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Dal Perio is currently a Senior Manager of Product Insights at Starbucks Coffee Company. His 30-year career in the food industry includes positions in Sensory Science, Consumer Research, and Marketing Research.
In addition to Starbucks, Dal has worked for the Fortune 500 companies Johnson & Johnson, Dean Foods, Campbell’s Soup and Wrigley, in sensory, marketing research, and culinary roles. He worked at Tragon Corporation, Diageo, Pepperidge Farm, WhiteWave Foods, and Unilever. He led a variety of programs including Product Innovation, Culinary, Exploratory Consumer Research, Quality Assurance, Analytical and Manufacturing Sensory, and Consumer Product Testing.
At Starbucks, Dal focuses on Product Insights of Beverage and Food, and Global Coffee Quality. His deep knowledge of product and consumer testing, and marketing research is applied to ensure each customer has the best approach and insights to solve their problem. Dal has been involved in IFT’s Sensory and Consumer Sciences Division, and in the Society of Sensory Professionals.
Notably, Dal was mentored by Rose Marie Pangborn while at U.C. Davis.
Contact: To be put in touch with Dal, please contact Aigora.
Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)
John: Dal, thanks for being on the show today.
Dal: Thanks for having me on, John.
John: Alright, great! Now, Dal one of the things that I thought was interesting as we get ready for the show is I didn't know that you were mentored by Rose Marie Pangborn. You were just right at the end of her life, I suppose.
Dal: Yeah. I graduated from UC Davis in 88. And when I graduated the year after that was when she passed away. But during the time that I was at UC Davis, my first two years, I was mentored by Ann Noble, another heavy hitter in sensory. My first years were more focused on winemaking so the ferment is a science piece of it. Then my second two years as my interest in sensory evaluation started to grow when Rose Marie mentored me and so she was very influential in connecting me with a lot of other professionals who are in sensory because as you can imagine back in the late 80's, there weren't really a lot of people who were in sensory and the feed that professionally was really pushed to the forefront by the legendary people who are in sensory now. And you have your Seville, and your Herb Stones. And your Joel Sidel. And then, of course, Rose Marie Pangborn. So those are the people that she kind of pushed me to get to know. And I think that one of the things that's kind of an interesting story was how she actually got me my first position when I graduated from UC Davis and is a mentor, my worked closely with mostly running panels and participating in panels and consumer tests and of course, using consumer tests with students that were at UC Davis. Well, things was that in the beginning of my senior year, Rose Marie got a phone call from Joel Sidel. And, of course, those who had before their cell phone. So, of course, just imagine students ride around their bikes and they don't even know that they have phone calls and they don't know what's going on. And our calls were not even really a big thing back then either. And so Joel Sidel called Rose Marie and then Rose Marie recommended, hey, I got this guy and I think you should hire that would be perfect for you. His name is Dal Perio and so she gave him my phone number. He called my house. And I was living in a house just right off-campus with four other guys. So we had this five-bedroom house. So you can imagine someone calls a message is going to inevitably get lost. Right? Just like I don't even know if they're even posted those back then either. So it was just you know it was left for me. But unfortunately, I had already left to go to school at UC Davis if you know the campus at all is really bicycle centric. So everyone rides their bikes. Everyone wears shorts because you don't want to get your pants cut by your bicycle chain. And so I'm wearing shorts up a ratty hooded sweatshirt and I go to campus and just even before I even got into the food science building. I'm locking my bike and then this guy comes over to me and he just goes, "Hey, are you Dal Perio?" I'm like, yeah and he said, "I'm Joel Sidel, and I just called your house and I was like, I didn't get the message. I don't know anything about it. And he said, well, Rose Marie recommended you. And can we have an interview? So imagine, even back then, I mean, even for interviews, people wore suits and people got really dressed up. I don't think it's as formal for interviews now as it was back then, but I have this nice suit hanging in my closet with the nice white shirt and a couple of ties to choose from. But instead, here I am being interviewed for my first job on the process of graduating from Davis that I'm interviewing in shorts and a hooded sweatshirt. And I think I might even be wearing flip-flops at the time, too. And so here's my job interview. Right? And so I'm talking through and I think there's no way I'm going to get this job. And I'm talking to Joel Sidel. And then everything kind of like ended cordially and went in and I told Rose Marie. She couldn't believe what happened. She knew, of course because she just talked to Joel. There's no I mean, to get that job. And I wish I had known a little bit more was preferable for it. And she just goes right at it. And so I would say probably about a couple of weeks later, I might even be less than that was relatively fast that it happened. He called me up and then her son called me up and then they said, oh, you might work for us. But because of the fact that I was in my senior year. They were nice enough to say, you know, we're gonna wait for you. And I did do an internship with them. It was a long commute, but I have managed to juggle my classes because UC Davis and then they were located down the Palo Alto area. That's close enough. It's still far enough away that I still needed to commute. And I worked a couple of days a week down there. And then when I graduated, they hired me. So it was actually kind of a really nice story. And that was pretty much indicative of the relationship that I had with Rose Marie, too, as a fact, that it was pretty hands-off the coffin. She is that kind of a person that really pushes you to push yourself. And I think that it isn't really about, in this case, what you look like or what you wear. It's what you know. And I think they really did convey that to a lot of her students was if you know, in this case about sensory and all the components of about sensory, because she was really as you know, she was really into not only the methodology but the psychology around testing and also the statistics part of it. So she was a really great mentor and I respect that she made sure that you have this well rounded education. And I think she did that for a lot of other people. And like I said, shortly after I graduated, I got the word that she had passed away. And I kind of knew that she was not doing well, but she was very secretive about what was going on with her and the treatments that she was going through.
