Smashing the Norm

Tom Ryan, '79, talks with his mentor, Ian Gray, Ph.D., about his career and how it started at Michigan State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

March 21, 2016

Tom Ryan, MSU Class of '79

Tom Ryan, '79, talks with his mentor, Ian Gray, Ph.D., about his career and how it started at Michigan State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Ryan, co-founder of Smashburger, is a food scientist with his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees from MSU. During his career he has come up with some of today's most popular food items including Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust Pizza, McDonald's McFlurries and Smashburgers fresh burgers. 

tom ryan

In the Field, Smashing the Norm with Tom Ryan and Ian Gray - Transcript

Kraig Ehm: Welcome to In the Field, a podcast originating form the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I'm your host, Kraig Ehm. In this episode of In the Field, I'm joined by Tom Ryan, Co-Founder and Chief Concept Officer, Smashburger, and Founder, Tom's Urban. And Dr. Ian Gray, Special Advisor to the President. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me.

Ian Gray: It's a pleasure.

Tom Ryan: Great to be here, thanks.

Ehm: Okay, Tom, let's start with you. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ryan: I'm born and raised in Michigan, Grand Rapids. I'm a Spartan three times deep. Very proud to be back on campus. I did my undergrad in food science, my masters in lipid toxicology, PhD with Ian as my major professor in flavor chemistry. Had a long and arduous career in the food industry and, over the last 25 years, been doing restaurants. And the latest and greatest and most fun thing I've ever done is the development and expansion of both Smashburger and Tom's Urban.

Ehm: Now, correct me if I'm wrong but I think you're also, in your career, you had Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizzas. McDonald's, the McGriddles, Big N' Tasty, Dollar Menu, Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfaits, my wife said thank you very much for that.

Ryan: She's welcome.

Ehm: Quiznos, Steakhouse Beef Dip, Prime Rib, and Sammie subs. Is that close-

Ryan: Yeah, I've done a lot of work inside of companies to really help extend their brand platform, drive revenues and really innovate their food to be modern, contemporary, and kind of change the face of the landscape. So all those things are a great examples of more of my product development career versus concept development and restauranteering. But yeah, I had a great time doing that and enjoyed doing those in the past.

Ehm: Now Ian, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Gray: Obviously my career path was a lot different than Tom's. I'm truly been an academic all my life. I came over to Michigan State in the early 1970's. Did a post-doc for a couple of years and then went to Canada. Came back to Canada in 1978 as a Associate Professor. I started to teach food chemistry for analysis, which gave me access to some of the top undergraduates in the food science program at the time. That's one of the reasons Tom and I met, through that program we got Tom into his Masters and his PhD program. So I've been working on ... essentially a food chemist but looking at the effect of cooking and processing on the formation of toxic compounds. So I've had a kind of privileged career at MSU from the point of being able to teach, being able to do research, and got into the research administration. Both as a director of then the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, and subsequently became VP for Research and Graduate Studies at the university. So overall it's been a kind of a very balanced career portfolio which is coming to end. But at the same time you take great pride in seeing the success stories of our graduates. Particularly your own graduates.

Ehm: Now Tom, it's your junior year of college. You're not quite sure what you want to do. And suddenly your focus zeros in on food science. Focused so much that one could mention your food science undergraduate degree, masters degree in lipid toxicology and a Doctorate in flavor and fragrance chemistry from Michigan State. What about Dr. Gray made you want to study food science?

Ryan: Yeah, it actually started a little bit before Dr. Gray. I took my first food science class as a junior and had really no idea that there was this deep technology and a fundamental scientific understanding of things I was taking for granted my entire life. My first food science class was The Physics of Food Processing and I absolutely fell in love with the discipline. And I was really voracious at that point to really just absorb as much of it as I can. I kind of fell in love with it as an academic pursuit when I met Ian in our Food Analysis and Chemistry class. Thought his teaching style was engaging. I was really honored and felt really privileged to be invited to come and do original research with Ian and go through the process of advance degree and writing theses. Ian was always an engaging teacher, easy to talk to, and I was really pleased when I made the decision to do my masters with him. Not only was it a great and thorough education. But it was the first time in my academic career I actually felt like I was learning from somebody who treated me very maturely. And not only as an adult, but as a friend as an adult. So it was a huge difference of point of view to go from undergrad to graduate school. It was like starting all over for me. So it was very exciting and obviously I absorbed that equally as much as I did my undergrad, and loved the whole process.

