In the Safeway Culinary Kitchens in Dublin, executive chef Jeff Anderson and his team explore new ways to bring food to the table and establish farm-to-table avenues for fresh products.
Like most kids, Anderson grew up eating watermelon on hot days, sharing it with friends, and instigating seed fights and distance-spitting contests.
After cooking in high-end restaurants, Anderson thought he knew everything about his favorite summer fruit.
Then, as executive chef of Safeway Culinary Kitchens, Anderson began visiting the company's network of farmers across the country, and soon realized he knew very little about watermelon and other produce.
For 60 years, Perry and Sons has delivered watermelons to the nearby Safeway distribution center, destined for Western region stores. When Anderson toured the Perry and Sons farms near Manteca, he got a reality check.
"Watermelon is fussy," Anderson said. "They only grow in sandy soil and won't grow on the same soil beyond one year. Growers like Art Perry are constantly on the lookout for the best ways to grow watermelon."
Anderson's job at Safeway is to learn about all ingredients -- albeit fresh, dried or preserved from around the world -- to conjure up ideas for deli items and private label foods.
Three years ago Anderson helped launch the facility dubbed the Safeway Culinary Kitchens in Dublin as the development center for new products. The chef is supported by a team of 10 culinarians who are likewise focused on food -- cooking, tasting, testing and re-imagining products for the company.
There are big changes in store for Safeway. Headquartered in Pleasanton, the country's second-largest grocery chain with over 1,300 locations is slated to become part of Cerberus Capital and merge with Albertsons at the end of the year. It would be some time before major changes are seen at individual stores.
Meanwhile, in the Culinary Kitchens, Anderson and his team explore new ways to bring food to the table and establish farm-to-table avenues for fresh products.
To grasp the amount of research and development that goes on behind the scenes at the kitchens, it's helpful to know that Safeway sells over 15 branded items from Lucerne and Snack Artist to O Organics and Eating Right.
Every week Anderson and his team review an average of over 30 products in various stages of development, study competition offerings, meet with vendors and arrange the operational details for producing items on a large scale. There are also retail training videos and visits to the stores and farms like Perry and Sons.
Anderson feels at home walking the fields with Art Perry, who is a third generation Perry farmer.
Anderson's family also had roots in the food business. His grandfather was a food broker who started by buying produce off the dock and selling to small stores. Anderson had a spoon-wielding Italian grandmother who wanted to shoo him out of the kitchen but never quite succeeded.
Gold standard kitchen
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Anderson worked as a chef in high-end San Diego and Dallas restaurants and then owned two restaurants.
An East Bay resident, Anderson brings a high culinary mission to his work with the grocery chain. He implemented "gold standard" methods in product development.
"We aim to make the best-in-class food whether it's barbecue spare ribs or salad dressings. If we are one of the first to bring a new product to market, it needs to surpass expectations," Anderson said.
To achieve these goals, Anderson influenced the company to build the 5,000-square-foot Culinary Kitchen in Dublin.
The pantry shelves super-size depending on what is tested. For a new sauce, 10 types of onions may be on the shelf and test blends line up in covered bowls.
With a flexible layout of cooking equipment, the cooking area simulates the larger production environment. The kitchen also contains what Anderson calls the "store set" -- equipment matching the bakery and deli sections in Safeway stores where the clerks prepare and present the food.
An important feature, Anderson added, is the "home kitchen" room where an array of microwaves, gas and electric stoves are used to ensure consumer prep instructions match reality.
A panoply of products are born in the Culinary Kitchen.
Anderson and his team developed healthier deli options such as quinoa and flaxseed crusted chicken and salads in vinegar-based dressings rather than mayonnaise.
Open Nature products with all natural ingredients, Eating Right healthier options and O Organics undergo development in Dublin. Recent additions to the produce section featuring increasingly popular kale include O Organics baby kale salad with sweet onion Dijon and Safeway Farms Cafe Bowl baby kale salad with raspberry chipotle.
A newer Safeway-produced brand such as Marcela Valladolid experiences the gold standard steps.
Safeway sells products from Valladolid, a chef and Food Network personality of the "Made in Mexico" show, including ready-to-cook meats such as carne asada with beef skirt steak seasoned with orange, garlic, onion and oregano.
Anderson recalled the "simple" task of finalizing the Valladolido salsa recipe, saying, "It took eight iterations to pass all our sensory tests for the salsa to be ready for the stores."
Being in the field with farmers inspires Anderson and his team to think of new recipes. A special watermelon and feta cheese salad appeared in the deli case as a result of visiting Perry and Sons.
Accompanied by colleague Carlos Weil, culinary director at Safeway Culinary Kitchens, Anderson attends restaurant and specialty food trade shows and flavor conferences at the Culinary Institute looking for food trends and emerging consumer interests.
Sometimes he and Weil simply walk around a Safeway store in Pleasanton or Dublin for ideas.
"With all the colorful summer produce on the shelves, I think of ways to capture farm-fresh vegetables in a new way. Street food and layered foods are popular now, so I've made layered produce in Mason jars," said Anderson, who named his experiment "Mediterranean Picnic Salad in a Jar." Not all his testing ends up as a branded product. Sometimes the team's experiments end up as recipes for the website and Facebook page.
His drive to create flavorful food that people will eat -- while ensuring it can be produced and distributed to the highest standards -- fills Anderson's plate.
Yet he and Weil continue to troop around the farms to be inspired.
Did you know, Anderson asked, "Art Perry and his team go through the watermelon fields picking three times to ensure only the ripest melons are taken in each pass?" Still fascinated with watermelons, Anderson then started talking about his new watermelon and black bean salsa.
One never knows what will graduate next from the Safeway Culinary Kitchens.