John: Yeah. I mean, definitely a great woman. I mean, had a huge impact on both of our lives. You know, I mean, it's definitely. Yeah, I'm glad there's a conference, you know, that remembers her. And Joel is, I met Joel a few years ago, an extremely nice person. I actually had never met him before. Maybe two years ago. Something like that.
Dal: Yeah. He is a really nice person and he's really also talking about the well-roundedness of being rounded and all of these different areas in sensory because sensory is not just about tasting, not just running panels. But I think in this case, his really strong contribution to knowledge but I think to sensory in general is that he is very strong in statistics. And I think coming out of Stanford, I think that's something that he and both Herbert are really strong. But he's pretty high up there. As far as that the people that I know that can take data, analyze it and then interpret it into something that's meaningful, something that tells a story. And that was one of the things that I did learn from him, too is that the reason he told me, the reason that he really loved statistics. It does the fact that the fun part for him was finding these little gems that come from the analysis that you do. And I still think that every day, every time I look at results, I think of what little gems can I pull out of these results to be able to communicate it. And I think that one of the successes for me and I think more specifically is Starbucks has been that people in marketing and people in other areas who are not really that familiar with sensory, much less familiar with statistics like you wouldn't tell them a story like what, you conducted research. What is the story that you're telling about the research? And I mean, even prior to this, I was just telling a story about our marketing leaders, about a story that I want to tell about some of our food products. But we have to do the research and how it's going to impact what we're working on. But the other thing, too, is then, of course, taking into consideration, how do you do that now that we have a pandemic that's going on? So then you can be a little bit more resourceful, a little bit more thoughtful, a little bit more meaningful in the way that you get these questions from consumers.
John: Right. Yeah, it's very interesting. Okay, there are many things I'd like to kind of respond to that. Yeah, a lot of topics. I mean, there's the general idea of storytelling, which I think is important and how it drives research. As you said, it isn't simply that you conduct research, then you try to figure out what the story is. I think sometimes there are these stories that we're already like I have a story right now that which is that people are being forced to try samples, products, whatever, that they would not normally try. And this is based on my own experience. And it's kind of anecdotal that right now you don't buy what you want. You buy what you can get to a large extent when not everything is available. And for example, with plant-based food, more people are going to try plant-based meats because there's a meat shortage. And some of those people are actually going to like it. They might not go back. They might find out, hey, you know, I actually like plant-based sausages. So what are some of the stories to the extent that you can't? I mean, we have to be respectful of any kind of confidentiality. But what are some of the stories that are kind of going through your head right now as far as the pandemic and consumer behavior and what's happening in Starbucks to the extent that you feel comfortable talking about it?
