The Talented Tongue of Private Brand.

The Canadian newspaper Metro features a this great article on John Hale, Director of Product Appraisal, he is the taste tester and trainer of tasting panels for the Canadian grocer Sobey’s, this is the man that makes sure Private Brands taste.

Fine-tuning the Canadian customer’s palate

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 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 favorite 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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Christopher Durham is the president of My Private Brand and the co-founder of The Vertex Awards. He is a strategist, author, consultant and retailer who built brands at Delhaize-owned Food Lion, and lead strategy and brand development for Lowe’s Home Improvement. He has consulted with retailers around the world on their private brand portfolios including: Family Dollar, Petco, Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, Metro (Canada), TLW (Taiwan) and Hola (Taiwan). Durham has published five definitive books on private brands, including his first book, Fifty2: The My Private Brand Project. In 2017, he will debut his newest book, Vanguard: Vintage Originals, a visual tour of innovation and disruption in private brand going back to the mid-1800’s. Dynamic in his presentation while down to earth and frank in his opinions, he has presented at numerous conferences, including FUSE, The Dieline Conference, Packaging that Sells, Omnishopper and PLMA’a annual trade show in Chicago. Durham lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Laraine, and two daughters, Olivia and Sarah.