A few Kansas City conversation starters for sure: I start my day swinging from the Swope Park trees.
Or, those Baldwin jeans that you and many celebrities are wearing? Pricey, yes. But … pssst, I test them out for a living.
And surely you’ve tried luxurious Christopher Elbow chocolates. Of course. Eat them whenever I like and get paid for it.
Paid to test some of our favorite local products and playthings — that is, stuff the rest of us are told we have to buy.
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Awesome work if you can land it. But if you are hired to help with, say, morning inspections at the Go Ape Treetop Adventure course, understand it is not all fun and games.
That crew of testers must navigate the course backward.
See, what testers do isn’t always a joy. It’s a job.
But someone’s got to do it.
If the pants fit …
World population: 7.4 billion people.
Number of people presently wearing Lola straight fit jeans from the tony Baldwin denim line: One.
Her name is Zoey Chamberlain. She’s 23, lives in Merriam and works as a technical designer for one of the hippest makers of casual clothes on the planet.
From time to time about 15 employees of Leawood-based Baldwin wear-test the favorite threads of Jay-Z, George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres. Chamberlain has a tiny waist nearly identical in size to the company’s “fit model” in Los Angeles, for whom styles in development are exclusively tailored.
Once the fit model has tried out new products they’re fanned out to others in the firm. In the case of the Lola straight fit, Chamberlain had first dibs.
“It’s good to be on the inside,” said Jenn McKelvie, Baldwin’s director of product development.
Since local designer Matt Baldwin launched the label in 2009, Baldwin denim has drawn kudos from GQ, Esquire and Vogue magazines and earned the founder a spot in “The Fashion Fund” reality TV series.
Among the company perks are testing and keeping clothes without having to pay the roughly $200 sticker price for a pair of stretch-selvage jeans.
The slightest puckers around the knees, hips or waists draw special scrutiny. A crooked seam, forget it. For pants getting ripe after a few weeks’ wear, one good soaking or a night in the freezer better do the trick.
“We live and die by that feedback,” McKelvie said.
Company marketing specialist Ashley Hight spent months wearing the just-released fall line.
“We’re looking for not only how the pattern holds its shape but also for comfort and overall performance,” Hight said. “These I’m wearing now had been in development for about a year.”
Prefer jeans of the $35 variety? Kansas Citians test plenty of those, too.
Just 3 miles northwest of Baldwin’s offices, employees of the Lee Co. — headquartered for decades in Merriam — describe bedroom closets full of wear-tested shirts, skirts, jeans and jackets.
“We’re taking stuff home all the time,” said Holly Lavender, Lee senior product manager for men’s denim. “My husband is a wear-tester. I have a 16-year-old son who weighs in.”
And nobody holds back.
“We’re our own worst critics,” said Judy Deines, the company’s senior manager for consumer insights. “We want Lee to succeed. Everyone here has a vested interest in making the product as good as it can be.”
Can you have too much chocolate?
At home Christopher Elbow prefers tortilla chips to chocolate.
He munches enough sweets at the Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates shop downtown.
So do 30-some employees. In their break room, trays of luscious truffles, pralines and caramel infused with maple-flavored bourbon — flawed with an air bubble or imperfect icing — may even go uneaten.
Credit too much of a heavenly thing for what cook Betsy Knutsen craves away from the dark chocolate vats in the Christopher Elbow kitchen.
“When I’m out and about, all that I’ll really want is a Kit Kat bar,” Knutsen said.
Since 2007 Elbow has crafted chocolates as delectable works of art.
Employees are “encouraged to taste as much as they want,” he said, especially the candies in development. Recently they included some sinfully exquisite squares of eggnog-flavored filling destined for holiday gift boxes.
“Just like any chef or high-end restaurant, you’re going to taste everything you make,” if only to make certain that salt wasn’t confused with sugar, said Elbow, 42.
He offered a visitor a wafer-thin piece of chocolate with a taste and texture that he said were “still not quite there.” Workers broke off pieces to judge for themselves.
Elbow said: “We might try something 10 times before it hits that balance I’m looking for between the flavors inside and the chocolate around it.”
Wafting aromas of butterscotch, lavender, fresh mint and bourbon swirl around this shop in the 1800 block of McGee Street, where 21-piece boxes sell for $42.
And you knew this was coming: “When you first start working here, you are the kid in a candy store … trying everything,” said Cortney Inbody, customer experience manager and corporate gifts concierge.
“But after six or seven months you’ll narrow it down to three or four favorites,” she said.
Elbow said he can tire of all the chocolate.
“Now this, I can sample all day,” he said of the one-inch square fruit pate that he just popped in his mouth. “Try that.”
Again, someone’s got to do it.
Like Tarzan, only backward
Hailey Kenkel is 30 feet off the ground testing the cargo net.
