scribble answers. Wesolowska takes votes on some of the more controversial questions.
When she reveals who makes the bread, most of the group are surprised.
We then examine the proposed packaging, where the symbols should be placed, what colours should be used, and we talk about how to market the product.
At the end of the session, we walked away with complimentary bread, and €20 for our time.
Editor’s note: although we avoid taking gifts from sources at Dublin Inquirer, while reporting this article, Laoise took the payment just like the other tasters, as she’d done the work (if you can call eating toast work).