Pizza Parlor to PepsiCo: Food Scientist Kathy Johnson

Food scientist Kathy Johnson working Food scientist Kathy Johnson working

Initially kindled in the brick-oven of her uncle’s pizza shop was Kathy’s fiery embrace for food and the ensuing journey. From Morgan Park to chef to food scientist, Kathy’s been able to build a career for herself that allows her to fulfill her passions while giving back to her community.

“I love food. As a kid my mom was not a great cook (Disclaimer: she’s gotten better). We had a lot of canned vegetables, and dry chicken. I went up to her and asked if there were any other food options in the world. My curiosity started with her, then my uncle. He is an amazing cook and owned a Pizza Parlor that closed down awhile ago. My mom would drop us off and my uncle would make a big pizza, and we would just chill with our cousins. He would show me how to make a pizza, how to make the sauce, the dough, and how to roll it up and toss it in the air. I thought it was so cool, how it food was made and how it would bring others together. Food is life”

Her childhood curiosity and insatiable hunger for knowledge would end up carrying her much farther than she would ever imagine. She built a life surrounded by food in anyway possible, watching it, campaigning for it, even selling it.

“We didn’t have cable growing up, so Saturday mornings channel 7 cartoons stopped at noon. On channel 11 (PBS), they had America’s test kitchen where they would make different dishes such as ‘what is the best chocolate to use for a cake.

Then in 7th Grade I campaigned (to no avail) for better and healthier food options because our food sucked.

Before high school I had a business called Kathy’s Cookies & Cakes. I used to sell to everyone at church, but the pastor shut down my business because he said church wasn’t a marketplace, it was a place of worship.”

After graduating from Morgan Park High School she was emboldened to seek a less traditional, and more savory post-secondary education, culinary school. Initially skeptical, Kathy’s parents were won over by her passion and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. Her tight woven community supported and sacrificed for her new career.

“I had this love and passion for food and went to culinary school to be a chef. My dad helped me set up a restaurant in our house and encouraged my passions. He supported me through that endeavor. We invited people on a one day only basis, my sisters were the servers. I love the support from my family, even if they didn’t think it was gonna last, they supported me to the end. My dream of having a restaurant hasn’t died. If I could I would open something like 5-6 days a week and then maybe like Monday people could eat for free (pay as you can).”

Upon finishing culinary school she quickly found herself in a burgeoning career as a chef in a farm to table restaurant. She managed to keep the integral theme of food close to her heart but was less fond of the recipients of her beloved craft. Her food was being served on silver platters to those born with a silver spoon.

“That experience at a farm to table restaurant I loved, but I was mainly cooking for wealthy people. Even at Blue Plate we catered for weddings and the field museum, we generally catered to all sorts of wealthy people. I didn’t want to just cater to these folks. There aren’t a lot of people that desire to cater to those that don’t have as much. My goal is to provide delicious and healthy food for everyone.”

Reassessing her horizons, Kathy took an abrupt turn onto a path that truly began serving her purpose, food scientist.

UIUC graduate Kathy Johnson

She enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and accepted all the obstacles thrown her way. She worked a part-time job while still in school, aced her notoriously challenging organic chemistry class, and picked up a few friends along the way. With style and grace Kathy navigated the waters of academia, stumbling upon a goat farm on the way.

“I was working as a Cheese Maker at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. It was a small goat farm by two retired food scientists. Those two guys were super amazing people. I lived in trailer for the summer and I worked on the farm 24 hours. I would help milk and feed the goats, they had an orchard and I would help with that. I helped with the whole cheesemaking process.

We soon partnered with Rick Bayless for cheeses for his restaurant. We had a hard-rind cheese that we aged in the same room as blue cheese. The thing about blue cheese is that mold can go to other cheeses and turn those into blue cheeses as well, so I had to carefully watch them. We got the chance to talk to Rick and talk about our process for making cheese.”

One of Kathy’s most recent products

Her amalgamation of experiences along with an unquestionable work ethic eventually landed Kathy at PepsiCo. She spends her days in the Quaker division where her time is devoted to the development of healthy products. Part of her time is divided between R&D and business where she works with scientists and marketers to devise the right flavor profiles and present them to a wider audience. Within her short tenure she’s already played a pivotal role in the releasing of a few Quaker products in stores near you.

Kathy excited to see her work on shelves!

“I love it there, I love what I do. I love that Quaker is all about healthier alternatives to other candy bars. It is a great to get kids to consume oats. If you look at the nutrition facts label you get 100% whole grain oats. Outside of that there’s a bunch of products Quaker owns that’s about health. Pepsi has focused on health, taste and affordability. People from every financial bracket consume these products at some point in their life. I can use my position to help a lot of people that can’t afford the food.”

Now that she’s part of a well-funded organization such as PepsiCo, she’s able to use the company’s resources on those with much less. She’s championed food drives, volunteered her excess time, and cultivated a philanthropic mindset within the organization.

“We have this org (E.C.H.O, employees committed to helping others). When I first joined the company I join that org, and now I’m the chair of it. I choose what we do, and one of our activities involves working with the IL Mobile food bank where we use company money to provide food for people that couldn’t otherwise couldn’t afford it.

After the 4th of July parade we donated much of our excess food to those that were in a homeless center. The remaining, we gave to the Illinois Foodbank. Not only am I designing products, but now I can give away stuff for free.”

Kathy Johnson

The fruits of her labor are ripe for harvest, and Kathy’s eagerly shared the yield. With principles and a purpose greater than herself, Kathy Johnson refuses to let up until healthy and affordable food is accessible to everyone.