I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Feeling ill for the Canadian consumer

One rule I want to share with you today. Don't volunteer for things. Even if they seem like really fun things to do.

As you may know, my career has taken a brief diversion away from architecture and into the interesting world of retail. No, I'm not a check-out clerk, but a 'synergy technician', crunching numbers as part of the on-going process to reduce prices in the supermarket chain that I work for. While mostly involving long days in front of a computer, trawling through interminable Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, there are some interesting days away from my clavier and my souris. This morning, a colleague put her head round my door and asked if I would like to take part in a taste test. It was approaching lunchtime, so I said yes.

And now my stomach is hurting.

Taste tests are an important part of our business here. Many suppliers compete to provide our private label (own brand) products. The selection process looks at many things (cost, production capability, delivery costs etc), but by the far the most important is the quality of the product. Quality Assurance tests are carried out to compare products by numbers, but there's still room for the good old fashioned taste test. And today it was the turn of our biscuit suppliers to seduce us.

We tried out a couple of rounds of regular butter biscuits, rating their texture, taste, aroma and appearance with a numeric scale and a box for commentaries. So far, so so good. I learnt that it was not necessary to always eat the whole biscuit to make a fair judgement.

But then the final round approached, and the discomfort began. Being a foreigner, I don't have quite the same connection to this type of product, and in fact had never seen them before moving to Canada. We were each presented with ten maple syrup cream biscuits. British readers will remember custard cream biscuits. These are similar, with two thin biscuits held together by a splodge of processed cream or icing. In this instance, they're made with maple syrup or maple syrup flavours. Apparently these are extremely popular with Canadian children, and inspired images of sitting by the fire in the middle of winter with a big glass of cold milk and a plate of sickly sweet biscuits. That image would work for me, but after five, I was beginning to feel queasy. Other members of the taste panel agreed that this was going to be a difficult category to sample. With so many submissions, we were forced to curtail our reviews before sickness ensued. One conclusion did emerge from the discussion, however, which did not relate to taste. According to my Québecois collagues, the biscuit must be shaped in the recognisable form of a maple leaf. The round ones, even those with little maple leafs stamped on the biscuit, just don't cut it.

I lurched out of the room just as the break for lunch was beginning. I decided to skip my sandwich for now and go for a long walk to try and remove the sickly feeling in my stomach. Round 2 of the taste test will come tomorrow. I will not be volunteering...


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