Ehm: Ian, what did you see in Tom as a student that made you think he would be successful?

Gray:  That's a good questions, because I think you can assess potential. Now, I had the advantage to be honest. I always claimed my accent opened up doors for me that normally wouldn't. Because it helped me get good student ratings for teaching. But seriously, I think I had early access to good-quality students. It's very clear when you look at students' performances in lab settings and so forth, in the classroom, it doesn't always translate to a propensity for research either. But Tom, and there were several others in the group too that came in at the same time from his graduating class. With the first cohort of grad students I had at MSU, probably for the first 10 years when I was full time in the department, the quality of the grad student, particularly those coming through our own program, was phenomenal. Tom never disappointed. Tom had a kind of uniqueness about him. It's very unusual for a student to get three degrees in the same place. Now, in fact it was frowned upon sometimes. "Go out and look at different philosophies," and so on. But you got to treat every student individually. One the things, and Tom mentioned it, you got to treat every student as if he were your own child. They're placing their trust in you to ... that you can educate them. The whole idea of any successful graduate program is not the research accomplished per se in publications. But can you turn out a well-trained individual who is self-sufficient? Somebody who can, is ready, to make a mark. That's the overall goal of all research programs. How do I develop the next generation of scholars and scholars that will fit into industry? Scholars that will fit into government circles, scholars that will fit into academia. Tom had showed very early on that he had a propensity for going beyond traditional research. I will talk a little bit maybe later about Tom's choice of course work, for example, during his PhD dissertation, that allowed him to move in areas where traditionally it wasn't very common at that time. More so now, but Tom had a PhD program tailored to fit his future needs. That's something of which, I think, we all take a lot of great satisfaction and pride in doing.

Ryan:  What he's trying to say is I was his troubled middle child back in the 80's, and he was kind enough to kind of temper his way through that with me. And actually, he did allow me the intellectual freedom, and actually the academic freedom to really tailor a program that was really avant garde for people going through what was really a academically focused PhD program. At least at the PhD level. It changed my life. The ability to have the flexibility to bring people onto my committee who weren't pure food scientists. Who had a point of view about marketing. Who had a contemporary point of view about commercialization. Things that really were essential in being able to move past academia and making an impact on things on the consumer side of the business. I always was kind of driven by that. Ian was great in accommodating my ability to really put something really unique and original together in both my research, my curriculum, and my committee that gave me something that I think was hugely, in hindsight, a competitive advantage for me to be able to get to do things that other people would take years of experience to gain credentials to do. So I feel very privileged and entitled.

Gray: But there's a very important point here is that we did not divert Tom from taking the strong fundamental disciplinary class. Tom took as aggressive course in the chemistry, the food science courses, the advanced food science courses, the statistics classes, that were the requirements of all graduate students. Remember in those days we were in the quarter system where there was 36 course credits. 36 research credits minimum for the PhD. But the fact that Tom took an aggressive masters course program allowed him the flexibility to move into other elective courses that were part of the 36 credits that he took. As a result of that he got into food marketing, some of the business classes and so on. That came not at the expense of the more science ... because I'm a very strong believer, the [rigorer 00:10:02] the science, the better prepared the student. Tom did that, but he also got the exposure to what it's like in the marketing world and so on. Which was very consistent with his interests at that time.

Ehm: Now what you learned from Ian, was it more than just book knowledge that he passed onto you?

