Typical fifteen-year-olds spend their time prepping for another semester of high school. When Ana Maria Rodriguez was fifteen years old, she was preparing to enter the University of Costa Rica. A young scholar who was anything but typical, Rodriguez had been accepted in an extremely competitive food engineering program. But she wasn’t entirely certain of her path at the time, as she had also applied to a traditional engineering school and to medical school.
“There are three things that are never going to die in the future,” Rodriguez reflects, citing a conversation she had with her father. “One of them is going to be medicine. The second is going to be infrastructure. And finally, food is going to be needed regardless of whether we’re on earth or outside of it.”
Rodriguez ultimately decided to enroll in the food engineering program and went on to earn a master’s degree in food engineering from Valencia Polytechnic University in Spain. Today, she serves as the chief food innovation and quality officer at Yum! Brands/Pizza Hut International.
Food for Thought
Rodriguez had always had a passion for teaching, and soon after she completed her master’s, she returned to the University of Costa Rica as a professor.
At the time, Yum! Brands was known as PepsiCo Restaurants International: the company’s representatives had come to Costa Rica looking for someone to take charge of quality, suppliers, and new product development. Knowing of Rodriguez’s background, the company called her and asked if she wanted to join their team.
“I told them, ‘I’ll send you my students,’” Rodriguez says. “I was very happy as a professor.” Eventually, though, close friends who owned a Pizza Hut franchise in Costa Rica invited Rodriguez to a dinner at their house. Not thinking of it as an interview, Rodriguez chatted with Pizza Hut executives and talked about her students. By the end of the night, she had an offer.
In 1997, Rodriguez was placed in charge of research and development and quality assurance (R&D/QA) for the Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell brands for the Latin American market. She moved to Miami, where the Latin America headquarters was located, and saw more and more territory come under her purview. Before long, she was managing all R&D/QA and innovation for the company’s Central American markets as well as those in the Caribbean Islands and South America.
In 2011, Rodriguez moved to Dallas to focus on the Pizza Hut brand. “I had a blast!” Rodriguez enthuses. “It’s been eleven years now fully dedicated to Pizza Hut, and I’ve been enjoying every single minute of this journey.”
As Rodriguez explains, her twenty-four-year career with Yum! Brands has been so rewarding in part because she’s never had to abandon her appetite for learning. “With Yum!, the choices I have made and the opportunities that have arisen have always allowed me to keep growing, learning, adding value, and having fun,” she says. “This huge company will encourage you to explore, take more risks, and allow you to grow in any direction you want.”
Staying on Top of Toppings
As chief food innovation and quality officer, Rodriguez eats pizza every day. She has to. “And not just one, but probably ten to twenty,” she says, laughing. “I cannot help it . . . even on the weekends and family vacations, I continue to eat pizzas to check what’s out there to keep the inspiration and innovation flowing. All the Pizza Hut pizzas around the world—all the ingredients, sauces, shapes, and forms, everything—at one point in time or another go through my kitchen.” Her role includes performing quality evaluations, ideation sessions, following consumer trends, and conducting constant tastings and safety checks.
“That’s all so we have the best tasting pizza around the world,” Rodriguez explains. “That’s what we stand for. I will not rest until we have the very best pizzas around the world.”
Of course, achieving “the best pizza in the world” is a challenge, particularly when different regions have different pizza preferences. In the United States, Rodriguez says, the preferred pizzas are pepperoni and supreme. But in Asia, the most popular pizzas are seafood and Hawaiian. In Korea, the top pizza flavor is bulgogi beef, and in India it’s more about vegetarian pizzas.
“For me, the biggest opportunity is to keep innovating and become locally relevant to the customers we serve in each country without losing the standards that are our guardrails,” Rodriguez says. “There are critical control points for ingredients, suppliers, and food safety temperatures that we need to meet. Keeping those standards intact, but allowing for locally relevant toppings, is a blessing. It represents the biggest challenge as well.”
And while these challenges keep Rodriguez engaged in her work, she still takes the time to appreciate how far she’s come and how much more she has ahead. “I’m proud of who I’ve become in this corporation,” she says. “I’m most proud of what the company has done to allow me to grow. I’m proud of the decisions that I have made and grateful for the people around me that have helped me make those choices. Now my role and responsibility is to help others on their own growth journey.”
Full of Promise
We Are All Human’s Hispanic Promise is a national commitment to increase retention and promotion of Hispanics in the workplace. Ana Maria Rodriguez met with the nonprofit’s founder, Claudia Romo Edelman, and immediately brought the idea back to Yum! Brands/Pizza Hut International (PH). In 2019, the company signed onto the promise.
“We are a very diverse company, and we have a large team of people who are Latin,” Rodriguez explains. “We have the PH Latin American division based in Dallas. There are tons of Latinos like me—passionate, happy, enthusiastic, and energetic—and it was a critical opportunity for us to join the Hispanic Promise.”