Washingtonians are the guinea pigs for a food experiment. They are being enticed by a new product, a new concept in grocery merchandising, in nine local markets. Called Today's Taste, it's a line of fresh entrees that the Campbell Soup Co. hopes will outshine upscale frozen dinners and compete with fancy carryout food. And Washington is the country's first and only test market.

Housed in what Campbell calls its "catering kiosk," a refrigeration unit that looks like a cross between a gazebo and a thatched hut, Today's Taste products include a total of 22 soups, salads, entrees and desserts, with trendy names such as Pasta Primavera Salad with Pesto, Veal Medallions with Baked Tomato and Kiwi, Fillet of Salmon with Basil Sauce.

In addition, the side compartments of the kiosk contain the "Chef's Corner," a line of spices, condiments, sauces and beverages -- including Swiss water-processed decaffeinated coffees -- manufactured by small specialty companies and specially packaged for Campbell.

Washington is rarely used as a test market because the prevalence of high-income consumers puts this area out of the "middle America" category. In this case, however, the demographics are "right on target," said Mark Sherman of the Alexandria "business unit" of Campbell and project director for Today's Taste.

It's another food for the single professional, the busy working couple, and it's made from scratch, without frozen-dinner additives such as monosodium glutamate. Most of the entrees are fewer than 500 calories, all of the dishes can be reheated in a microwave oven, and none requires more than 20 minutes' heating in a conventional oven. And the price range -- $4.25 to $7.95 for the entrees -- falls somewhere between frozen upscale dinners and fancy carryout food.

Packaged in plastic trays in burgundy-colored cardboard sleeves, the single-serving entrees, soups and salads are prepared daily at Kitchen Privileges, a catering facility in Springfield, and trucked to four Safeways and two Giants in affluent suburban areas, the Chevy Chase Supermarket, the Rockville Magruder's and an Alexandria 7-Eleven.

The culmination of two years of research and development, the Today's Taste concept is "unprecedented" and an idea that is "breaking ground," according to some Campbell executives. For fear of competitors gaining valuable market information, Sherman was somewhat hesitant to give out details -- refusing to divulge who his chefs are -- but said that Today's Taste employs an "executive chef" and an "assistant chef" who are both "local." And ingredients are purchased from "local" purveyors.

Barry Wax, who runs Kitchen Privileges, said, "They keep everything very close to the vest" and that the Today's Taste staff puts "privacy screens" around the work area it has had since early fall. There, six days a week, sometimes all day long, the staff has been testing and retesting recipes.

Wax accepts food deliveries for other caterers who use his facility, but a Today's Taste staffer accepts Campbell's deliveries, looking over the veal and the fruit to make sure it is the proper freshness and quality, according to Wax. "They keep the delivery people there until they're satisfied," Wax said, adding that he has seen food sent back.

And although Sherman wouldn't identify the companies providing the "Chef's Corner" pantry ingredients, a source identifed three small Vermont companies as being among the manufacturers, and the companies themselves have verified their involvement with Campbell's.

The Herb Patch is manufacturing the spice blends, Stowe Hollow Kitchen is providing the chutneys and Blanchard & Blanchard is providing some of the pantry goods as well, although the recipes are not the same as the company's private label products. Some of Today's Taste products are being sold for considerably less. The culinary spice blends, for instance, which can be purchased via mail order for between $3.30 and $3.50, Today's Taste sells for $1.90.

In addition, Ridgewell Caterers has acted as a recipe consultant throughout the project. Although James Caulfield, Ridgewell's executive vice president, said he'd "love" to talk about the program, he said the contract between the two companies specifies that the caterer must keep mention of its involvement to the "barest minimum" during the six-month test market period. Campbell wants the product to "stand or fall on its own, without any coloring," said Caulfield. Since Ridgewell's has a high name recognition in Washington, Campbell doesn't want the caterer's involvement to "skew" the test market.

Aside from helping Campbell develop recipes, Sherman said, Ridgewell's is responsible for the entree garnishes. The kiosk's fruit tarts and Perfect Pear dessert are currently being made by Ridgewell's, although Sherman said they eventually will be baked in Today's Taste's kitchens.

Despite some amount of secrecy, Campbell officials were willing to talk about other aspects of the two-year development project. Today's Taste is trying to establish itself as a division in and unto itself, says Donna Haverstock, senior manager for Campbell's consumer nutrition center, who has been involved with the project since its inception. "We realize that when people hear the word Campbell, they think of canned soup."

To retain its own image and to downplay Campbell, Today's Taste has its own letterhead stationery, the glossy brochure available at the catering kiosk lists "Campbell Food Distributing Corp." in small letters on the back page, and the name "Campbell" appears only on the back of the product labels.

As for the entree selections, Haverstock said the emphasis on fish and chicken (there is only one beef dish) was in accordance with current dietary trends of eating less red meat, and that the company decided on a mix of familiar dishes (primavera) and new dishes (the Chicken Azteca) to add diversity.

A "good deal" of product development time was spent "heightening" the flavors, said Haverstock, who added that before the products hit the stores, test marketing was conducted in taste panels at the company's Camden office as well as Washington-area shopping malls.

