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If Mike Lingo had followed his mother's career advice, the closest involvement he would have had with McDonald's was eating at one of the fast-food giant's nearly 14,000 locations.
Lingo, 36, a graduate of Linn-Mar High School, is senior manager of menu innovation on McDonald's corporate culinary team with responsibility for developing new products. He joined the Oak Brook, Ill., company in August 2015.
Lingo initially was exposed to food service when he was in high school. He filled in during the holidays for employees of the deli at the Hy-Vee near Lindale Mall where his father, James, was the store director.
After he graduated from Linn-Mar, Lingo spent a year at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. His mother, Wendy, a counselor and retired associate professor at Kirkwood Community College, thought he should consider a career as a social worker, 'but it just didn't pan out,” Lingo recalled during a phone interview.
Determined to earn a degree, Lingo returned to Cedar Rapids and took liberal arts courses at Kirkwood. With his love of cooking and trying new recipe ideas with family members and friends while growing up, Lingo enrolled in the community college's culinary arts program.
Lingo worked in the kitchen at Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano in Cedar Rapids. The chef there convinced Lingo to move to Hyde Park, N.Y., and enroll at the Culinary Institute of America.
While working as a line chef at restaurant in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to pay for his education, he had a friend who was working in food science.
'He had a job pretty much right after coming out of culinary school,” Lingo said. 'He talked with me about going back to college and getting a degree in food science.”
After earning his associate of arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America in 2005, Lingo returned to Iowa to pursue a bachelor's degree in food science from Iowa State University.
Graduating in June 2008, at the start of the Great Recession, there were not a lot of jobs available for recent college graduates.
'I ended up getting a job as a food scientist at Ralcorp, a cereal company in St. Louis that was spun off of Ralston Purina,” Lingo said. 'At that point in time, Ralcorp was going gangbusters because people were buying store-brand cereal. That was one of the things that Ralcorp manufactured by basically copying branded cereal.
'I did that for about a year and then started working on a food service project that came out of Ralcorp's frozen bread division. They had a lot of accounts working with McDonald's, so I started to develop oatmeal and other products for McDonald's.”
In September 2009, Lingo became chef scientist at Ralcorp Frozen Bakery Products in Downers Grove, Ill. After ConAgra Foods acquired Ralcorp for $5 billion, Lingo was promoted to culinary manager of ConAgra for the McDonald's account.
After two years of disappointing results, ConAgra sold the assets of Ralcorp to Treehouse Foods. Lingo, who had launched a test kitchen in Downers Grove for ConAgra, was able to take advantage of an opportunity to join McDonald's in August 2015.
Lingo said introducing new menu items at McDonald's blends customer feedback and desires with nutritional guidelines established by the company.
'The sheer number of restaurants that have to implement a menu item is huge,” he said. 'Can enough ingredient suppliers support 14,000 locations once something tasty has been crafted?”
Lingo recently led McDonald's kitchens in the development of the Signature Crafted Recipes line of sandwiches. He also was involved in the restructuring of the company's chicken supply chain.
The new McNuggets recipe uses chickens raised without antibiotics. That required all three companies supplying chickens to offer birds that meet that standard.
McDonald's on Oct. 1 announced it has removed artificial preservatives, flavors and added colors from its 'classic burgers.” That includes the Big Mac as well as other burgers.
'The only ingredient that still includes a preservative is the pickle,” Lingo said. 'Hopefully some day we will be able to remove the preservative from the pickle, but we're not quite there yet.
'We are giving people the option to leave off the pickle, if they are concerned.”
Lingo considers his career path an example of keeping an open mind if you are unsure about the future direction of your life.
'I'm a testament to finding out the range of opportunities within your industry,” he said. 'Take some time, especially when you're young and just out of school, to figure yourself out to the best of your ability.
'Be open to change. Be open to moving and taking a risk. It was scary moving to New York from Iowa, where I had grown up.
'If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would be doing what I'm doing today at McDonald's, I would have told them that they were crazy.”