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Arts & Life

Walmart And Amazon's Food Fight

NOEL KING, HOST:

This story is about two giant retailers that are competing for your grocery money. This past spring, you remember Amazon bought Whole Foods, and their big competitor, Walmart, got a little worried and is now inventing new foods to compete. They're doing this - Walmart is doing this in a lab in Bentonville, Ark. and my colleague Julia Dewitt went out there.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: When I got to Bentonville, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Walmart has historically been a pretty secretive company. So going down, I'm wondering, will the offices be ringed in high walls? Will I be met with stony-faced security guards when I walked in?

It's so good to meet you in person.

MOLLY BLAKEMAN: It's so nice to meet you. Thanks for being here. I know it's a trek (laughter).

DEWITT: This is Molly Blakeman. She's basically the opposite of cold and secretive. We walk back through this compound and eventually, I end up in a room with this guy, Jack Pestello. In front of us on a plate is one of Walmart's newest food developments.

JACK PESTELLO: It is a bright-red pickle.

DEWITT: Yes, a bright-red pickle.

PESTELLO: And it's got a lot of fruit punch loaded in it. So you get - you pickle it with fruit punch.

DEWITT: Walmart would like the world to know it is creating tropical fruit punch pickles. They call this the tropical. Naturally, I have to try it.

OK, I think I can probably just cut it with this fork. I'm not sure...

(LAUGHTER)

DEWITT: ...I'm your prime consumer for this.

(LAUGHTER)

DEWITT: Wow, this tastes crazy.

BLAKEMAN: It does taste like tropical punch, doesn't it? It's, like, the texture of the pickle...

DEWITT: It is both ridiculously sweet and still tastes like a sour, salty pickle. This place I'm in is called the Culinary & Innovation Center. Walmart built it last year as part of an effort to up their food game because Walmart is inventing food. The tropical was inspired by a kind of pickle you can find in barbecue joints in the south.

Other things that have been developed here include birthday cake oatmeal. And they're even developing new kinds of fruits and vegetables.

VICTOR VILLAGE: This watermelon is actually yellow-skinned and striped. And they're bright red inside and the flavor is unbelievable.

DEWITT: This is Victor Village (ph). He's helping develop all new produce for the company. He says the yellow color was actually an accident, but it will also give them a competitive edge. And while I'm looking at it, it occurs to me, this yellow watermelon may be exactly the kind of weapon they'll need in this food fight with Amazon.

VILLAGE: When a piece of fruit or vegetable looks odd, at first, you know, people really have to try hard, you know, to taste it. But if we put demos in the stores and they love it, then that becomes your best friend because your kid will tell you, Mommy, bring me the yellow watermelon that I love - easy to recognize.

DEWITT: Food is the one thing we absolutely need all of the time. And it brings us into stores more regularly than anything else we buy. Walmart and Amazon, they both know this. Furthermore, that yellow watermelon, it is exclusively found at Walmart. And when that mom goes to Walmart for that melon, she might remember she needs some socks and some detergent and while she's at it, well, pretty much everything else she might need.

Julia Dewitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.