In addition, since the freshness aspect of the project is crucial, all dishes went under a "barrage of bacteriological tests," said Haverstock, and some were dropped because they didn't "hold up." The food is delivered the day it is made and marked with a "use-by" date four days from preparation, although unsold items are pulled two days after being delivered to the kiosk, said Sherman. And when the food is brought back to Kitchen Privileges, it continues to undergo bacteriological testing for freshness, as part of the test-market information, Sherman said.

Although the food is heated when the consumer takes it home, it has already been "fully cooked," said Haverstock, so that "if you wanted to eat a cold filet of salmon, then you could. It wouldn't make you sick." Haverstock said the cooking formulas and procedures enable the product to be reheated without tasting overdone.

Consumers helped Campbell determine what shape the catering kiosk would take. Consumers viewed prototype drawings of receptacles of different shapes and sizes, said Haverstock, some as integrated parts of the produce section or the dairy case, but they indicated a preference for the isolated kiosk. The kiosk needed to look "very clean" but not "too sterile," added Haverstock. It had to be "consumer friendly."

And though the test market store determined the placement of the kiosk depending on available space (some are next to the deli department, some near the dairy case or the produce section), how or if location affects purchases may turn out to be valuable information to Today's Taste, said Sherman.

The burgundy packages with white lettering, reminiscent of the Silver Palate motif ("not done intentionally," said Haverstock) were chosen because of their "nonsupermarket" look. "Many people said, 'This isn't a food color,' " said Haverstock, but the company went with it because it wanted something different and striking.

Calorically speaking, Today's Taste entrees are comparable to at least some of the upscale frozen dinners. Today's Taste entrees, being in the upper 300- to 450-calorie range, are comparable to Le Menu (another Campbell's product) and Dinner Classics, but higher in calories than lines such as Lean Cuisine, Classic Lite and Light & Elegant, which are all lower than 300 calories. Today's Taste entrees range from about 800 to 1,200 milligrams of sodium per serving, about the same as most upscale frozen dinners. (The National Academy of Sciences recommends from 1,100 to 3,300 mg. of sodium per day.) As for fat content, Today's Taste entrees currently on the market all contain less than 30 percent fat, as do the "lite" lines of frozen upscale dinners such as Lean Cuisine and Light & Elegant.

As for price, they are generally more expensive than most frozen dinners (most of which are $2 to $3, the top being $4.29 or $4.69), although some of the Today's Taste salads, which are suitable for a meal, are in frozen-dinner range (pasta primavera for $1.85, for example, Chicken Salad Jacques for $3.45).

And they are often less expensive than foods from fancy food markets. Some examples: Suzanne's sells a variety of fancy chicken salads for $9.95 a pound. Today's Taste's Chicken Salad Jacques weighs about half a pound and sells for $3.45, or $6.90 a pound. Giant Gourmet Someplace Special sells a pasta primavera for $5.50 a pound, pesto pasta for $5.20 a pound. Purchased by the pound, Today's Taste's Pasta Primavera with Pesto would come to $3.70.

On some items, Today's Taste is higher. Giant Gourmet sells 12 ounces of Maryland Crab Soup for $2.30. Today's Taste's Chesapeake-Style Crab Chowder, only 10 ounces, sells for more -- $2.85. And Giant Gourmet's "step cooking" chicken dishes such as chicken marengo and chicken dijonnaise sell for between $6.50 and $8.50 per pound. Per pound, Today's Taste's Chicken Azteca and Chicken Florentine would cost about $9.

Despite some lower prices, consumers may find items such as Today's Taste veal marsala for $6.95 steep for a supermarket item. According to a manager of one area test supermarket, Today's Taste isn't "moving real well." Customers have said it's "real high priced," he reported.

One woman with a few Today's Taste items in her shopping cart at the Chevy Chase Supermarket said they're "a little high," but "I wouldn't mind paying a dollar more than Lean Cuisine if it's good."

In the first couple weeks of the test-market period, the less expensive dishes such as the pasta primavera and Chicken Salad Jacques and the soups were selling the best, said Haverstock. It's not unusual for people to enter a new product category with something less expensive, she added, although in the month that Today's Taste has been on the market, other dishes have been showing gains as well.

What has the Today's Taste staff learned thus far from its test? Haverstock said the company needs to help consumers "a little more in understanding what fresh refrigerated foods are." A lot of people think it's another frozen dinner, said Haverstock.

As a result, the company is trying to change the signs on the kiosks to "scream out fresh" and a week ago Friday and Saturday, three test supermarkets were staffed with tuxedoed waiters -- some also employed by Ridgewell's -- offering free samples of the product as they explained the Today's Taste concept. Sherman said this taste testing will continue in stores for the next four weeks.

Post card questionnaires inserted into the entree sleeves ask consumers 12 questions, ranging from "Do you own a microwave oven?" to "How old was the person who ate this product?" Haverstock said questionnaires are just beginning to filter back to the Camden office, where they will be analyzed. And the future of Today's Taste? If Washington's test market is a success, those catering kiosks may someday populate not only your local supermarket, but all kinds of locations -- office buildings, metro stops, even airports.