Michael Bunn first learned the rank-and-file rigor of the professional kitchen in the military, as chief cook for the US Marine Corps in the 90s after attending its food service school. Throughout his civilian career, he climbed the ladder from chef, to restaurant manager, to dietary manager, to senior food scientist, to R&D chef and director of R&D. Today, Bunn serves as senior quality and product development manager for Bentonville, Arkansas- based Sam’s Club, a business unit of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., in a capacity that leverages his culinary and food safety experience.
“Working as a cook in the Marines definitely gave me a thick skin,” Bunn said. “It influenced me to be patient and very flexible to change at a fast and even at times a slow pace, dependent on the environment.”
The discipline of a Marine
Bunn began working at Sam’s Club a year ago for the private brands team. As the eighth largest retail business in the US with annual net sales of more than $57 billion — and with 653 club stores nationwide and in Puerto Rico — Sam’s Club keeps him on a busy schedule.
“I research and develop new, innovative food items across all food and beverage categories,” he explained. “I am the culinary, food science and quality resource for our team of product developers, brand managers and buyers. Since I support all the food categories, the biggest challenge is how to deliver what every category needs and how to make everyone happy in each category. I handle each as separate projects and manage my time as much as possible.”
Sam’s Club introduces products quarterly, and some of his ideas — including stuffed ravioli sold fresh and refrigerated — are taking fruition this fall.
Bunn said that serving Sam’s presents a different set of challenges than working for a supermarket, convenience store or food service chain because they carry a variety of items in bulk and in a combination of other formats that may be used for business or personal use.
As the liaison between the quality and product development departments, his day-to-day challenge is ensuring the R&D process continually runs smoothly. “I work with the product development team to create products that make Sam’s Club members happy,” he said. “If a formula is not meeting its expectations, the team and I will work with the supplier to fix any issues that we have with it until we have a successful formula that meets members’ expectations.”
Bunn’s duties include weekly taste tests for each food category, and he attends sensory panels for potential new food items. “I also review and approve specs for the product developers and work with suppliers to ensure the products are what we are looking for,” he said. “When I am not working with product development, I am traveling to food manufacturing plants conducting supplier approvals, audits and first production runs to ensure the products meet the required specifications.”
Because of his inclination to be so hands-on, he said, “My biggest R&D challenge is not being able to be the person actually at the bench developing the product all the time.”
Inspiration for Bunn’s new products comes from many sources. “I attend many shows across the country, including the Research Chef Association’s (RCA) conference, to search for trends,” he said. “I also read a lot of industry publications, and I like to go to different restaurants and food trucks across the country when I am traveling.”
Food trends that he brings to Sam’s reflect many hot buttons in the industry in general. “Clean-label products are still very strong, as are gluten-free and low-sodium,” he said. “More ethnic items and flavors from across the world are hitting the market. At Sam’s, we are keeping up with all the new and exciting flavor profiles as well as current trends across all categories.”
He defined success on-the-job by how he feels about the product he’s developed. “When I see the product on our stores’ shelves, I consider it a success no matter how long it stays on the shelf,” he said. “If I am not satisfied with the appearance, flavor or any of the most critical attributes, I will not present it at all.”
He joined the RCA to gain knowledge and to be mentored by others within the industry. “I personally get information and lifelong friends that share the same passion for food,” he said. “I also give of myself as a resource, mentor and motivator to everyone who has an interest in being involved with the RCA and those who just love food. The RCA is the pipeline to the food service industry from a chef and R&D point of view.”
Bunn received his bachelor’s degree from the Univ. of Cincinnati in culinary science with a focus on Culinology in 2007 — he is one of the first graduates of the program — and also received his master’s degree in food science in 2015 from Kansas State University. Before working in R&D, he worked in a variety of non-commercial food service settings such as senior living communities and hospitals, managing kitchens, performing food safety audits, assisting dieticians with clinical dietary assessments and needs, and managing special diets. In 2000, he earned two certifications for managing food service operations and ensuring food safety in these patient-based settings: the Association of Foodservice and Nutritional Professionals’ Certified Dietary Manager (CDM) and Certified Food Protection Professional (CFPP) certifications.
Love of food, country and adventure
“The Marines gave me the opportunity to travel to exotic places such as the Virgin Islands, Antigua and Cuba, and my love for adventure began early in my life,” he said. In his free time he enjoys high-energy sports such as skydiving, snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding, and early in his life he even competed in the 1987-1988 Eastern skateboarding championships.
Bunn inherited both his love of food and country from his family, specifically his parents, who were also Marines. He noted proudly his birthplace is Parris Island, South Carolina, “home of the US Marine Corps’ East Coast boot camp, where Marines are born.”
His earliest food memory was eating blue crabs at his grandmother’s house in Baltimore, and today he’s passing on his love for cooking to his child. “My 14-year-old daughter is also a pretty mean cook, but she wants to be an architect,” he said.
His enthusiasm for work comes from old-fashioned values. “My inspiration is from the ‘terrible’ notion that being a cook or chef is not a great choice for a career,” he said. “When I got out of the military, people would ask me what I did there and when I told them I was a cook, some would say ‘wow’ and others would ask why I would ever want to be a cook.”His discipline and determination has paid off. He said, “I got to where I am today by hard work, dedication, the ability to adapt to change and not wanting to settle.”