China’s Test Kitchen

Cargill’s new Shanghai Innovation Center is a one-stop-shop for food product development

By Mark Klein December 21, 2017

“Bon appetit,” said Chef Edison.

Edison Tao, lead chef for Cargill Animal Protein China, was cooking a full-course meal at Cargill’s new Shanghai Food Innovation Center. Each course included Cargill ingredients, showcasing how they could be incorporated into a restaurant menu. 

The first course was minestrone soup that used Cargill sunflower oil, followed by a salad course featuring asparagus sautéed in the same kind of oil. The entrée was a Cargill blade steak, pan seared in Cargill oil and topped with a mushroom sauce thickened with Cargill starch. Cargill chocolate and fruit brought the meal to a satisfying close.

He served each course in the center’s test kitchen at a large U-shaped bar, similar to what might be found in some Cargill customers’ restaurants. The test kitchen also has booths and tables, giving customers the ability to visualize how a new food idea would be presented to guests at their establishment. 

But the center is much more than a test kitchen. The 22,000-square-foot facility pools resources from Cargill’s animal protein, refined oils, cocoa and chocolate, starches, sweeteners and texturizers businesses together to be a one-stop-shop for food research and development. There are about 30 researchers, scientists, nutritionists and chefs on staff at the center, which is located about a half-hour drive from Shanghai’s city center.

Families give feedback

A map on the wall of a conference room explains the location: nearby are the China headquarters of just about every food company Cargill would do business with, from quick-serve restaurants to beverage to confections. 

“We’re in a location where we can see the offices of some these customers from our building,” said Sean Pearce, who was part of the team that developed the center. “We can have daily, weekly interactions with our customers, either at their offices or here at the innovation center.”

At the center, customers can sample new products or have a full meal prepared by Chef Edison and his colleagues. They can also can hear about the consumer insights gathered at the center. Almost 1,000 Chinese consumers have signed up to test the taste, smell and texture of new products in the sensory evaluation lab. Across the hall, the test kitchen has hosted consumer events, such as a Mothers’ Day celebration, where families give feedback on what they like and don’t like.

By building an ever-growing database of consumer insight, Cargill is partnering with customers in new ways.

Impressed by Cargill’s insights and speed

Cargill doesn’t just work with multinational customers at the center. The company has also worked hard to engage local Chinese companies in product development and innovation.

One such customer is Uncle Fast Food, which last year decided to test a new chicken product made by Cargill’s poultry plant in Chuzhou.

“One reason we decided to do business with Cargill is what we saw at the innovation center,” said Sun Shunxi, who leads quality for Uncle Fast Food.  “We were impressed by the consumer insights and how fast Cargill could move.” 

Shunxi and others from Uncle Fast Food made their first visit to the innovation center in October 2016. About six months later the chain was testing a honey barbeque roasted middle chicken wing. Six months is an extremely short time in an industry where product development usually takes one to two years. It’s also different from the traditional approach in which the customer brings the product idea to the supplier and leads the consumer research. In this case, Cargill presented Shunxi and his team with dozens of prototypes, plus the market insights that validated consumer preferences.

“It was very systematic and methodical,” he said.

High-end, healthy Chinese foods

Of course, the Cargill team needed to understand how Uncle Fast Food wanted to positions itself in the marketplace. When the chain’s founders began thinking about starting a restaurant business in China 20 years ago, they learned all they could about the management systems of some of the same Western-style chains that Cargill serves globally.

But Uncle Fast Food didn’t want a restaurant that served burgers and fried chicken. They knew it would be hard to beat the food chains that already successfully sold those menu items around the world. Instead they settled on providing high-end, healthy Chinese foods in a quick-service setting.

Uncle Fast Food developed its own cross-bred, farm-raised fish, which is why it includes the image of a fish in its logo. The company touts that its rice is produced in the clean waters of an environmental preserve far from the populous centers of eastern China.

To fortify its egg drop soup, the company explains that its laying hens are fed a special diet to yield eggs with a high level of omega-3. Uncle’s fruit drink uses the Yumberry, a fruit from China known for antioxidant properties. Its chicken wing—cooked, not fried—was developed and produced by Cargill.

“Uncle Fast Food represents what the modern Chinese consumer is looking for in quick service food,” said David Yu, marketing manager for Cargill Animal Protein China. “With our research and development capabilities at the Shanghai Food Innovation Center, we are well positioned to help them grow.”