On a recent weekday afternoon, people gathered for lunch in an inconspicuous office building in the Pearl District, with only a vague idea of what they were about to put in their mouths.

Attendees sat in dimly lit, stark-white cubicles. A slot in the wall would eventually open, where two hands clad in plastic gloves presented a cafeteria tray with food and a glass of water.

No, this isn't some hip, new restaurant with a solitary confinement theme.

(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)

At the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center (1207 NW Naito Parkway, No. 154, 503-872-6680, fic.oregonstate.edu), the patrons are actually paid to be here—putting their palates to work as taste testers for a local company developing a new product.

The joint venture between OSU and the Oregon Department of Agriculture is the only one of its kind on the West Coast. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside, you'll find test kitchens and development labs that resemble a mashup of a set from the Food Network and a chemistry classroom with way more expensive equipment. Exposing new food samples to fickle tongues in focus groups, or different temperature and humidity levels in lab experiments, helps evaluate taste, texture and even shelf life.

(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)

It's a place, for instance, where the humble hazelnut goes for an extreme makeover. Farmers can only sell so much of the filbert on its own, so if one wants to transform part of the crop into the $10 jars of butter you'd find at New Seasons, the experts at OSU can make that happen.

"That value add can often be worth three times what it would've been worth as a raw commodity from the farm," says Dave Stone, the center's director.

Sensory evaluations are just one method of research here. Typically, the average person isn't allowed a peek of the work conducted in the center's biosafety labs, where food is subjected to a blast freezer and CO2 laser, but you can sign up to join its database of eager and willing taste buds. It might take a while to get in—the waiting list is now 34,000 names strong. But once you're called, you just may help the next Salt & Straw launch a line of gluten-free, fiber-packed pints of ice cream, or determine whether protein fish powder can be made appealing on a plate.

(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)
(Katie Reahl)

Click here for the full Best of Portland 2018 guide.