I design the shapes of chicken nuggets - among other food products. Here's what my career is like.

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I design the shapes of chicken nuggets - among other food products. Here's what my career is like.
Mark Tolbert. Courtesy of Perdue
  • Mark Tolbert, 47, is a food scientist at Perdue helping design new products.
  • He oversees the company's innovation facility and projects and his team of 10.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Mark Tolbert, a 47-year-old senior innovation center facilities manager at Perdue Foods from Salisbury, Maryland, about his job. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I grew up in southwestern Virginia on a beef cattle farm. Working on the farm was a daily job, and I found that I'm naturally pretty mechanically inclined, whether repairing things or troubleshooting problems.

Before and during college, I worked at a veterinarian clinic, a dairy farm, a grocery store, and even as a manager of a slaughter operation. I attended Virginia Tech for college, where I double-majored in animal science and food science.

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I took classes in meat science, which is how I got my first job out of college in the early '90s managing a pilot plant at Central Soya, a soy processing company that incorporated soy into meat products. After three years, I went back to school for a master's degree in meat science.

From there, I started working for Campbell Soup Company, with leading roles across various brands including Chunky Soup and SpaghettiO's. In the last two years at Campbell's, I ran quality control for those brands, which was a very hands-on role. I also managed a team within the ingredients group at Campbell's. We worked on one project where we had over 700 ingredients and had to reduce the ingredients by 40%. In 2015, I started working at Perdue Farms.

I'm accountable for everything within the boundaries of the 5.14-acre property

I design the shapes of chicken nuggets - among other food products. Here's what my career is like.
The Perdue innovation center. Perdue

I'm even responsible for a few things outside it, like the railroad tracks everyone crosses on the way to our facility. I'm responsible for every blade of grass, all the lightbulbs, and everything in between.

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Upon accepting the role, I knew I would quickly expand it into something much bigger, as my curiosity wouldn't allow me to settle into the more narrow job description for long. I manage research and development (R&D) projects like developing turkey- and drumstick-shaped nuggets in line with Thanksgiving. Our nuggets run through equipment I'm very familiar with, so I helped develop the mold plates that contain the shape of the nugget.

I also was involved with the development of a blend of Perdue chicken with vegetables. My previous experience at Campbell's was essential since I had extensive experience working with frozen vegetables, something people generally are not as familiar with at a meat company.

During my first hour on the premises, I walk through the facility, saying hello to each of my 10 team members

I start to gauge the morale of the group and figure out what might have to be done that day. On my own time, I'll sometimes reread books like "The Ideal Team Player" by Patrick Lencioni and "Lincoln on Leadership" by Donald T. Phillips to refresh my memory on being a leader. I focus on everyone being a team player, which includes being humble and hardworking.

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I'll then check out the plant trials board, which lets me know what we need to work on. Typically, we average about two trials per day, and it can get quite busy managing that. Sometimes we might run a special new experimental product, and those days are always extra exciting.

There are always "tastings" or what we refer to as "product cuttings" in the days following our trials. Usually this will involve the R&D technologist leading the project along with representatives from sensory, sales, and marketing. Some product cuttings focus on flavor whereas others will look at technical data like shape, weight, breading adhesion, etc. New shapes often require two to three iterations to get them to perform as expected.

After that, I spend a little time seeing if anyone or any project needs extra attention. From there, I'm off to my projects.

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I love the daily 'strangeness.' There really is something different every day, and I enjoy those challenges that give way to problem-solving.

I design the shapes of chicken nuggets - among other food products. Here's what my career is like.
A nugget plate. Courtesy of Perdue

I even keep a count in my head as the day goes on of the ratio of challenges versus solutions. I aim to keep it at 1:1, but some days it might be more like 5:1.

In the same week at work, I can make breaded chicken nuggets (in any shape I choose to design) as well as pet treats, hot dogs, turkey, deli ham - the list goes on. In my previous roles and now here at Perdue, you'll find very few, if any, poultry and meat products in a grocery store that I haven't made.

Perdue Farms turned 100 in 2020. We were going to break a Guinness record for the largest serving of smoked chicken. The goal was going to be over 9,000 pounds. I had specified all the equipment, purchased an oven, and aligned donations of utilities and tractor trailers. Unfortunately, our plans were sidelined by COVID-19, but maybe we'll try again soon.

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