Dal: Sure. I would say the overarching theme for consumer testing and everyone that whether their peers or whether their suppliers of research, everyone that I talked to, the same question that I do have is how reliable is the data that you're collecting? Because people are not really thinking of you or there is maybe perception on my part that I don't assume that people are thinking or are as involved in tasting or in research. People, meaning consumers are not as research because they have so many other things that are on their minds. Right? So the focus may be a little bit tougher for them than it would have been, say, five months ago. And so there's this overarching theme and there's this preoccupation with a pandemic on whether it is about then to your point, about food or if it's on my salary or how I'm going to get my kids or how am I going to homeschool my kids? Granted, they're doing this at home, but they do have other more important things that they're thinking of. And so one of the things that I also alluded to a little bit in consumer research when I was at Rose Marie, was that psychology is a really big important part of sensory testing, as you know. So when you do evaluate products, when you do talk about products and it fits in the qualitative perspective, you do want to make sure that the psychology around how they give you the information is not impacted by all the other variabilities that could be going on. So you try and purposely have your fear of tasting in booths because of the fact that you want to not have to be distracted. You want to not see what other people are doing. You want it on the food and even things, the lighting and the color of the booth, and everything to make sure that everything is standardized. So when you have this conversation with online consumers or if you have them participate in a survey or something where you don't show that you don't give them food to consume, but you give them the gesture or the essence of that food by describing it maybe in you know what would you think about it. So not only you have that challenge in how you are getting them to imagine the product, but you're also trying to get them and hopefully taking them for a moment away from everything else that's going on and focus on the research or the task at hand. And I think that's something that's interesting. So I do like I was saying earlier, I do ask people that question a lot. And people seem to think that. I think it's the same. I don't know. But the problem for me is I don't have research to back that up. I can't say yes it's true or no, it's not true because I don't have research to say people are reacting to things differently now than they would have been five months ago or even five months from now. So are we in the bubble or do we have a snapshot of what people think about products and their consumer behavior that is not going to be similar to what has been previously done or what is going to future. So I think that's our biggest issue for me, the biggest challenge for me I think is trying to figure that out. But until I have research to back that up, I'm just approaching it in a normal way and just saying I'm just assuming that everything's going to be the same. That what you're telling me now is pretty close to what you were telling me three months ago. And also, in recruiting people, you can't ask them, like normally how you recruit people on your screen. You would say, have you consumed these foods in the last month? We can't do it because this last month is not like any other month that you've ever had before. So, sometimes we even relax in that area, too. What have you been consuming over the past five months or have you ever purchase those products, way more relaxed than it was because people can't have access to especially in the case of Starbucks. I live in downtown Seattle and the only Starbucks that are open are drive thru's and as you can imagine downtown Seattle, there's no a drive-thru Starbucks. So there is not a Starbucks that's open that's even remotely nearby. I have to drive and I can't do that. Reluctant to do that. I work with a conversations that I have with them is like, oh yeah I went to Starbucks yesterday, like I would love to go to Starbucks. I just can't, there's no one near me that is open.
John: Interesting. Well, you know, that reminds me of some of the, I have seen a couple of pieces of research on behavior during this pandemic. And one thing that seems to be coming up consistently is nostalgia and comfort. The desire for comfort. The desire for, you know, the kind of longing for the past. I think about how great it would be just to hang out at Starbucks. Something we would have taken for granted once. I can't wait to like it finally go back into a Starbucks and hang out, you know? And so there's going to be some sort of a great release when this thing finally ends and some or at least attenuates, right? But the other thing that I was seeing and the research on this is not quite as solid. This was just, you know, people commenting on LinkedIn as I post my thoughts and researchers post things, you know. So there was a conversation with someone today who was saying that there is a question of a potential for increased brand loyalty. That if you're a brand that can be there for somebody during this crisis when the crisis is over, they will remember you very fondly, right? Because people are always bonded together when they share emotional experiences. And this is certainly an emotional experience, right? So, like in my case, there's a local brand of tonic water that I have to say I'm developing a relationship with. I was trying to get sparkling water. I couldn't get it. Got tonic water. And then they couldn't get that and I ended up getting soda and tonic with ginger flavor. Now I drink that stuff religiously. And when this pandemic is over, I'm definitely going to keep drinking this stuff, you know? Like they got a lifetime customer now. The next pandemic, if there is one, I will be stocking up. Other people buying toilet paper and I'll be buying tonic water.
Dal: Don't say the brand because the next pandemic you won't be able to get it. Everyone will be buying it.
John: Right. Exactly. It's a secret. Yeah. So I kind of curious, I did see that Starbucks was starting to open up. Are you able to talk about some of the things that are happening? I mean, we can talk about the research, or we can talk about, you know, what's happening in Starbucks.
