Plenty of chefs have signature dishes that enjoy a life beyond their own kitchens—think of Wolfgang Puck’s smoked-salmon pizza, Nobu Matsuhisa’s miso black cod, and Jean-Georges’ molten chocolate cake. But none of these culinary titans could ever dream of having the cultural reach of Tom Ryan, whose resume includes such inventions as Stuffed Crust Pizza, McGriddles, and the Quiznos Steakhouse Beef Dip.
As a marketing mastermind and product developer for national chains, Ryan is playing a different game entirely than the Nobus and Jean-Georges of the world. But his influence is no less significant: Through two decades on the front lines of food science and branding, he has auteured American eating habits in a way that most restaurant professionals could never fathom.
If you’re a drive-through connoisseur, he should be in your Mount Rushmore of fast-food innovators, wedged between Colonel Sanders and whoever concocted the Crunchwrap Supreme. And even if your food politics don’t jibe with Meat Lover’s Pizza, it’s impossible to deny the pop-culture cachet of his creations.
So how exactly does one become a fast-food gamechanger? For Ryan, it started with a Willy Wonka-esque education that included a Ph.D. in Flavor and Fragrance Chemistry and a Masters in Lipid Toxicology, both from Michigan State University. From there, he worked on engineering products like Jif peanut butter with Proctor & Gamble and frozen pizza dough with Pillsbury, before moving onto gigs at Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and McDonald’s. If you’ve ever ordered off the Dollar Menu, you have Ryan to thank.
Now, he’s helping to mastermind the next frontier of fast-casual dining as Founder and Chief Concept Officer of Smashburger, a Denver-based outfit that has been steadily racking up acolytes—and more than 180 storefronts—since 2007. It’s the burger chain evolved, harkening back to American burger-making heritage (smashing patties thin and crispy on the griddle was common practice at early chains before frozen patties came into play) while keeping an eye toward scalability and innovative branding.
When we had lunch with Ryan in Manhattan recently (he ate a panini), we asked him to walk us through the products and innovations that have defined his career thus far. The challenges he’s faced along the way are equal parts consumer psychology (what do people want from a delivery pizza?), industrial food design (is it possible to embed syrup crystals in pancakes?), and operational problem-solving (how do you implement a new innovation on a national scale?). Prepare to step inside the mind of a fast-food mastermind.
Click through for the stories behind Bigfoot Pizza, McDonald’s Fruit ’N Yogurt Parfait, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.