RIGHT THIS way," says the smiling tour guide. "You can hang your coat in the closet to your right. We'll be serving coffee in the auditorium in a few minutes."
The woman is immaculate, somewhat matronly. The auditorium is immaculate. Even the closet is immaculate. There's a sort of clean efficiency at General Mills which threatens at all times to envelope the visitor. I'm tempted, for example, to sit up straighter in my padded folding chair and I begin to notice the faintest wrinkles in my khaki trousers.
However, we're not really here for the light entertainment which our hostess says will follow coffee and rolls. Like hungry relatives on Thanksgiving Day, we want a peek at the kitchen. More accurately, we want to see the kitchens of General Mills Inc., located in Minneapolis, Minn., which have made Betty Crocker a name synonymous with American cooking.
But first the living room entertainment. We have stumbled upon a birthday party. There on the screen before us is a large round cake with 100 candles flaring brightly around the Gold Medal Flour trademark. This occasion, marking the 100th year of production of General Mills' most popular flour, calls for a bit of nostalgia. So, like enthusiastic party hosts, General Mills hauls out the home movies, bringing us back to 1880 and the beginning of the great Minneapolis milling industry and to the old Washburn Crosby Company and the determined acquisition of small midwest flour mills, where it all began.
Diversification was the theme of the next feature, which introduced the audience to some of the over 1,000 products marketed by General Mills and its many subsidiaries. Did you know, for example, that "The General Mills Family of Fine Products for Your Family" includes: Gorton's seafoods, Saluto pizzas, Ship'n Shore clothing, Kenner toys, Parker Brothers games, Lionel trains, Lee Wards hobby crafts and Eddie Bauer outdoor recreational clothing?
Before I am able to even partially digest these insights about the host corporation, I am ushered away with the rest of the group to the main course -- the Betty Crocker Kitchens.
"There are three to five home economists (or "product representatives") working in each kitchen," our tour guide explains. "And the kitchens represent seven regions of the country."
We stop first in the Hawaiian Kitchen and, sure enough, it does have that island ambience. The ceiling is made, we are told, from hand-tied bamboo. Very interesting, but except for the prominent display of Yoplait yogurt, Saluto pizza and a few other General Mills products, the place is empty. Immaculate, polished, shining clean -- but empty. Obviously, this isn't where the heavy work is done. Still, we have been told that the kitchens were used for product and recipe testing and development. And one would expect to find some testing and developing going on.
We are told in the California Garden Kitchen that the Betty Crocker kitchen experts use every major brand of microwave oven on the market in order to simulate all possible baking conditions. It sounds like a food technologist's approach to the matter, but I'm beginning to wonder when any baking goes on for I've yet to see any one working with food.
On our way to Cape Cod we pause at the doorway of a lavish dinig room. Amid some mild oohing and aahing, our guide directs our attention to a piece of antique furniture which highlights the room. It is a Chinese lacquered chest from the 17th century, she explains, and is a part of the corporation's extensive, private art collection.
Surely this is not Betty Crocker's decor: furnishings from the 17th and 18th centuries, paintings by Picasso, Chagal and Lautrec. Betty is the American housewife. She has simple tastes, traditional values and a knack for putting good meals on the table, right? Well, not really.
General Mills has been collecting art for about 20 years and has acquired about 1,000 pieces of artwork in all media. These works dot the hallways and line the walls of private offices throughout the vast complex. The corporation has its own art curator and purchaser and views the collection as an employe benefit.
Betty Crocker might have been shocked by such lavishness -- if such a person had ever existed. "There never really was a Betty Crocker," explains our guide as we move past the various portraits of the fictional character. "We made her up." Betty, it turns out, was (and is) nothing more than a composite picture of General Mills home economists -- the eyes from one, the nose from another, etc. No one seemed surprised.
Finally, in the Cape Cod Kitchen, we find something besides a display of cake mixes and a fireplace. A woman here is busily mixing something together in a large bowl. Here is my chance to really see how Betty Crocker kitchens handle food, to see the care and precision with which these experts test their products and recipes.
I watch intently. She's measuring the flour carefully enough, it seems, and now beating it in what seems to be a fairly precise manner. She certainly looks competent and the kitchen is immaculate.
Meanwhile, our guide is telling us about new cake mixes and preparing to move this quiet group along. Encouraged by my stay in Cape Cod, I proceed in hopes of seeing more action.
I am disappointed in Pennsylvania (empty) and chagrined in Chinatown (frozen fruit), but in the Arizona Desert Kitchen, I find two real onions on the counter and a woman warming a cup of coffee in the microwave. Signs of life disappear once again, however, and I find the Williamsburg Kitchen vacant except for a "Christmas House" constructed entirely from peppermint sticks, gumdrops, coconut, nougat and other assorted goodies. "I'm left at the end of the tour with a lasting impression, as well a gift box containing a packet of Bisquick, some tidbits on good nutrition and a few advertisements for General Mills subsidiaries.
General Mills has been conducting public tours of the Betty Crocker Kitchens for some 15 years, according to Tour Director Dee Young. "We want to share with the public what is going on in our test kitchens so that they can understand the care and precision that is involved in our testing and development," she explained.
I told her I didn't understand why nothing was happening in the kitchens during the tour. Lunch break? Holiday? Bomb scare? They were having meetings that day, Young confided, but added, "The home economists are not here for the benefit of the guests. They are here to do their business. And their business may have them in the kitchens, or it may have them in their offices, or it may have them in a meeting outside the building. They are not just cooks. They are highly trained professional people and their jobs have a wider scope."
As it turns out, the real nuts and bolts of the business of testing foods and producing new products for General Mills takes place behind the closed doors of the nearby James Ford Bell Technical Center. There, some 650 General Mills employes -- most of them food technologists, scientists, and nutritionists -- conduct food research and explore new methods of product maintenance, packaging and quality control measures.
According to General Mills officials all work done at the Bell Center is conducted under the synthetic environs of high technology: greenhouses lit by articial lighting producing so-called "specialty products," among them smaller heads of lettuce and spinach. Unfortunately, all of this is unavailable to the public.
The kitchens that are open to the public are merely cosmetic attractions meant mostly to create the illusion that General Mills is bringing you into the places where their foods is actually being prepared to be sent to your local grocer. The pleasant and artistic environments serve mostly to enhance the public's perception of General Mills' products.
Still, the kitchens serve some minor purpose beyond a function of public relations. General Mills, according to Young, has a unique recipe testing method centered in these kitchens. She said they are the only company she knows of that uses a three-step testing method. One home economist develops the recipe, another does the recipe from her notes, then the recipe is sent out to one of the 1400 home testing panels which work with General Mills.
In addition, these home economists receive thousands of letters each month from consumers inquiring about products or detailing problems they may be having with certain products or recipes. People from the kitchens then check out the problems, working closely with food scientists, bringing what Young calls "the consumer point of view" to the testing process.
This "consumer point of view" is certainly shared by those involved in conducting the Betty Crocker Kitchens tour. We are never allowed to forget that we are consumers and that General Mills has many products for us to consume. Moreover, Young admits that one of the reasons for the tour is to make new products more visible to the consumer.
It's a marketing approach, to be sure and a very efficient one, for while we're being encouraged to consume the many and varied products of General Mills, we're being spoon fed from their bowl of social responsibility. Like the red and white gift box of information and Bisquick, the Betty Crocker Kitchen tour is a neat little item -- a tidy package filled with highly questionable contents.