Ryan: Yeah, look, we haven't had a chance to talk about it in depth but Ian's teaching style, I'm a big fan of motivation and building people's credentials on the base of commitment versus compliance. And so Ian was very open in terms of intellectual thinking, which I think is kind of unique for people who have the profession Ian had. But more than that, Ian was fun and engaging. Ian provided us a culture so that grad school, which can be either tenuous or tedious depending on what phases of work you're in, he surrounded us with a great culture to be engaging with each other. The team he put together which I ... instead of fellow grad students, it was really like a team. We played IM sports together, we played tennis together at lunch time when we could. We went out and had drinks together. It was more than just a student-teacher relationship. It was really the first real working culture that I ever went in. Ian was the head of that. So he provided us not only with, I think, a great amount of academic input. A lot of counseling on how to put thesis and research proposals together, but he made it fun. I don't mean fun in a trivial way. I mean it was an engaging environment surrounded by great people who really enjoyed what they were doing and spending time together doing it. So I think that's another rarity based on conversations I've had with others who've gone through graduate programs. They're like, "Really? That's really what your graduate program was like?" It was a rare thing. We all kind of knew it was a little bit magic while we were going through it. But it was magic. It was great.

Gray: I was essentially new to MSU too. I had graduate students at the University of Wales but Tom and another PhD student I brought down from Wales with me, we were talking about her last night, were the first of that cohort. It was kind of magical because the grants were able ... the grants were successful, the applications were successful. We had money to do things, and we had a great group of student. Now, one of the ... You surround yourself with good people. We have a common bond with a major professor, the one I did my post doc, the one that Tom took advanced lipid chemistry from, Dr. Leroy Dugan. He is one of those traditional faculty members who was ... he was a class act, that's all I could say about Leroy Dugan. He's still alive and doing very well. One of the persons that really had an influence on both of us was we had a visiting scholar from England for a year, Ian Morton. Ian Morton was the chair of the Queen Elizabeth College Food Science Department. He wanted to get away from administration, and he spent 10 to 12 hours a day in the lab working on a project. He took Tom under his wing, and this is the basis of Tom's master work, the oxidation of cholesterol in heated frying oils. As a result of that, Tom got exposed to another culture, another discipline, another point of view about research, how you can conduct research. Because you want to glean from everywhere you can. You want to be in situations, or we try to create an environment, where students will glean from each other or learn from each other, interact with each other. It can be done in a formal lab setting, and it could be done socially. So we try to balance that out. It's not that it was all fun. There was tensions, there was arguments. One of the worst things ever happening is if somebody's project's not going well and other projects are going well, that immediately causes tension because that person's getting further ahead of the game than I am. Forgetting the fact that every project's individual, every project's different. Some will work, some will not. Some will get positive results, some will get negative results. But you balance that all out, and you can do that in multiple ways. But it's simply you've got to trust the student and the student's got to trust you. If that trust is ever eroded, we lose. We lose an awful lot of that. So we developed a trust. Tom is under my watch. I trusted his data-taking and all that stuff, and we both benefit. I get the publication, shared with Tom. He got the benefit of multiple investigators working together. As a result, Tom got off, I think, on a firm career.

Ehm: What did you see was your toughest challenge while you were here as a student?

Ryan: It's a really personal question. To me, the intrigue. I'm a big fan of the blank page. I am totally intrigued by embracing things that are unknown and figuring them out. The toughest part for me, in all candor, were the parts of graduate research that don't involve the discovery on the blank page. There's two parts of that, that I just have to be honest with. I was not a big fan of having to repeat research to prove validity. It was like having to rediscover the same thing twice, but without the energy at the end. So the redundancy that's required was something academically driven, and it's required and I respect it, and I did it with integrity. But it was really tedious, and there is, in my opinion, and I hate to say it, nothing worse than a lit review. Nothing. But it's part of the discipline and I respect the discipline, and it's with me everyday. Back in the day ... I would love to do a lit review now with the ability to google and have access to those things at my fingertips. But in the old days we actually had to go and pull cards and pull papers, and request reprints. It took forever to get all the things together, and you had to knit those into a historical quilt, if you will, that got the reader, the academic reader, to a point where your piece added the next piece to the puzzle. Again, it wasn't that it wasn't valuable, it wasn't that it wasn't interesting. It just wasn't my favorite thing. So I had to make myself get it done. It was a really tough discipline thing for me, because I like to think and do instead of reflect. That's the honest to god truth. But Ian was great, he only made me rewrite it four or five times.

Gray: Yeah, I only went through it with three or four red pens. The whole secret in grading is how much red can you not use.