Dal: Yeah, I can talk about what I know and what hasn't been communicated to us. And one of the things is that almost and I'll start with trying to assess where I got hit hard first. And so what I can share with you is something that that is now is that in China, almost all of the Starbucks is open. So, I mean, when I say that, I'm saying with great confidence that it's more like over 95% of them of the Starbucks opened. So as far as what's happening here in the US, it's tough for me to say, mostly because of the fact that it is a state-by-state thing like we don't have this federal regulation that saying hey, this is open and this is essential, right? It's stated by state. So I think that it's different within each state. And I as far as what has been communicated in the state of Washington is that we're currently on May 4th. But I know that there was an announcement that was made yesterday that it would get out to the end of May. As far as what's happening in Washington, it could possibly be and this is essential and that changes, too, right? So I don't know where Starbucks will fall on that. But I think that we're just taking our cues. The Starbucks company is taking its cues from whatever the local or state government is telling us. And I know that probably in other places. In other states, there probably are Starbucks that is open. But I don't know.
John: Well, what I think is interesting about that is you all Washington State was one of the first to be affected by the whole pandemic situation, right? So you're kind of ahead of the curve, so to speak, that the things that are happening right now in Washington might be similar for the things that will be happening a month or two from now here in Virginia, in Richmond, Virginia. What are your thoughts on the consumer testing in different geographic locations as an almost longitudinal study conducted at one time that like if you test people in Washington state, their emotions as far as what's going on? And then it has people in New York City, it has people in Virginia. You're kind of getting three different time points. Now, it's a little bit difficult to disentangle that from other regional differences. But I do think it's also an interesting thing to think about that like there's a temporal component to the virus, you know we're not all at the same point in time right now, right? So is that something that you all have looked at? Is it something that you would be interested in leveraging if you could figure out what to do? What you thought about thinking about this kind of geographic effect? Like this mixture of geographic and temporal?
Dal: Yeah. It definitely would be interesting I think from a perspective of looking at segmentations. And so the assumption is exactly what you said is that given the point where each of those locations is in the impact of the pandemic. I think that would be an interesting thing to look at. Yeah, I don't know. I think it would be a great study. I'm actually, that's interesting because as I'm trying to talk to you much of thinking out loud at the same time, is that true? So, you know, thinking of the hypothesis is that actually true because the assumption previously was that maybe the differences would be segmented based on where they live. Not counting the pandemic crisis, so let's look at where they live and where their location is, where's the segmentations emerge. But I think with a lot of research that I've done, not only at Starbucks but in other companies that I've worked for, we found that location isn't always segmented out. So I think that using as previous research, I think more so recently and I say recently, I mean, like in the last 10 years, that it was like early on in my career. I think you could definitely say that there's going to be a segmentation based on where people live and most of the time it was true. But as the US became more mobile, it became less and less. So, for people who live in a specific city, it doesn't necessarily mean that's what they were born and raised in. They happen to be looking for a job or for whatever reason. So they're bringing them they're a piece of that their segmentation to another place. So I think that using that as an assumption, based on what you said, think that there would be that segmentation based on where people live. So you could probably safely say that if you did analyze and look for segmentation as to where people are at that specific point in the pandemic response, I think it is valid.
John: So it looks like a geographic effect might be a temporal effect?
Dal: Yeah. But then the reason that I'm deliberately talking through this is because of the effect that how do you define where they are in their response to the pandemic? In Washington state, it was a first to react to because they had the first death. But then take the second death, third death, the highest number of deaths, or where they are at that curve? Will be something that I think would be a little bit difficult to pinpoint, to be able to make distinctions on what that segmentation actually is.
John: Yeah. Jacob Lahne and I were talking about this on a previous episode to an extent, and, you know, one of the things he brought up is worth asking pandemic-specific questions right now. Like, for one thing, you might be worth asking people, how much would you have liked this before the pandemic? How much would you like it now? I mean, these are just ideas, but the idea that it might be good to ask questions about kind of before and after. But another thing might be to ask people questions like, are you currently on lockdown? How many weeks have you been in lockdown? Do you know anybody who has been sick with coronavirus? Do you know anybody that has been hospitalized? Now, some of these questions you probably have to be a little careful with because it starts to health-related personal questions, I think you would want to be careful with those questions. But certainly, if someone knows someone who's been hospitalized with coronavirus, their experience is different from someone who's been told to stay home. But as far as they're concerned, there hasn't been any personal impact. And of course, you've got rural versus urban divide, which is probably more, in America right now I would say two people living in different cities are more similar to each other than someone living in a city and someone living in the rural area that perhaps is very close to their city. You know, you might be 50 miles away from the center of the city in a completely different world. But if you're driving downtown Nashville versus downtown Los Angeles or downtown Seattle, is it really that different? In a lot of ways? Probably some differences. But in terms of the sort of life the person is living, it probably is pretty similar.
