Last week, our family was in Southern California so that my son could experience being a Nestle "Flavorologist for a Day." What, you may ask, is a Flavorologist? Well, that’s one of ten kids who invents a cool new ice pop flavor and wins a trip for four to Bakersfield, California, for a visit to the world’s largest ice cream factory.
B., my older son, invented a flavor called Bee Sting -- a combination of honey and sour lemon. Even though I advised him that more than one entry would increase his odds of winning, he stuck with just that one. I later learned that Nestle received more than 8,000 entries! I wasn’t sure what to expect of the trip, but it exceeded any of my preconceived notions. (Sorry, this gets a bit long.)
Thursday: Welcome to Bakersfield
When we arrived at the airport, a driver was waiting in the baggage claim area with a sign with B.’s name on it. After we got our luggage, we walked outside to find that a stretch limousine was waiting there to take us to the hotel. This was really big stuff for the kids! The limo was even stocked with pop for us to enjoy.
When we checked in at the hotel, we were surprised to find that Nestle had reserved two adjoining rooms for us. This was my turn to be excited! Our travel budgets don't allow us to do that, so that was a huge treat. During our down time, I loved not having to listen to Pokemon or whatever they were watching on TV.
Our first official event was dinner at John’s Incredible Pizza, which I can only describe as a Chuck E Cheese on steroids -- better food and more fun stuff to do. Our private room was lined with posters that had a picture of each child, the flavor they had invented, and a picture they had drawn of the pop. We were introduced to the head taster at Nestle (yes, there is such a job), John Harrison.
John explained that he wore a lab coat to work every day. Then he presented each Flavorologist with his/her own lab coat that had been embroidered with his/her name, flavor, and the year. In addition, every member of the family received a white t-shirt with the Flavorologist logo in the front, along with that family member’s ice pop flavor on the back. Needless to say, the kids were thrilled.
It was all we could do to coerce the kids to wolf down a piece of pizza, because there was lots of great stuff to do! Adults and kids were all given cards for playing games, riding bumper cars, and driving go-karts. It was a blast.
Friday: Fun at the Factory
On Friday morning, a bus arrived to take us to the plant. On the way, John Harrison asked us trivia questions about ice cream – and people who guessed the right answer got coupons for free ice cream. One question of note: Who invented Cookies & Cream ice cream? The answer: John Harrison himself! That sealed John’s celebrity status among kids and adults alike!
We were greeted at the plant with balloons and a big "welcome" sign. Employees cheered as the young VIPs entered the building. After that, it was time to suit up for our plant tour. We donned hair nets (and beard nets for the men), hard hats, protective glasses, ear plugs, special coats, and booties. You think I’m going to post a photo of me in that getup? Think again!
We toured the plant in small groups; ours was led by John, the plant manager. The plant was spotlessly clean, all shiny stainless steel. We saw many products being made, including Drumstick cones, Dibs bite-size ice cream snacks, peppermint ice cream, ice cream sandwiches, fruit bars, and Skinny Cow low-fat ice cream sandwiches. We tasted the products as we toured. John told us to feel free to take a bite and discard the rest. Yeah, right. By the end of the tour, I was practically shaking from the sugar buzz.
A few random surprises:
- The plant wasn’t cold.
- There wasn’t an overwhelming smell in the plant. When you were up close to an individual line, you could smell chocolate or berry, but it wasn’t pervasive.
- The cookies for ice cream sandwiches are very hard and crunchy when they come off the line. In the package, the cookies absorb moisture from the ice cream, which softens them.
John was clearly proud of the plant and was enthusiastic about sharing it with the kids. D. asked John how they melted all the chocolate chips for the melted chocolate on the Dibs and Drumstick lines. John not only explained that they buy the chocolate already melted, but he also took D. over to the vat of chocolate, opened it, and lifted him up so he could see inside. I resisted the urge to follow along and dive in.
Next was a presentation from flavorists that work for IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances), a company that makes the flavors Nestle uses in its products. They started by asking everyone to describe the five basic tastes. They heard sweet ... salty ... sour ... bitter ... and... silence and scratching of heads...
“Umami,” I piped up. Yep, the fifth kind of flavor is umami (pronounced oo-mommy). It’s described as a meaty or savory flavor.
I could see Tom’s eyes roll to the back of his head.
“Yes, I’m the Rain Man of food,” I whispered. “Umami ... definitely umami.”
Anyhoo... IFF had flavors for the kids to taste. Then they were given instructions for mixing some together and then guessing the flavors. Fruit punch and bubble gum were especially tricky.
Next, we went to a different room to taste some wacky flavors that Nestle had created. I tried gingerbread, which I enjoyed, although the flavor seemed incongruent with the ice pop texture. I passed on tasting dill pickle and macaroni & cheese, but was goaded into trying the cheeseburger pop. Yes, it tasted like a cheeseburger, complete with pickle and mustard ... but it was just plain awful. Worse yet, the flavor coated your mouth and stayed with you. I drank quite a bit of water to get rid of it. (B. didn't like it, either.)
