Being born and raised in Pittsburgh, a love for Heinz was instilled in me at an early age. My favorite food growing up was ketchup (spoiler alert, it still is). Tortilla chips, French fries, pretzels, grilled cheese sandwiches, pickles, sardines, you name it, chances are, I’ve used it as a vehicle to consume that sweet, red gold.
Even though it’s been a number of years since I’ve lived in the ketchup capital of the world, Heinz still pops up unexpectedly in my life and surprises me. For instance, I once stumbled upon a couple of bottles of Heinz ketchup in the middle of a dry goods store in northern Cameroon. After doing a double take at the Arabic labels, I peed just a little before scooping them up, giving them a hug, and buying them all.
Who knows, maybe in the future they’ll say Hemingway had his alcohol, Browning had her opium, and Downing had his ketchup. Stranger things have happened.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on the phone answering a series of quality assurance questions regarding a survey that I had recently completed. A gentleman from Missouri was grilling me on my grocery shopping habits and, being self-employed as an “I’ll pretty much do anything for money” writer, it’s not like I had somewhere else to be.
I must have said something right, because at the end of the conversation, I was told that I was an ideal candidate for a current market research study happening in San Francisco.
“Great,” I said, trying to not sound like an arrogant bastard who was 100% confident that he’d be a perfect candidate for anything ever that has to do with food.
“Last question,” he said, “beans, or pasta?”
“Um, I guess it depends on what I’m…in…the…mood…for?”
What was this, a bad first date question? I thought I had crossed the finish line. I couldn’t afford – quite literally – to stumble now.
“You know, what are you more likely to buy or cook with?” the Midwesterner clarified.
“Oh! Easy – beans.”
“Great, we’ll see you at our office on Wednesday!”
I wasn’t necessarily counting down the days to Wednesday, but, this was my first market research study and, as cheesy as it may sound, I was nervous excited. Plus, I needed that check.
I got to the building, took the elevator up the sixth floor, signed in, and took in my surroundings. A couple of shockers right off the bat: there were only four of us, I was the only male, and I was the youngest by at least 25 years. I was fine with it. The facilitator was cute, so I definitely wasn’t regretting my decision to participate or anything.
We were seated comfortably on some couches arranged in a semi-circle, facing our facilitator; a wall of two-way mirrors was directly behind the plaid shirted market researcher.
He started us off with a simple icebreaker: name, favorite bean, and most memorable bean dish.
Once the woman whom I will affectionately refer to as “The Cat Lady” stepped off of her soapbox of why excess sodium consumption is bad for us, I was able to give the group a sense of who I was.
“Shane and garbanzo,” I said confidently, as if those two words were as synonymous as peanut butter and jelly. I then launched into my elaborate peanut sauce recipe that includes most every vegetable and a can of chickpeas.
The room was clearly taken aback by my culinary prowess. I shot The Cat Lady some “I ain’t no techie” side-eye before passing the torch on to “Lady Narcolepsy.” She told us all about her passion for dried beans (…) before letting “Miss ‘It Sounds Good, But I’d Never Feed It To My Children,’” shatter the remaining ice.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, we navigated some challenging waters as a group. My favorite was probably when the market researcher, in complete seriousness, told us that he had a surprise for us.
Standing up, he walked over to a long, long table. Whatever clutter sat on the table was hidden by an equally long, black cloth. In dramatic fashion, the plaid shirted researcher ripped away the cloth to reveal mountains of canned beans. Not just canned, actually. There were beans in glass jars, beans in cardboard boxes, beans in plastic bags, and beans in strange containers that I can only assume were 3D printed. It was a mess. And it was our task to “sort them” in a way that “made sense” to the “group.” Some surprise.
We also had to answer all of these questions about what we thought about potentially having heirloom beans, sourced directly from places like India and Turkey and Peru, available in our local grocery stores. The poor guy had no idea what he was getting himself into.
I don’t know exactly how long I rambled on for, but it was awhile. I covered all the major talking points: the need to eat locally, not to mention seasonally, and how it makes absolutely zero sense to ship canned beans 7,538 miles from around the world to a Safeway.
I was quickly turning into a market researcher’s worst nightmare. The women had shifted their focus from his questions to my environmentalism and, let’s just say that if that marketing campaign ever gains traction, I know three new recruits that would be more than happy to lead a Greenpeace petition against it.
As we neared the end of the study, our facilitator, with a few more gray hairs and a couple of deepened wrinkles, announced that he had yet another surprise for us. This time, we’d actually get to try some beans.
After the hype of flavorful, internationally inspired canned beans, I definitely had something other than what was placed in front of me in mind.
“Are these baked beans?” croaked Lady Narcolepsy, awakening from a nap.
“Just give ‘em a try and tell me what you think,” the clearly tired market researcher said.
“Yep, these are definitely baked beans,” said Miss ‘It Sounds Good, But I’d Never Feed It To My Children.’
“And does anyone want to guess which brand of beans these are?”
“Heinz,” I said.
The group looked at me as if I myself was a large baked bean.
“How do you know that?” someone asked.
“What? I’m from Pittsburgh.”
The market researcher shrugged as if he should have thought to put that as a separate question on the initial survey. “Yep, they’re Heinz’s beans all right.”
“Thank you all for your time. If you want to grab your things, we’ll have your checks for you at the front desk.”
I sprung up from the couch, allowed my eyes to linger, probably for a second too long, on what remained of the uneaten baked beans, thought better of it, and went to collect my earnings.
You can take the man out of Pittsburgh, but you can’t take the Heinz out of his taste buds.
And maybe not surprisingly, I can’t seem to get myself into another market research study.