Dal: Yeah. You can take that thought globally, right? What would it be within the US? I mean, maybe someone who lives in Milan or in a different place than someone in New York City versus somewhere someone in Seattle. So you could take cities that have been impacted and actually find that correlation to. So, yeah, beyond a national perspective, you could definitely go global and you could probably find a lot of similarities among those major cities that have been impacted or hit pretty hard.
John: Yeah, that's interesting. Well, Dal amazingly, we are almost out of time. This conversation was flown by.
Dal: Really? It's like we just started talking.
John: I know. But, okay, let's see, we have a few minutes left here so let's make sure that we talk about anything you quickly want to talk about. So any particular points you want to make as far as when it is a very unusual moment in time, any things you've been thinking about that you think our listeners would benefit from hearing that you haven't got a chance to discuss yet?
Dal: Yeah, I think something that's specific for this moment in time that we're in is I think the main takeaway that I have for people that I work with and also for people that reporting to me is being able to adapt to what's happening. I think that capability to pivot is based on what your resources are and based on what your guidelines are and based on what you can and can't do. And then also to the point of what you're essentially what can you ask people because you have to also be really sensitive to where that person is emotional. So I think one of the key things specifically a nice jam for people is that you have to be capable of pivoting to not only capture the information that you want to get but capture it in a new and different way. And I think we are deploying some of those types of new ways of getting data. It doesn't mean you have to do it traditionally any longer. And it doesn't necessarily mean that you will stop doing those new things once you are back in functioning in whatever our new normal is like. But I think that right now the key message is just flexible and be a little more creative in the way that you collect data. Of course, keep your fundamentals on sensory and psychology and statistics and everything else. But I think that being able to adapt and be able to pivot, think is probably something that is my message.
John: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think the companies that are more tech-forward will have an easier time with that, right? There are more tools with which to adapt. Yeah. Great. And so I always ask my guests at the end of these calls, what advice do you have for young sensory scientists? I mean, there's the flexibility, a willingness to adapt, do you have any other advice, general life advice, or career that you'd like to share?
Dal: Sure. I think one of the things and also from you reading my bio and noticing that there's a ton of companies that I've worked for and it was really purposeful. I purposely did that because of the fact that I wanted to expand my portfolio not only in the products that I worked on, but also the types of methodologies that I was able to use. And I've done everything from the packaging of oil cans and how oil cans could look at ergonomics and not just the packaging, but also the colors of a video game and also the joystick in a video game and all of these different components. And I think that by taking what you know in the foundation of what you know and pushing it into other areas, that isn't traditional. So sensory doesn't always have to be food. I think sensory and so many other things. And I think that if you open your world up to include a much broader portfolio of how you've been using sensory testing, I think that's a really good approach to take. If you stay with a company for 20-30 years, let's say if my 30 year career if I was with the same company, I wouldn't have as broader experience. But not only methodologies and sensory and applications to those, but also the types of products that I would be working on. So I would say just from your career, I think if you're just starting out in sensory, you're starting in any career, really. I think the more that you can add to your portfolio, I think the better off you'll be.
John: I totally agree. Because sensory is connected to so many other fields. I mean, any product experience, even when it isn't food and beverage, you know, even apps have a sensory experience associated with them. And it is true that being well-rounded, having many views, many perspectives, it's just gonna make you more capable. Yeah, it's great. Alright, Dal, so we're talking a little bit about how people can get in touch with you? So you're not on LinkedIn because you're getting mobbed down there working for Starbucks, you're too popular.
Dal: Yeah. So I have to shut that profile down.
John: Now everyone wants to work for you. It's a good problem to have. But if someone does want to get in touch with you, I'll be willing to broker those contacts so people can just contact me, and then I'll put them in touch with you. So if you're out there and you want to have a follow-up question for Dal, maybe you desperately want to work for Starbucks and you have big talents back and I'm sure that I would be happy to hear from you. So just send me a message and I will pass it on. Alright, Dal, it's been wonderful. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Dal: Yeah, same here. Thanks for having me. This was fun.
John: Okay, wonderful. That's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling a friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.
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