On the 11th floor of a San Francisco skyscraper is “The Garden.”
The fake grocery store in the middle of Instacart’s office is not just weird office decor — although it wouldn’t be out of place in some Silicon Valley offices.
Instead, The Garden is an active testing ground for the grocery delivery startup, and one that it constructed in less than 48 hours.
Now employees use the space to test everything from barcode-scanning algorithms in low light, to running Supermarket Sweep style speed contests.
Instacart let Business Insider visit The Garden inside its San Francisco headquarters.
Here’s what it’s like to have a fake grocery store in the middle of your office:
Not every startup has fake lobsters lying around its office, but Instacart isn't like any other company. Since its founding in 2012, it has been building a grocery delivery empire and has raised nearly $275 million to make the experience as easy and fast as possible -- for both the in-store shoppers and customers alike.
Part of making it as fast for the customers as possible meant making it fast for Instacart's engineers, product managers, and designers to test things too. Its headquarters, however, is in the middle of downtown San Francisco, and not at all convenient for frequent runs to the grocery store to test new app updates. That's what inspired Max Mullen and Arnaud Ferreri to come up with the idea for 'The Garden.'
The company was having a 48-hour hackathon, a Silicon Valley tradition where teams can brainstorm new ideas, when Mullen's team realised they wanted to build a physical grocery store. They turned one of the office's hangout and lounge spaces (like the one shown below on a different floor) into the mini testing ground.
At the start of the hackathon, Ferreri and Mullen had to quickly order and assemble grocery store shelving. Then they had to purchase a bunch of food to start lining the shelves.
All of the perishable items like meat and vegetables are plastic -- the kind decorators would stick around houses -- but there's a few dog toys thrown in the mix as well.
To make The Garden usable, they even had to create a fake store online for employees to be able to test fake customer orders.
All of the shelves are filled with some of Instacart's most common items and double as a training ground for some of its shoppers. This wall of pasta from Whole Foods helps train people to recognise the different kinds really fast.
One item they made sure they had was fake bananas. They're the number one item ordered through Instacart.
Its main purpose, though, is to be a testing ground for its engineers. The starting line at the front of The Garden shows where employees line up to do Supermarket Sweep style races to see how fast they can collect the items.
Selecting and scanning the right item fast is harder than it looks. The Garden keeps at least six different varieties of almond milk in stock.
And even then, it doesn't have every type customers might be asking for. Good thing it can test its 'closest replacements' feature.
Instacart even keeps different kinds of 'fish' around to make sure people are reading labels. Technically they're all the same plastic fish, but this one is a tequila lime salmon fillet in the eyes of The Garden.
Beyond just experimenting with the shopping experience, Instacart employees have found other uses for The Garden in the middle of its offices.
The design team, for example, has tried out Instacart bags to see how many soda bottles would fit, or whether they were wide enough to fit a carton of eggs. Don't worry: those eggs are Styrofoam so they don't end up with too much of a mess.
There's also tests around scanning items in low light at the bottom of a shelf -- a harder technical challenge than in a bright part of the store.
Instacart may be one of the few companies around that can find a legitimate reason to build a grocery store in its office in two days.
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