How CIA prepared alumnus Megan McQuinn to set Starbucks’ global food service strategy
Megan McQuinn ’22 was hardly a newcomer to the worlds of food and business when she enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious master’s in Food Business program. With years of experience as a strategist for grocery chains, she had already completed a certificate in Food and Beverage Management at Cornell. It was there that she discovered a deep fascination with the food and beverage industry, in particular restaurant strategy and optimization.
As she considered the next phase of her career, she realized that food businesses scratched an itch that her past roles hadn’t. “My history has been in the business world—consulting, a little bit of strategy—and I found that doing that for a restaurant or food business was super fascinating,” she recalls. “The human element added something interesting to me, an experiential piece that needed to be optimized as you think about a strategy for a restaurant.”
To get to that next phase, she knew she needed a more formalized education. Her interest in the human side of food drew her to CIA, where she could explore her newfound passion under expert faculty and alongside other industry professionals. “I knew that going to school with people from that side of the industry would be super helpful for me,” she recalls, explaining why she chose the program over other options. “CIA being a specifically food-oriented college gave it a different level of credibility for me.”
A Sweet Spot for Food Business Professionals
That focus proved to be one of the most invaluable parts of Megan’s time at CIA. The program’s diverse cohorts include students with a wide range of food industry experiences, from product designers to veteran chefs. She relished the opportunity to deepen her own areas of expertise while digging into unfamiliar domains, and to learn about the culinary side of the business without needing culinary skills.
“There was actually a very interesting, sweet spot of a need for people who are interested in food but don’t necessarily have food experience,” she says, reflecting on her illuminating conversations with classmates and teachers from restaurant backgrounds. “It was a fun blend. I got to be next to it without having to do the stuff that I don’t know how to do.”
Mastering the Fundamentals
While Megan came to the program with experience in the corporate world, her studies offered a chance to master the nitty-gritty of running a business. “The business fundamentals class was where a lot of it hit the road for me,” she recalls, noting how eye-opening it was to learn about what goes into a company’s three major financial statements. At the same time, the class’s focus on value chain analysis gave her a deeper sense of how much is possible in the food space, where endless opportunities abound for entrepreneurial thinkers.
“Doing some of those analyses really hit home on seeing how one business can be just as effective as another one while having a very different value proposition and food offering structure,” she says.
“A high-end, very curated experience versus a very cheap but high-volume experience—there are things that reinforce each other in both of those models, and that work in their own separate ways.”
Other favorites include CIA Professor Jean Hagan’s class on restaurant optimization—in which she learned to model out a restaurant’s success based on various factors—and a marketing class that still informs her day-to-day work at the world’s biggest coffee brand.
“Starbucks is a very marketing-heavy company, a very brand-heavy company, and I don’t have much marketing or brand experience,” she says. “There’s a lot of lessons from that course that I use today—to think about how a brand lands with consumers, what you’re communicating, all the little fine details about what a brand means and how to market that brand.”
Turning Theory into Practice
The culmination of CIA’s program is a capstone seminar in which students develop their own food or restaurant venture. Drawing on the skills they’ve honed in various courses, they conduct necessary market research and fieldwork as they put together a high-quality business plan. The project serves not only as the conclusion of their studies, but also as a potential launchpad for their career beyond it.
A longtime resident of Seattle, Megan entered the program with a regionally appropriate idea for her own business: a coffee shop. In her capstone project, she fleshed out the concept into a series of locations she’d open over a five-year period. While she eventually decided that she didn’t want to be a business owner, her research into the coffee space helped prepare her for her current role.
As a strategy manager on Starbucks’ global food service team, Megan spearheads the company’s “extracurricular” coffee offerings: “in airlines, in offices, in conferences, in all the additional places that coffee gets sold that isn’t a licensed store like Kroger or a Starbucks cafe,” she explains. “I set the strategy for them each year and do a lot of market research and SWOT analyses and value chain identifications to understand the whole ecosystem of what we’re doing.”
Looking out at the industry, Megan is glad to see restaurants coming back after several difficult years. She’s also heartened by industry-wide conversations about how restaurants treat their workers. “I think that’s been really fascinating to see, and really encouraging,” she says. “The idea that the kitchen can be a toxic place for some people, and how do we make that better? How do we get women chefs in the kitchen and elevate people of different backgrounds and experiences?”
A Great Program for Food Business Entrepreneurs
For professionals considering the Culinary Institute of America’s master’s in Food Business program, Megan has a few words of advice. First and foremost: you might want to brush up on your Excel skills, as they’ll prove essential in a number of classes (so much that she found herself helping classmates with their spreadsheets). Second, she recommended the program especially to budding entrepreneurs.
“This is a great program for people who are looking to start their own business and figure out all the nuts and bolts of that business—especially because that final project ends up being either a food product business or a food service business,” she concludes. “It’s a great place to sort of flesh out your perfect idea, your future dream, and make it become a reality.”