Ryan: Yes.

Gray: And you can tell the folks, it wasn't all bad.

Ryan: Yes. But we had good humor throughout the whole thing and it was a great experience, and necessary for the standards and the accreditation, the high level of standard and accreditation that Ian held us accountable to. So I get it, I got it, and it worked.

Gray: Any time you do a dissertation, it's a little different now, but I always took the view that when a grad student and the professor writes a dissertation or thesis, that is in as good a shape as we collectively can do, before we present it to the guidance committee or the examining committee. There's different philosophies on that now, but the whole idea, we would take pride that if you submit a project or the dissertation to the examining committee, and Tom's sitting up there getting questions on that, I die along with Tom when he's not answering the questions or there's some questions here ... Because that was a joint effort.

Ryan: It's a team.

Gray:  It's a team. It was a team, so I'm sitting here and students are getting answered and they look blankly at the person because ... They're supposed to know more about this topic than anybody surrounding them around the table. When they have some flaws, that's a personal insult to me as well as to the students. So the whole idea is to ... and that's why it's so ... we talk about a literature review, or a critical review of literature is probably a better way of putting it. That's a necessary part of getting the student prepared to defend, but it becomes a personal thing. Is the student going to beat the system, defeat the system, get their degree? It's not about, "How does my research compare to somebody else's in the group?" It's just simply, "Have I met the requirements? Have I surpassed the necessary requirements to get a degree?" So you want to give the student every advantage when that student comes before the examiners. That makes the defense that much easier. That's why we take care of the detail.

Ryan: And we did.

Gray: And we did.

Ehm: You did rather well?

Gray: We did very well.

Ryan: We did, yup.

Ehm: Now, what are some of your favorite memories involving each other?

Ryan: I'll go first. This is besides the red pen. Actually one of the great things we had going is by the time all of us had gotten, our whole office had gotten to completion of our coursework, really focused just on research. So the day would get ... to come in the lab at eight and leave at six, and do nothing but research, was really really ... First of all I don't think you could mentally do it with the kind of acuity you need to. So we needed to find a break. In the semesters that Ian wasn't teaching, we all had student numbers that were I think some place around one and two. We were there for so long, we actually had proprietary access to the tennis courts inside of the old men's IM. We actually, four of us, went out and we hit a tennis ball for an hour, hour and fifteen minutes, multiple times in the week. Just to let off steam and kind of get our brains refreshed with a little physical activity. It was hilarious. We had a ball, it was fun. Walked over together, walked back together. It was really fun. You don't find that. I talked to my other peers who had [inaudible 00:20:06], it was just a rare thing that just happened to be what we ended up doing, as you said, as a team. It was one of the more pleasant ways to think about getting up in the morning and know you're going to have a little bit of fun in the middle of the afternoon, and go back and get the job done. That's one of my favorites.

Gray: It's actually one of my favorites too, but Tom tells it ... the story's a little different than Tom says because I never played tennis. I never played tennis before I came to MSU. I had to go out and buy a racket. So here I am tagging along, and I was always Tom's partner. Because Tom was better than the other two people. Tom could play those two guys we played against regularly, who were also PhD students. He could play them by himself and still beat them. So when he added me to the group, it really increased the odds of the other two beating us. So he carried me, so I'll admit, he carried me. We had fun, we did have a lot of fun. It's the same thing on the golf course. We didn't play as much golf as he did, because that was too time-consuming.

Ryan: Time-consuming, yeah.

Gray: I was kind of a demanding guy. I love to see the students in the lab at eight o'clock in the morning. I like to leave before they left, right? That was my plan. We had one faculty member or one graduate student in the group, one of our tennis players, who was a night person. Who would like to come in in the lab about one o'clock in the afternoon and work till later on at night. I was not completely trusting at the time of that. The work wasn't getting done. I'm thinking, "I want you here eight o'clock. I don't give a hoot if you worked till one o'clock. I want you here at eight o'clock in the morning." So we had some tensions over that, but with time you get to be more flexible. As long as you have your weekly meetings with the student, you get the project progressing along and so forth, then all's well. Every student's different. It's part of the learning process. I had to learn how to deal with graduate students a little better. Particularly when you're dealing with competitors, the tensions there. I had about ... I taught six quarter classes a year at the same time, but there was a lot of tensions. My family was young, so how do you get the right balance to all of this? But I have to say, to a certain extent, my family, my wife, embraced my grad students. They were great friends. She got along well with them. She knew them and we had them out at the house several times a year. It was just a good time.

