Molly Hammel is a sensory technician at Mars, Inc. That means that while most of us are slogging through emails or putting the finishing touches on a team project, Hammel is eating ice cream–taste testing flavors, to be exact, or training others to hone their own taste buds in order to help Mars decide which new frozen delights to ship to your grocery store.
Although the 24-year-old is a relatively new hire at Mars (she started in January), Hammel spent several months as a lab assistant and dairy judge at her alma mater, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, while studying food science and technology. After graduating in 2015, Hammel spent the next two years interning at major brands like Diageo, a global producer of spirits and beer, and Bush Brothers & Company (of baked bean fame).
While licking ice cream at work all the time may sound great, there are a few challenges to balance out the perks, just like in any job. There are trade secrets, too; anybody hoping Hammel can reveal the special sauce inside Dove Raspberry Sorbet Bars will be disappointed. Still, Hammel did spill on what goes into her work as an ice cream taster and trainer, in case you’re dreaming of spending your days working with delicious desserts.
Fast Company: How did you land that job, really?
Molly Hammel: It was a competitive process with dozens of applicants, but I’m not sure exactly how many people applied for this job.
One thing that really helped me stand out during the interview process was that I was on the dairy judging team in college. To participate in the team, I went through extensive training on how to judge dairy products (ice cream included). I came in second overall in the Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest in 2014 so that definitely helped as well. During my interviews, I also mentioned that I made up silly songs and walked around the office singing to get panelists to attend panels at my last internship. A couple of associates mentioned my songs to me after I was hired, so I think that helped me stand out.
FC: So you’re a tasting guru. What qualities are you looking for in another taste tester?
MH: We call our ice cream taste testing panel a “sensory panel,” where we make sure all of the flavors and textures associated with our ice cream products are exactly right. The only prerequisites to participate in the ice cream sensory panel are working at Mars Ice Cream’s Burr Ridge [, Illinois] site and having a great sense of taste and smell!
Once associates sign up to participate, they go through a two-day training program. Associates participate in about 12 practice panels to determine if they can join the panel of ice cream taste-testing professionals. This program ensures their observations are in line with all of our other panelists, so we can consistently test our products for the quality we expect.
As the sensory technician that leads our tasting panels, my job is to make sure that panelists can taste the difference between a great product and one that needs improving. I train panelists in everything from how to decipher if the ice cream is too icy, to making sure peanuts are crunchy and our caramel has the perfect texture.
So far I’ve trained 21 associates for sensory panel and 15 associates that do sensory checks in the production areas. For the remainder of the year, I would imagine I might train 5-10 more people for sensory panel and probably the same for associates doing checks on the line. So total, I will train about 50 people to taste our flavors this year.
FC: During the two-day training program, what specifically are you not looking for?
MH: Mainly, I’m looking for people who can taste small differences in products. If someone smokes often, their taste buds could be dull and they won’t be able to taste these nuances. When I recruit for the sensory panel, most people are honest about their tasting abilities. I asked a few people to join the panel who said they were terrible at tasting and would not make a good panelist, so we didn’t include them. I also want people to join who are able to make the time commitment.
During a panel, they will share their thoughts on each product after tasting and evaluating it. If a trainee is consistently missing key attributes in samples, then I would decide if they needed additional training or need to be removed from panel. Everyone has different sensitivities to different tastes and aromas, so the more people that attend, the better.
I haven’t had to reject anyone due to his or her tasting ability yet, but I have removed panelists because they weren’t meeting the attendance requirements.
FC: What is the hardest part of your job? Freeze-head, weight gain?
MH: When I first started this job, evaluating our peanuts was new to me and difficult at first. I couldn’t pick out some of the attributes that other panelists were getting, but I’ve gotten a lot better after practice.
I sit on about two tasting panels per day, though, so I usually won’t crave ice cream when I get home from work and need to find different dessert options. That’s probably the most frustrating part because ice cream has always been my favorite dessert.
FC: And what is the toughest part of being a panelist?
MH: Most of our panelists sign up because they truly love ice cream and care deeply about the quality of our products. I think that the hardest thing for our tasting panelists is finding the time during a very busy work week to taste-test our ice cream products. Our panelists often have to juggle a full work schedule and make time for trying our ice cream twice a week.
Our panelists are not eating full products at every tasting, so an excess of dairy or sugar is typically not a concern for us. The panelists that attend tastings more often, like me, will expectorate [spit], but believe me, it is not easy to spit out good ice cream.
FC: Is it possible to taste so much ice cream that you can’t tell the difference any more?
MH: We taste everything from finished ice cream products to individual ingredients, and ice cream mix before it’s frozen into ice cream. That helps us really distinguish between the quality of different components in our ice creams. To help ground our taste-testing sessions, we start with a reference sample before evaluating each product that serves as a baseline of what the product should taste like.
We typically only taste four finished products per panel, so we don’t get sensory fatigue–or a decreased ability to perceive taste and aroma due to continued exposure–from evaluating too much ice cream. It also helps that each of our Mars Ice Cream products are pretty different, and each has specific ballots of what our sensory panelists should look out for. For example, with our peanuts in each Snickers ice cream bar, we’re looking for crunch and a good roasted peanut flavor, but with Dove Raspberry Sorbet Bars we look for that smooth chocolate texture and the right amount of tart raspberry flavor.
FC: Is yours the final say in whether the product makes it to market?
MH: Ultimately, my manager has the final say, but I provide her with my recommendation. As part of my job, I also get to help out our R&D team when it comes to developing the flavor profiles for our new treats. This involves taste-testing different types of elements for up-and-coming products to nail down the sensory experience. It can be challenging to create a new sensory experience, but it’s part of what I love most about my job.
FC: What is your current favorite?
MH: There are so many amazing flavors, it’s hard to pick one! I love the Milky Way ice cream bars, the Dovebar Vanilla-Caramel Swirl Ice Cream with Dove Milk Chocolate and Cashews.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.