Behind the plain-vanilla title of research and development manager, Tarisha Gray might have the sweetest job in Lakeland. Among her duties: tasting all of the ice cream flavors made in the Publix Super Markets dairy plants to decide if they need improvements. She also helps develop new Publix ice cream flavors.
Gray, 40, is originally from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She earned a master’s degree in food science from Florida A & M University after getting an undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. That led her to her first job with Publix in 2008.
She told Spoon University that she was attracted to the Lakeland-based supermarket chain by the family/community spirit she observed when she toured one of the dairy plants.
In a Facebook video, she described her role as embodying the farm-to-table concept. It involves ideation, creation, production, getting the product to the store, and taking feedback from customers, she said.
“My career with Publix started in Quality Control, which provided the opportunity not only to ensure the quality of our products, but also gain familiarity with our products and customers,” she told LkldNow. “Having this opportunity and a food science background allowed for a seamless transition into Product Development. I am responsible for developing products across various categories, with ice cream being one of the categories.”
Publix promoted Gray to research and development technician in 2012 and then to her current role in 2015. She develops flavors solely for the Publix private label ice creams. While tasting different ice cream flavors is part of the job, she said a lot more goes into it.
“I oversee the research and development functions of three dairy plants and manage the everyday activities which involve ideation, innovation of new products, improving existing products, testing and approving raw materials for products, and ensuring product labels accurately reflect nutrition, ingredients, and regulatory information,” Gray explained.
She gets ideas for new flavors from visiting Publix stores, restaurants and mom-and-pop shops. It can take a full year to create a new flavor, she said in a Publix Stories podcast.
“Understanding the functionality (and) science of food along with strong sensory skills helps,” Gray said. “Staying engaged in the dairy industry via trends research (newsletters, brief, forums, etc.) and with our suppliers both play big roles in keeping us in tune with what’s popular and trending. My passion for food feeds into my inspiration. There must be a passion for food, because then you’re not afraid to pair certain things together and potentially have that eureka moment.“
Publix typically introduces four to six new flavors a year, according to Gray.
“We do retire flavors periodically, and typically make a handful of changes each year. We might add a couple of items to our permanent flavor assortment and discontinue a couple each year,” Gray said.
Many of the new ice cream flavors are introduced as limited editions, and Gray’s team sees if they sell before promoting them to permanent flavors offered in stores. She said they try to introduce a handful of limited editions each year. She wouldn’t disclose what metrics they look at to determine which flavors to put on store shelves, calling the process “strategic” and “proprietary” in nature.
According to the “Publix Checkout blog,” the seven Publix Premium limited-time ice cream flavors released in January included Maple Tiramisu, Strawberry Shortcake, New Orleans Caramel Praline, Hazelnut Amaretto Biscotti, Irish Crème Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter Pie, and Bananas Foster, which was brought out of retirement. These flavors remain available through this month, and a new set of limited-time flavors is scheduled for release next month.