Quietly yet quickly, she makes like a spider toward a wooden perch where a rope ladder is rolled up. The ladder had been raised the evening before by the crew of Go Ape, which opened last spring in Swope Park.
Because the rope ladders sit overnight atop high platforms, Kenkel and others who test equipment after sunrise must traverse the course backward. Tethered to safety cables and pulleys, they need a running start to scale up the sloping ziplines and then muscle their way higher — whereas the park’s visitors benefit from gravity to slide down the lines.
Going in reverse is the testers’ only way to reach the Tarzan swings, wobbly bridges and three-dozen mid-air obstacles that dot the course.
The morning inspection is all business — no monkeying around as Kenkel scampers down the ladder she just unfurled.
“On the ground at Site 3 … I’ll need another water,” Kenkel radioed to her cohorts — Connor Eastman checking the zipline where park guests complete 20 minutes of training, and Sam McCrillis out of view on a swinging bridge with X-shaped planks.
They’re all in their 20s and suited up like utility linemen. The testing commences at 8:15 a.m.; the first guests will arrive in 45 minutes. Speed, strength and stamina are required.
McCrillis used to be a professional soccer player in Australia. Eastman was a bill collector, but, “I was in the Boy Scouts when I was younger,” he noted, “so this isn’t completely alien to me.”
Kenkel and Go Ape were destined for each other.
Her experience includes working on the climbing tower and high-ropes course at William Jewell College’s Tucker Leadership Lab, where Kenkel has help groups build teamwork and overcome fears. A recreation major and YMCA coach, last year she got a master’s degree in applied health science from Northwest Missouri State University.
And go figure: What she likes about Go Ape, she said, is that it’s more tranquil than the name implies.
“After a commute down I-435 from Smithville, it’s so quiet when you wind up here each morning,” she said. “Kind of peaceful.”
Now that’s hot
Taste-testers go through 5,000 plastic spoons per week at Original Juan Specialty Foods in Kansas City, Kan.
The maker of 1,700 products — mostly barbecue blends, salsas, marinades and pepper sauces — its testers hold themselves to what Kit Maxfield, director of product development, calls the wow standard: “Unless everybody arrives at the point where they’re going, ‘Wow! That’s awesome,’ we won’t launch a product.”
That’s Josh Popejoy, 27, manning the test kitchen with associate Tommy Carter. Often clients will join them in the kitchen mixing and testing the clients’ ordered recipes. In other cases, Original Juan creates its own formula.
“When I first started three years ago I loved hot,” Popejoy said. “But I really didn’t know the meaning of hot.”
The meaning of hot is broken down by the Scoville Heat Scale, which is displayed in the factory’s gift shop off Southwest Boulevard and Eaton Street. At the top of the scale is a 1-ounce bottle of insanity called The Source, which the shop sells for $90.
“Seriously. It’s like 10 times hotter than Mace,” Popejoy said.
College students will buy The Source to experience how bad a toothpick dabbed with 7.1 million Scoville heat units can scorch the tongue. By comparison, the hottest of Original Juan’s “Pain Is Good” line of sauces, a version made from the meanest of all peppers (the Carolina reaper), is blazing at 44,000 Scoville heat units.
Somewhere around 100,000 on the Scoville scale were two plastic buckets of a fire-engine red habenero in the Original Juan kitchen. Popejoy, Maxfield and others last week took turns tasting.
Maxfield thrust two plastic spoons into his mouth at once, setting a smear of habeñero on each side of his tongue. This confirmed for him that the two habeñero pastes, from different Ecuadoran farm fields, packed similar fire.
Popejoy tried a sample from each bucket, then another sample, followed by more. He was stone-faced the whole time, his brow not even moist.
“It’s not that you build up a tolerance,” he said. “I just know what to expect. The people who aren’t really aware of what’s coming feel this sensation and start freaking out.”
Popejoy suppresses it well.
“Some people will hallucinate if something’s too hot,” Popejoy warned. “The senses get so overloaded, they might start seeing spots. Or their ears will ring.”
Joining the men in the taste kitchen was Valerie Lewellen, “the queen of hot.” She has worked in every department at Original Juan since founder Joe Polo launched the company two decades ago.
Earlier this day Lewellen tested a ginger-flavored cocktail mixer. By 11 a.m. it was on to taco sauce. (To keep their palates from getting confused, taste-testers tend to start the morning with sweet or mild blends and go warmer as the day wears on.)
She likes the job, except for one scary day in the production area several years back. Lewellen was cooking a batch of The Source and let the whisk slip, resulting in a splash-up. She fell to the floor blinded for a time. Her cheeks began to peel. She went to the hospital to be treated for burns.
Testing the taco sauce was a breeze.
She rolled a plastic spoonful in her mouth, let it linger a bit, sniffed a couple of times and swallowed.
The test kitchen waited in silence as Lewellen raised a thumb and proclaimed: “It’s a go.”