Fine-tuning the Canadian customer's palate - Metro US

Fine-tuning the Canadian customer’s palate

For the month of February, Metro’s Workology section will be focusing on some delicious food-related careers. Check back every Wednesday for a new feature.

John Hale has eaten his way to the top of the food chain, parlaying his sensitive palate into a job perfecting the Sobeys store-brand, Compliments.

“I’m a sensitive guy,” the stocky 40-something Yorkshire, England, native says to laughs from a colleague who describes him as “looking like a football hooligan.”

Hale’s tongue was poached from the U.K. supermarket chain Tesco in 2007 when he brought his 25 years of experience to Canada to take up a post as director of product appraisal and product development for Sobeys.

His job is to taste-train members of the public so they can help Sobeys craft a range of delicious dishes. A team of 100 panelists are drawn from the general public and it’s Hale’s job to teach their tongues how to taste over a six-week course.

“When you start off with a customer, they always say, ‘It’s nice, it’s tasty, it’s lovely.’ That’s not really what I’m after — I’m after what’s in that product,” he explains.

He’s not a chef and has never worked as one — he studied chemistry, not culinary — but his exceptional chops have made him a sought-after foodie.

He tends to arrive at work by 7 a.m. and works until 7 p.m., Monday to Friday. “A lot of that’s my choice, because I’m dedicated to what I do,” he says. “There’s a lot pride here — pride in getting really good products out on the shelves.”

Most of his day is spent eating food. Teams of 12 panelists work on a product, with six products sampled in a three-hour session. “We made sure that our products were good enough for our customers and if they weren’t, we put them back in product development,” he says. “To be honest with you, I don’t think I’ve ever packed a lunch.”

While most people think taste comes from the mouth, Hale says in fact the nose knows: 85 per cent of “taste” comes through smell.

Job hazards are hot and spicy foods, which can damage your taste buds, and the constant risk of overeating.

For Hale, his job is a dream come true. “I wouldn’t swap working with food for anything,” he says. And to unwind after work, he turns to his favourite pastime: Cooking.

France is the global hot spot for training people in his job, along with Leeds and Reading universities in the U.K.. In Canada, he cites George Brown College in Ontario.

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