Compared to the other fairly standard buildings in Tesco’s Welwyn Garden City complex, the Heart building looks like something out of a Silicon Valley start-up. The oval-roofed structure makes extensive use of glass to create a bright, airy environment – one that is very different from the former facilities in Cheshunt.
Entering the atrium, visitors are greeted by a tiered, Google-esque auditorium. This can be used for presentations and food demos, as we are informed by Martyn Lee, executive chef for product development, who guides us round the facility.
But the decor elements are of minor interest compared to the New Food Experience area, created to optimise NPD.
Central to the open-plan layout are 15 countertops where product developers work with food technologists and buyers to create SKUs for launch.
There are specialist setups, including one for beer, wines and spirits that has plumbed-in spittoons and temperature-controlled storage.
Next door to this, the Tesco Labs room features gadgets of the future, emulating what the modern home might look like with all the latest tech, from Wi-Fi enabled appliances to voice-activated saucepans. Despite only debuting around two months ago, when the Tesco Food Academy moved to Welwyn Garden City, this room is scheduled for a complete refit to keep pace with the rapid rate of change.
For longer-term idea incubation, a number of project rooms can be booked out for two to three months, and there are closed-off parts for those who need a little more privacy than the main floor offers.
The centrepiece is the main development kitchen: a space containing equipment that is almost entirely mobile or movable, from a variable fridge that can be used as an ice cream freezer or a fish fridge, to a combi oven – as well as the designer Big Green Egg barbecue.
“It needs to be anything on any given day,” says Lee, “It’s not like a restaurant kitchen. We need to have the ultimate in flexibility.”
From farm to kitchen to table
Development happens on several levels in the Heart building.
Supplier chefs come to work at Welwyn Garden City two days a week, so they can understand Tesco’s food trends and working patterns, while building relationships with product developers. They form part of Tesco’s ‘Food Chef Network.’
Another aspect of this network is the contract catering company that runs the first-floor restaurant. No ordinary office canteen, the menus are written by the Tesco Food Academy, which also trains the chefs. A third of the dishes change every week, with seasonal ingredients and a dash of inspiration from Yotam Ottolenghi influencing the food, according to Lee.
Ideas start in the development kitchen downstairs and are then transported upstairs for staff to see and taste. Using the sizable Tesco workforce as guinea pigs, Lee hopes the feedback process will help develop more successful products.
In fact, he is planning to start getting more formalised responses from diners in the restaurant this month, though he’s already been gathering informal opinions.
One of the most well-received dishes has been the toast and marmalade porridge. Food waste is a big focus for Lee this year, and this dish makes use of leftover baguettes and bread from the building’s Tesco Express: breadcrumbs are toasted, then mixed with oats, almond milk and marmalade to create what is essentially vegan porridge.
When we visit, paella balls (a Spanish-inspired take on arancini) and courgette baba ganoush are being served.
Open through breakfast, lunch and dinner, this restaurant is the only one on the Tesco campus that publishes calorie content at the moment, and like everything else in the Heart building is designed as a trial run for potential expansion across the complex – and beyond.
The Tesco Express in the Heart building is also completely unlike any other in the UK. A cashless store, it boasts a squeeze-your-own-OJ machine and several products not on general release.
Checkout-free shopping in the vein of Amazon Go is also being tested here, so that the retailer can observe how well the experimental tech functions.
Besides the convenience store, there’s also a cafe, a gym, an event space that comfortably holds 400, training rooms and areas dedicated to sensory-testing panels.
Mixed in amidst these facilities are numerous plants, including a Click & Grow indoor gardening system. Melons, squashes and chillies all flourish inside the bright building, which is “essentially a greenhouse,” as Lee puts it.
Outdoors, Lee has access to vegetable varieties that he can’t necessarily buy in stores, so that he can innovate with flavours. These change with the seasons, but have included everything from Jerusalem artichokes and kohlrabi, to chard and San Marzano tomatoes, to foraged greens like lovage, meadowsweet and hyssop. There are even unusual herb flavours like chocolate mint and orange thyme.
Not all of this is necessarily destined for Tesco’s shelves. Lee’s team is also creating recipes that can be shared with the retailer’s partners. When it comes to food waste, for example, Lee is hoping to transfer some of his ideas for innovative ways to use leftovers to FareShare, a charity that receives some of Tesco’s surplus produce.
“It’s not just about product development; we’re also trying to improve the culture of food within this business as well,” he says.