One Cup at a Time

A fun career in food starts with science and willingness to seize opportunities

Mary WagnerEvery time you enjoy a taco, wine, chocolate or a Frappucino, you can thank Mary Wagner.

In the three decades since she earned her Ph.D. in food science at CFANS, she’s helped develop innovative products for some of the most recognizable names in the food industry, including General Mills, Taco Bell, Mars and Gallo. Today, she’s senior vice president for global R&D/quality, food safety and regulatory issues at Starbucks. That mean’s she’s responsible for new products and new-concept stores for the ubiquitous international coffee company.

Starbucks is a "fun, fun place,” she says. Like many food science graduates with advanced degrees, she started her professional career in academia, at the University of Wisconsin, then made the leap to the private sector. Over the course of her career, she’s developed and managed new products, maintained quality control, led research departments and overseen packaging and manufacturing. “People aren’t always familiar with the food science field, but it has engineering, microbiology and a little bit of everything,” she says.

That range of experience comes in handy in her role at Starbucks, where no day is the same, she says. “I get to work with people at all levels, which is a real motivator.” She promotes products and ideas to Starbucks employees, from the baristas at a neighborhood shop to her colleagues in the executive suite. She’s developed and advocated for many of the creative food and beverage products Starbucks sells—“we’re like the Willy Wonka of coffee”—but among the ideas she says she’s most proud of is the Starbucks Blonde Roast her team created—a premium coffee blend providing a lighter option for consumers who have traditionally shied away from darker coffees.

coffeeEntrepreneurial spirit is important to succeeding in the food industry, she says, as is willingness to seize opportunities and to lead by example. That’s one reason she helped start Food4Thought, a program developing future food scientists and STEM leaders. Through a partnership between Girls Inc. and the Institute of Food Technologists, Food4Thought links food science professionals with girls who might not have otherwise thought of pursuing a career in science and provides awareness, mentorship and support throughout their high school and undergraduate education.

If she could give advice to her younger self or to anyone who’s just entering the field today, she says, she’d say that “Probably more than you imagine, your values and beliefs are as important as your education. Relax and don’t turn down opportunities because you think you can’t.”

“There are lots of opportunities for young girls in science,” including her own teenage daughters. I really believe in this profession and the opportunities it offers, if we can just get them to stick their toes in.”