Ryan:  It was great, and I would add to that a couple of the smaller things. Not just about Ian and I, but our department at the time was really a kind of a interesting and fabulous place to be. This was 1979 to 1984. We had a big concentration of multiethnic grad students from around the world, and it was a very collegial department at the graduate level. We all knew each other, we all hung out together. Once a year around the holidays, all the international students would pool together and bring foods in from their individual countries. For us, it was like that was a rare thing. So this early appreciation for cultural diversity and celebrating their traditions and ours, you abstract that when you're living in real time, and in hindsight that was a really cool thing that we did together as a department that we were both part of. I have very fond memories of that. I had healthy amount of respect for ... We were talking last night about foods from around the world. I will tell you this, though. My one regret in hindsight is that I wish food back then was as cool as it is to everybody as it is now. Because we were really pioneering. When we were studying food science, you tell people, "I'm studying food science." They're like, "What the hell is that?" Now, as I like to tell people, food is one of the most topical ... Food, cooking, cooking equipment, processing of foods, where it comes from, how it got there, what are you doing to it. It's probably one of the most passionate threads in the social fabric out there right now. So it's really great to have done all this early so I can enjoy this as just part of my life, but I can't imagine what kind of a rock star we would have been if this was as cool when we were doing what we were doing.

Gray: Terminologies change. It used to ... we talk about agricultural research. Now, agricultural research sometimes is a negative thing to be looking at it in the modern world, in the modern era. But really, when you're looking at agricultural research, you're doing research to develop knowledge that will improve agriculture or take care of agricultural problems. A lot of it's very very science-based. Same thing with food. We're looking at the science of food. You can easily teach, learn, processing through practical experiences in the industry and so on. But when you look at the scientific principles under-girding the discipline of food science, it's pure science working in an applied area. When you look at that, we need to, and modern food science requires, physics, engineering principles, toxicological principles. It all falls under that umbrella. Now, that's about what? 30, 40 years ago or 30-plus years ago, when we were working on that. So we were kind of narrow in focus. Now you expand, so we've become a food university, and we bring expertise from all over campus. The students benefit from that because they seek multidisciplinary training. That's the key. Tom in a sense was a forerunner to multidisciplinary approaches. He chose business options, business course options in his PhD. We're doing the same thing now in a different way with the modern graduates. I would say Tom's a little bit of a pioneer in that sense.

Ryan: It's really been instrumental. As I said earlier, it empowered me to feel confident and comfortable doing things. I may be wrong, but I've got to be one of the only CMOs at Mcdonalds who's ever been a food scientist, or maybe a CMO anywhere. So the actual benefit of coming out of school proficient in the language, proficient in the vernacular of this other field, which is really a differentiated field from the academic science under-girding, as Ian calls it, of food. I would go to my first job at Pizza Hut and people would talk to me and say, "Aren't you a technical guy? You sound like a marketing guy." That was really rewarding to me because I earned those stripes early just by the affiliation with fellow students in the Graduate School of Business while I was doing my work for Ian. Everybody's on the right track thinking about this the same way. Multidisciplinary thinking with a strong tap root that gives you credibility and earnestness in one area, but with color, story and abilities around the outside. I think that's what modern education is all about. I know that's what we look for in the industry in candidates that we look for, regardless of what job they're interviewing for. So my first time back to State in a while, I'm proud to see this flourishing on campus, and I'm really happy to see it alive and well, particularly in the Food Science department.

Ehm: I would like to thank Tom Ryan, Co-Founder and Chief Concept Officer, Smashburger, and the Founder of Tom's Urban; and Dr. Ian Gray, Special Advisor to the President, for joining me today. Be sure to listen next time for another episode of In The Field.


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