Trader Joe’s ‘Top Secret’ Tasting Panel

How pickiness became key to success
Trader Joe's Pasadena
Photograph courtesy of Trader Joe's

In Trader Joe’s most recent podcast, Episode 28, marketing team members Tara Miller and Matt Sloan reveal the inner workings of the Monrovia, Calif.-based retailer’s tasting panel, comprised of a cross section of Trader Joe’s crew members whose primary goal is objectivity.

“That’s important,” said Sloan, regarding the panel cocoon. “There’s no vendors, there’s no outside-the-fold people involved. These crew members are different from the people developing the products. They’re different from the category managers. We want that degree of objectivity.”

The crew members, who represent a broad cross section within the company, are simply looking for products that taste good, he added. Trader Joe’s strives for 70% agreement among panelists before bringing a new product in. “We want more than a simple majority. We want this to have an overwhelmingly good chance of succeeding,” Sloan explained.

Once a product makes it through Trader Joe’s innovation and development teams, it has to “get past a very picky panel of tasters to get one final ‘OK,’ ” said Miller.

During the podcast, Sloan and Miller sat down with tasting panel members to debate the merits of lentil-based papadum crisps. Are they too fragile for transport, asked a panelist. Can they put it in a slightly more rigid bag, asked another. The team ultimately decided to revisit packaging before committing to the product.

Up next? A protected designation of origin cheese from Lancashire, U.K., called Beacon Fell. The team discusses a $3.99 price point for a 5-ounce piece with a 90-day shelf life. A show of hands reveals the cheese will be on the shelves of Trader Joe’s stores next spring.

As the panelists considered new organic almond butters, the conversation turned to consumer confusion in the category. Trader Joe’s currently offers six different almond butters, but no organic options, as well as 11 peanut butters, including four organic examples. Both organic salted almond butter and organic unsalted almond butter were voted in almost unanimously.

Finally, a carne asada burrito that contained too much black pepper at a tasting the week before was reformulated and will make the cut into the grocer’s frozen case in the near future. During the podcast, a Trader Joe’s product developer pointed to this as an example of how the company’s product developers and tasting panel enjoy a collaborative and opinion-filled relationship.

“So much of the product development work is really about developing an awareness and an understanding between Trader Joe’s and that supplier and that vendor?” Sloan asked. Of course, COVID-19 has further impacted this relationship and need for understanding. It’s also thrown a few obstacles into the tasting panel mix.

As such, the grocer is asking its panel to taste individually, gather their thoughts and review the information via video conference call. And while the beginning of COVID-19 saw product development slow at Trader Joe’s, the grocer says its back in business.

For calendar year 2020 through the month of June, the grocer has introduced almost 300 new products, excluding beer, wine, spirits, plants and flowers. It reportedly has a little over 250 remaining products in the works for the balance of the calendar year and plans to improve its sourcing from black-owned businesses moving forward.

“We have … a goal to have 15% of the products that are presented at the tasting panel come from black-owned businesses,” said Sloan, who added that about 15% of the country’s population is Black. “We’re not saying we’re going to stop at 15%; we’re saying at least 15%,” added Miller.


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