A Peek Inside Walmart's New Culinary Center

The giant retailer has long been a force in food and beverage product development; now it's a true partner.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Walmart Culinary CenterWalmart may not be a manufacturer of food and beverage products, but it's always had great influence over food processors. In June, it took a bigger step in collaboration by opening its Culinary and Innovation Center on the grounds of world headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

"We love perfecting food at Walmart and are proud to be the nation’s largest grocer," says Charles Redfield, executive vice president of food for Walmart U.S. "Our private brands team -- the people behind Great Value, Marketside and the like -- hit a home run by making this new facility a reality. It represents the heart of what we do – advocating for our customers by creating exciting items, ensuring quality and always delivering low prices."

The center's 12,000 square feet house 10 kitchens, including a studio-style chef’s kitchen and replicas of the bakery and deli kitchens found in most of the company stores; a variety of stoves, ovens and microwaves, "so we can cook the same ways our broad customer base cooks at home"; adult beverage testing lab and consumables testing lab; double-sided sensory testing lab that can accommodate 12 individual customer taste tests at a time; and meeting space.

"We’ve had dedicated spaces for testing items [scattered throughout] our home office for years, and Sam’s Club opened a sensory lab in 2010," said a spokesperson. "This facility gives us more room to test and puts all of our Walmart U.S. food and consumables testing areas in one space."

Redfield mentioned Mystery Peeps and Sam’s Choice premium ice creams as past developments that were heavily directed by Walmart, although they predate the culinary center.

One just-introduced product that emerged at least in part from the Culinary and Innovation Center are Hostess Deep-Fried Twinkies. A frozen, ready-to-heat boxed product is coming to more than 4,000 Walmart stores nationwide by Aug. 16. After three months, Hostess may make them available to other retailers.

They're initially exclusive to Walmart because they were developed with Walmart. "When I heard rumblings that Hostess was considering a deep-fried Twinkie, I was intrigued," said John Pearson, senior buyer-frozen foods for Walmart U.S. "Not only was it something different for the frozen aisle, it filled a need, too, as we were looking to add more dessert choices to our mostly savory assortment."

Pearson gave a narrative online: "We set up a meeting with Hostess to discuss the details. Why this product could succeed. How it lines up with our philosophy of making shopping fun and exciting again. How consumer trends tell us to focus on both products that are healthy and overindulgent – those 'sometimes' foods that are so good they’re worth the calories. I talked about the way this product appeals to everyone: from the Boomers who have fond memories of Twinkies as children, to millennials craving a cool midnight snack.

"The first prototypes Hostess brought to our kitchens were a far cry from the product you will see on shelves, but the potential was evident," he continued. "So we continued to give feedback on taste, appearance, packaging and naming, based on tests and what we’ve learned about consumers all over the business. Eventually, we got to the delicious final version now arriving in our stores. And thanks to Walmart, Hostess is growing by entering the frozen food aisle for the first time ever."

Vanilla or chocolate versions of the cream-filled snack are battered and partially fried before being frozen. They need to be finished in an oven, toaster oven or frying pan before being consumed. They're the result of a yearlong collaboration between Hostess and Walmart. Deep Fried Twinkies reportedly have 9g of fat and 220 calories, compared to 4g of fat and 130 calories in a regular Twinkie.

A few of the items currently in testing or development at the center include:

  • Clear American Ice: "Customers told us they are looking for low calorie alternatives to soda," said the spokesperson. "This is a private brand item that launched in March and was developed in about four months. It uses sucralose instead of aspartame, is very low sodium and is low calorie. It is available in five flavors today and sells at half the price of similar items (50 cents vs. $1). A new flavor, Pineapple Orange, was tested in the Culinary & Innovation Center and launches in September."
  • Paleo Meals: "Our merchants came up with the concept and worked closely with a supplier to come up with flavors, develop the product and test packaging. Packaging is vacuum sealed, meaning the food is clearly visible through the packaging. Unlike traditional frozen meals, the paleo meal can be pulled out of the box and placed directly in the microwave without puncturing or venting the film. This meets the needs of our customers on paleo diets and provides the convenience of a frozen meal. These launch in October."
  • Great Value Organics Frozen Meals: "We’re launching our first-ever frozen organic single-serve meals under our Great Value brand this October."