As 1999 was ending and everyone braced for the possible effects Y2K would have on global financial markets and the world’s energy grids, Colombian Oscar Pelaez was vacationing in Miami with his future wife. After ringing in the new millennium, the two began exploring the possibilities of living and working in the US.
Before he knew it, Pelaez, who was trained as an industrial designer/architect, was offered a computer-aided design (CAD) drafter position by a boutique design firm. Headquartered in Miami’s Coral Gables neighborhood, Echeverria Design Group designs high-end retail and hospitality projects.
“I was extremely lucky to find a company willing to sponsor my work visa. I started at the bottom of the food chain as a CAD drafter,” says Pelaez, now global director of concept innovation and design at the Pizza Hut division of Yum! Brands.
He stayed at Echeverria until 2006, where he learned the ropes of the design processes in the US, when he was hired by Bermello & Ajamil and Partners in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, one of the largest Hispanic-owned architectural firms in the US. There he worked as a studio design leader on large-scale hospitality projects in the Caribbean and the Middle East.
“That’s where I got a taste for international business and started learning the ins and outs of the impact of design in the business environments,” Pelaez says.
Pelaez earned an MBA then became head of design and construction in Latin America for Starbucks. “That’s how my journey in corporate America started,” he says. He helped Starbucks open key markets in the region including in Brazil and Argentina, and the design and build of more than five hundred coffee shops.
After four years leading the design team for Starbucks LatAm, he signed on with the international division at Yum! Brands as head of design for KFC and Pizza Hut international markets. Following a corporate restructuring he ultimately settled into the Pizza Hut division.
At Home in America
Although born and raised in Colombia, Pelaez has never felt disconnected from his Hispanic heritage while on his US journey. “Overall, it was an easy landing. I was able to have some of those Latin and Colombian roots and connections in Miami,” he says. Given Echeverria Design Group’s Latin roots, Pelaez felt at home almost immediately in Florida. “All this helped me to ease into the American culture.”
Working with individuals who had similar backgrounds to him put Pelaez at ease, allowing him to spread his wings and establish local work connections. “Even if I planned it, I couldn’t have planned a better transition to my new life in the US, and it was all by chance,” he says.
Honoring Local Culture
Pizza Hut operates in 110 markets outside the US, and it’s Pelaez’s job to bring the brand’s essence to life in its restaurants, creating distinctive and relevant brand experiences to drive the profitable growth of the brand globally.
“The function of design goes beyond the four walls of the restaurants,” Pelaez says. “You have to be conscious of each of the market cultural nuances and digital innovations to allow the restaurant to create strong emotional connections between the guest, brand, and team members.”
Before starting a design, Pelaez studies the nuances of the local culture and then applies the 80/20 rule to his design, a rule he learned while at Starbucks. “Eighty percent of asset strategy and asset execution is a global strategy, but then we sprinkle 20 percent of local relevance. This comes in different ways and shapes on how we execute the brand essence within the restaurant space,” he says.
Creating a New Asset Model
Realizing the next level of innovation in the restaurant and retail space was digitally driven experiences, Pizza Hut launched an asset model called Fast Casual Delco (FCD, with Delco standing for delivery and carry out) in 2017. The objective was to create a customer journey that may start on customers’ phones and ended “with them enjoying one of our delicious pizzas in one of our beautiful restaurants,” Pelaez says.
The FCD model created a better brand experience for Pizza Hut customers in restaurants and introduced a new brand experience to customers as a delivery company. “We wanted to bring all those efficiencies of our delivery and carry out channels into our operations, while creating a distinctive and relevant experience for our guest, [and also] creating a flexible asset model that allows our franchises to adapt their capital investments to the true potential of each trade zone,” Pelaez says.
Pizza Hut has opened more than two thousand FCD restaurants since the launch of the concept. “This model has become 45 percent of our gross builds in the past three years. Eight out of every ten restaurants we build in the Pizza Hut system are Fast Casual Delco concepts,” Pelaez says.
The Glue that Holds it Together
Pelaez heads an international team of architects and designers and works closely with marketing, operations, and finance. His goal is to elevate the function of Pizza Hut’s design teams for the vision of the brand and carry that vision into the future.
“Every strategy our cross-functional partners create or generate becomes real in our restaurants. We own that,” Pelaez says. “For example, when we’re talking with marketing and they’re creating a marketing campaign or a new brand positioning, all of those strategies become real in the restaurant.”
Designers make the brand strategies a reality. “We’re a key component in the business strategy because we are the glue that brings everything together. When you enter the restaurant, you enter the brand,” Pelaez says. “As a leader, my vision for the team is to elevate our impact on the business and allow them to become the glue than brings our brand to life.”
That same level of respect and collaboration carries over to his work with external partners. “Oscar believes that the best opportunity for success is a solid supplier/brand partnership,” says Gwen Bialas, president at Carter-Hoffman. “His innovation initiatives with cross-functional internal and external team members are truly led by example. It’s a true honor to engage and partner with Oscar.”
Finally, Pelaez says those new to the US need not Americanize or lose their accents to succeed. “You can be honest about where you came from, your background, and your first language. I have a strong accent and even with that I have been very successful in big corporations [at the] executive level,” Pelaez says. “Hispanics are inherently entrepreneurial and possess impeccable work ethics. They should use these qualities as their superpowers.”