Philadelphia is known for a lot of things--pronouncing “water" as “wooder” chief among them--but culinary innovation is not a claim to fame. Exhibit A: One of the city’s most celebrated residents is a man who made national news last year for eating a whole rotisserie chicken every day for 40 straight days.
So, it comes as a surprise to learn that Philly (it’s short for Philadelphia, everyone) is home to an “innovation lab” that develops plant-based food and drink products. My discovery occurs thanks to an Oatly marketing team, which offers me a nominal fee to learn more, as long as I sign a non-disclosure agreement (better known as an NDA in the business of being top secret.)
Now, signing an NDA is an omen for either something very good or very bad, but I can be a pretty big risk-taker when whimsical Swedish oat-drink companies are involved. So, on a cold winter day I drive 30 minutes to the city’s northeast, to a former U.S. Army ammunition plant called the Frankford Arsenal. The quirk that an oat-drink lab resides on a campus once devoted to building laser-guided ballistics is not lost on me. History is full of curious contradictions.
On foot, I comb through identical lofts looking for one marked 209. I’m confused to find two companies in the building with “oat” in their name: Oatly and a place I won’t name because it’s important Oatly feels special. I search for a third to see if I’ve wandered into a Bermuda Triangle of oat companies. Then I think about how to pun with "Bermuda" and “oat.” The Bermoata Triangle? The Boatuda Triangle? Neither is very good, I decide.
At last, Julie House, Oatly’s senior director of new product development in North America, emerges from a lobby elevator wearing a sweatshirt with “OATS” in varsity font. I ask about oat company number two, which she says has nothing to do with Oatly--or oats, for that matter. A coincidence, apparently.
I’m soon led up to the second floor, where Julie and I walk through a series of quiet hallways--passing by a bunch of huge, empty office spaces--before reaching a white door marked 200. Behind that is another white door, unmarked. Behind that is the lab.
Established in 2021, the Arsenal, as the lab is sometimes called around the Oatly watercooler, is in the business of new product development (see: Julie’s job title). It’s where formulas are tested during small-scale pilots to predict how products will translate to commercial production. It’s also where customers can visit to taste new products--like frozen dessert novelty bars and new oatgurt blends--and leave their feedback
Being the senior director that she is, Julie describes the lab’s mission with a bit of flair: “Overall, it’s a creative space that fosters the development of delicious, sustainable food products and drives conversion from dairy to plant-based alternatives.”
When we finally enter the lab, my first impression is the sound: a constant humming and whirring punctuated by occasional clicks. It comes from the room’s largest machine, a bulky stainless-steel pasteurizer that sits in a dark corner. It’s operated practically all day by a man named Dave. I figure Dave to be the lab’s wizard and overlord, but before I can give him a proper backstory, I’m ushered to a small, airy test kitchen. Inside, a half dozen food scientists in white lab coats are working on ... something.
This flavor was once locked in a safe … or was it?
Here, Aimee (left) and Julie hold several tiny spoons and taste test oatgurts.
It’s not immediately obvious what that something is. There’s a lot of measuring, pouring, stirring, and weighing going on.
Almost everybody is performing a different task, and using a different device to do it: a mixer, a scale, a homogenizer. There’s plenty to look at, but my eyes go to two yellow safes.
“What’s in there?” I ask Julie.
“Flavors,” she says.
For the next hour, I’m whisked from food scientist to food scientist. They use words like “fermentation,” “mouthfeel,” and “moisture” to explain what they do. “We taste a lot of gross things, like, intentionally,” one explains. I nod and take notes.
At some point, I lose track of Julie and end up in a storage area where, among rows of shelves stocked with jars and bottles, I come across a head of lettuce and a half-used bottle of salad dressing. I’m later told that they’re for research purposes.
There’s no record of what is in these cups.
In the kitchen, I join a small group of scientists testing samples of oatgurt flavors. (Sorry, I can’t tell you which ones. That’s classified.) I grab a tiny spoon and dip it into a small plastic tub on display. In between bites, I wonder how many outsiders have had this experience, how many have gripped these same tiny spoons.
A scientist named Aimee tells me that when prospective customers pass through, they also sign non-disclosure agreements. But when they come, Aimee says, she and her colleagues hide all the “secret stuff” strewn about the lab.
“Where’s the secret stuff?” I ask.
“It’s everywhere,” she says. “You’ve got to know what you’re looking for.”
“Am I looking at anything secret right now?” I ask.
“Yeah, probably,” she says.
“Is this a secret formula right here?” I ask, pointing to a couple of pieces of paper resting on a nearby table.
Aimee and her colleagues share a glance and break out in nervous laughter. Not long after, my tour (suspiciously) comes to a close. Julie passes me some Oatly stickers and points me toward the elevator.
Suddenly, I’m back out in the city I know so well. It feels different, though. It’s now a place where a rotisserie chicken can be consumed by a man in a single sitting and where breakthroughs in experimental oatgurt flavors can happen. Philadelphia, I now know, is a city that contains culinary multitudes. And now you know too.