Next, we broke up into groups to visit the labs where ice pop products are developed. The room we entered looked just like a high school chemistry classroom, complete with beakers and pipettes. The kids were instructed to measure a certain amount of base (which was like simple syrup) into a beaker and then they could choose from five fruit flavors to add. Next the kids added colors, also measuring precisely using pipettes. Once that was done, they poured their concoctions into molds, which would be frozen for them to try. B. and D. mixed several flavors together and colored the pop a bluish green.
Then it was time for lunch in an outdoor tent. True to form, Nestle had some surprises in store. We were greeted at the door by Scooby Doo, who escorted us to the tent. Lunch was basically sandwiches (including PB&J) and salads. It felt good to dilute some of the sugar in my system.
After lunch, we heard from John Harrison about his job. He inspects every batch of every product for three criteria – appearance, texture, and flavor. If he finds a batch that isn’t right in some aspect, he has to take samples from every pallet of that batch to figure out where the problem occurred.
After John spoke, the kids took turns tasting the ice pops they had concocted in the labs. They went into a long room that is used for consumer testing. It was divided into cubbies. The kids were handed their pops through a little door. B. and D. gave their blue-green pop a thumbs-up. I was surprised that the color looked nicer than it had as a liquid.
While the kids were tasting their pops, some of us parents grilled John Harrison about his job. A few tidbits:
- John doesn't swallow the ice cream he tastes on the job.
- He uses a gold spoon for tasting, because it gives him the truest flavor and it doesn't tarnish.
- "Slow Churned" isn't a marketing slogan. It is a manufacturing process that makes the texture of low-fat ice cream as creamy as the regular stuff. (I'm a fan of Edy's Slow-Churned French Silk ice cream, which we weren't lucky enough to enjoy there.)
The final item on the agenda was tasting the Flavorologists’ creations. Tables were set up for each flavor with a poster and a pile of the ice pops. One flavor at a time, a Nestle person read the description of the pop, and the Flavorologist told everyone how he/she came up with the idea. The Flavorologist then opened the paper and tasted his or her creation, and said whether or not he/she liked it. B. was second. When he ripped it open, he saw that it was a yellow and black swirl that looked pretty cool. The surprise of his pop was that they had added a substance that would briefly cause your tongue to tingle. He was thrilled with it.
Once the Flavorologists had had their turns tasting their own pops, everyone got a chance to taste all of the flavors. Our family's reviews:
- B. loved his (he ate three of them). He also liked Lemon Meringue O’Tang, Bananasaurus Rex, Pink Princess Fluff and Snickerdoodle Dandy.
- D. tried all of them and gave them all a thumbs-up -- well, except for the Pizza Pop. (That’s him taking his tasting very seriously. The Bee Sting pop is on the left.)
- Tom’s favorite, besides Bee Sting, was Snickerdoodle Dandy.
- My favorite, besides Bee Sting, was Lemon Meringue O’Tang, which tasted just like lemon meringue pie, and was served with cups of graham cracker crumbs for dipping. I liked it so much that I was cajoling the Nestle people to manufacture it.
After that, the buses took us back to the hotels for some down time (and, for several kids, swimming time).
Friday Evening: A Super Celebration
The final part of Friday’s festivities was an awards banquet, and once again Nestle made it a great event for children and parents alike. Cotton candy, face painting, and several board games were set up to amuse the children. One buffet line served kid fare like hot dogs and mac and cheese, and a second line had a beef and a chicken entree as well as salads and side dishes. There was even a beautiful tray of non-ice cream desserts.
For the awards ceremony, the Flavorologists were presented with a certificate, plus a Flavorologist backpack containing coupons for free ice pops, a $1,000 savings bond, and several surprises (I don’t want to give everything away for people who go in the future). Most everyone was delighted to hear that they would be receiving some of their own ice pops in the mail. Plus, we were told that Nestle would be in touch to arrange ice pop parties for each Flavorologist’s school!
Want to be next?
I’ve heard through the grapevine that some kids from both of my sons' schools are already at work on ice pop flavors to enter next year. I’d REALLY encourage them to enter (assuming Nestle continues with the contest next year). It’s a lot of fun, you learn interesting things, and you get to take home cool stuff. (If Mom or Dad are super serious about healthy eating, and will get nervous about a day with a lot of sugar, this probably isn’t the trip for them. Take Grandma or Grandpa instead.)
Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Invent a flavor that you would actually be excited about eating – because you will! In other words, you probably don’t want to invent the “vomit pop.”
2. Once you think of flavors you like, think about a really fun name to go with it. As an example, “Lemon Meringue Pie” is a good idea ... but “Lemon Meringue-o-Tang,” one of this year’s winners, is even better!
3. Look at this year’s winners. You don’t want to repeat what’s won in the past.
4. I’m sorry to say ... it’s for kids under the age 12, so some middle schoolers won’t qualify next year. But Nestle holds other contests; go to its ice cream Web site to look for them!
5. Enter even if you only have one good idea. That’s all it took for B. to win!