Smart Mouth

This Pearl District Research Center Pays Cash for Taste Testers

OSU’s Food Innovation Center helps companies like Salt & Straw tweak their recipes.

By Heather Arndt Anderson and Ramona DeNies July 24, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Hiding in plain sight on NW Naito Parkway is a magical place where scientists pay you to eat food.

Since 1999, the sensory research team at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center—an outpost of the state’s agricultural research powerhouse near the Broadway Bridge—has hired everyday folk to sample strawberries and turkey jerky, poke through fish fillets, and even weigh in on salad dressing packaging. According to director David Stone, the center’s pool of at-will “sensory panelists” is now 34,000-strong. Even so, his team is constantly recruiting new taste buds for sessions that typically last 30 minutes and leave panelists about $40 richer. (It beats selling plasma for beer money—especially if the tasting is, wait for it, beer.)

Over the years, the center has helped a clientele of largely Oregon-based entrepreneurs—everyone from Salt & Straw to Bob’s Red Mill and Brew Dr. Kombucha—tweak new flavors, crowd-test recipes, determine product shelf lives, or gain insight into consumer choices (for example, why some customers prefer fresh fish over flash-frozen). After two decades of research, the results literally line the grocery aisles.

Says Stone: “If you take our product development team into a local Market of Choice or New Seasons, there’s not an aisle you’d go down where they can’t talk about multiple products they worked on with entrepreneurs. It’s pretty cool.”

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