Hail to the chefs

Monday, April 1, 2002

Associated Press/April L. Brown

Cynthia Johnson, a food technologist with Tyson Foods Inc., checked the temperature of chicken strips to verify that they were fully cooked inside a test kitchen at Tyson headquarters in Springdale, Ark., on Feb. 1. The kitchen is one of five inside the research and development facility at the headquarters, which uses the same equipment used by the company's clients to cook Tyson products.By Chuck Bartels ~ The Associated Press

SPRINGDALE, Ark.

In the test kitchens at Tyson Foods, security is so tight that development chefs don't know what their colleagues are working on.

In one area, food developers could be taste-testing a new product for a fast-food chain. In another, they could be fine-tuning another culinary creation for that chain's competitor.

"They're trying to steal market share from each other," said David Beavers, manager of the kitchens.

Tyson is a central point in the competition, and with the longtime chicken producer now selling beef and pork, the demands on its chefs will increase.

"The key is for Tyson to come up with ways that you can apply those principles in pork and beef markets," said food industry analyst George S. Dahlman of U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis. "We'll see the pace of innovation begin to accelerate."

Tyson's world headquarters has five test kitchens. One is connected to an executive-style dining room, where visiting clients can try their products that are still under development. Another has five pass-through windows that open to cubicles where food tasters take blind tests.

To get a look at the facility -- home to secret recipes and black-box food preparation machines -- visitors have to sign a confidentiality agreement. Inside are full-size choppers, shredders, breaders, fryers, freezers (down to minus-200 degrees) and other tools that allow a product to be developed for full production.

Ideas tried at the facility are first cooked up in Tyson's test kitchens or those of the company's clients. The research and development facility eventually develops food for test runs in select markets and a "real world" check to see if the recipes can be turned out in full-scale production runs, said Craig Bacon, a director of research and development at Tyson.

Small batches of experimental products are meticulously prepared at the home office test labs. Spices and other ingredients are weighed out to the 1,000th of a gram. Once the product is worked up to the point where it is in a form to be sent to a restaurant or retail store, the food is cooked on equipment that will be used in the target market, be it a commercial fryer or a home-style General Electric oven.

"It's a blend between culinary and science that we do here," Bacon said.

Winging it

The Tyson chefs were behind innovations that have vastly changed the market for chicken. Once a slow seller, chicken wings have become so popular that Tyson has to look to other producers to meet demand. The company is marketing a trimmed chicken thigh as a lower-priced alternative.

"Wings are definitely a success story," Bacon said. Wings caught on after big pizza chain restaurants put them on their menus.

Walking through the test kitchen at Tyson headquarters, Bacon points out a pizza cooker and explains that the company had to develop a wing product that could be cooked in a pizza oven.

At the research plant, chicken remains the focus of the 49 full-time employees, though beef and pork will soon gain greater prominence. Tyson last year acquired meatpacker IBP Inc. in a $3.4 billion deal. Tyson also has a chicken processing plant in Dexter, Mo.

Acceleration in food development is expected among companies that already compete head-to-head but share the same space at Tyson for development.

"If they didn't trust us, obviously, they wouldn't allow us to participate," Bacon said. "There are some barriers to prevent people from knowing everything."

The secrecy makes for interesting get-togethers.

"At the Christmas party, there were all these people I didn't know," company spokesman Ed Nicholson said.

A plant in Hutchinson, Kan., serves as IBP's current development center. Another Tyson research facility, at Rogers, is where the company does work to develop everything from chicken feed to byproducts that are used in medical science.

There's the beef

Bacon said that, on the food side, he is eager to develop beef products and apply to chicken what he can from the beef world.

"Maybe chicken pepperoni," Bacon said, without a trace of facetiousness.

The company develops products for children and markets them to schools. Ground chicken is pressed into dinosaur shapes or rings. Also, Tyson is selling peanut butter and jelly rolled into tortillas. Another variation is a tortilla wrapped around a chicken pot pie filling.

Popular on college campuses are chicken burgers, a meal that hasn't caught on elsewhere. But Bacon said the burger will stay in the Tyson lineup because the item shows promise.

"Consumers are willing to pay more for a chicken burger," he said.

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