Melisa Clottey is the Head of Food Technical at Selfridges, London. Here she speaks about her early start as a food scientist, the joys of working small, and the importance of creating a sense of belonging for both colleagues and customers.
My mum ran her own catering business. Her mum, my Grandma Vic, was a food distributor in Ghana and owned her own bakery (she made the best cakes), and I recently discovered that my great grandmother was a wine distributor in Ghana during the early 1900s — so I guess I was destined to work in the food and drinks industry. At school, I loved the sciences, so I took the opportunity to combine this love with my passion for food, and studied for a BSc in Food Science. Here I am, over 20 years later, still adoring what is clearly in my DNA.
After my first degree, I studied for a MSc in public health nutrition. I was an academic researcher in the field of childhood nutrition for a short while and then went to work in the commercial world at General Mills as a quality assurance technologist. Working on their global brands, including Häagen-Dazs and Green Giant was an incredible education. I performed audits in freezers at -40°C, where I quickly learned that you had to wear the right clothing otherwise your skin would get freezer burn, ouch! I visited corn fields at two am to watch the harvest, and would see that very same sweetcorn appear in a tin before breakfast time. I travelled often, to places like Minneapolis where the head office was based, to beauty spots like Biarritz and San Sabastian to make delicious salsas and sauces for the Old El Paso Brand, even to Poland to work on their national dish, pierogis, for the Pillsbury Dough Boy range. It was a remarkable experience as a first job, working on such a broad range of brands and products.
From General Mills I moved into new product development, my true love. Working for Yum! Restaurants International on the Pizza Hut brand was exciting — imagine being mandated to play with your food for a living! My best memory was winning an industry award for creating a nutritionally-balanced children’s pizza, Tortizza, which used a thin, healthy tortilla base (clearly influenced by my time at Old El Paso). My prize was a trip to Avery Island, Louisiana – the home of Tabasco Sauce. I developed Pizza Hut’s most profitable starter during my time there, nachos, which stayed on the menu for over ten years. My most famous development was probably Cheesy Bites, Pizza Hut’s most successful pizza innovation at the time, launching in 700 dine-in restaurants and 150 delivery stores. Behind the scenes, I managed to speed up the pizza ovens by two minutes, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was a huge challenge — and it delivered a £5 million cost saving in one year!
At Selfridges we get to work with small artisanal suppliers who put so much love into their products. You can actually taste love in food.
When I moved on to Heinz, I was tasked with bringing together global teams in product innovation, building relationships across different functions — marketing, sales, finance, procurement, and R&D. I was fortunate to work across all their categories, from baby food (which completely changed my view on that category, the standards are so high!), to soups and sauces, and their famous Heinz Beanz products. Did you know 1.5 million cans of Heinz Beanz are consumed every day in the UK? That’s over 540 million cans each year – and every single one of those beans is individually checked before it is cooked. It’s a serious operation.
I came to Selfridges in 2011, where I acquired a whole new set of skills in food safety. It’s not often that a career in food science spans product quality, supplier assurance, new product development, food safety, and regulatory affairs — I feel fortunate to have had such broad experience. Food safety across our Foodhalls and restaurants is a major focus, but I have also really enjoyed developing our Selfridges Selection range. It has been so inspiring to see the passion that Alannah Weston and Anne Pitcher have for excellent product, delivered in beautiful, sustainable, packaging. In the early days, I loved working on our Christmas Selfridges Selection range; I always delivered the November management induction sessions, so I could treat the attendees to delicious Christmas treats!
At Selfridges, we get to work with small artisanal suppliers who put so much love into their products. You can actually taste love in food. Our shortbread is made by a wonderful guy called Archie, who has a small, family-run production unit at the bottom of Ben Nevis Mountain. Archie puts everything into those shortbread biscuits.
At Food Technical we were one of the first teams to include sustainability as a performance and development objective. We have spearheaded various initiatives, including a better waste management system, separating organic and recyclable material from the general waste stream (and all the communication that entails). For the Project Earth initiative, we have led on product sign off – reviewing every single food label to ensure compliance with UK food legislation, and working with the sustainability team to ensure the Project Earth labelling can be verified, and communicated effectively to our customers.
If a customer chooses to visit us in our physical, or digital, stores I hope they get that true sense of belonging (one that diversity, inclusion and equity generates)
I am the chair of the newly-formed diversity board in Selfridges, a role I take very seriously. The Black Lives Matter movement has enabled us to start having open and honest conversations with various groups within Selfridges. We have spoken to over 300 team members across our stores so far, and this is just the beginning. Our colleagues have shared stories of challenging, uncomfortable, and sometimes unacceptable situations they have experienced whilst working in our stores, and we are intently listening to those concerns. Whilst the initial forums were set up for Black, ethnic minority, and marginalised team members to voice their experience, all team members across all ethnicities have now been invited to take part — and I think that is really important. Team members who are outside of the marginalised groups have asked us for training and tools to address issues and areas that they don’t understand, or have no experience of managing. My role as chair is to help distil all of these conversations and, together with the diversity board, shape them into tangible areas of effective and sustainable action — to deliver change, and ensure that everyone has a fair, equitable opportunity to thrive at Selfridges. Real diversity is where team members feel that they can have conversations, they can be themselves, they can bring their whole selves to work.
Based on these initial conversations, we have identified key priority areas, or pillars. The first is ‘everyone is welcome’. We are asking ourselves if everyone feels welcome in our stores, and how we are communicating that to our colleagues and customers. We are looking at our brand to ensure that our content and language embodies our values of diversity, inclusion and equity across all stores. The second pillar is about education, we call it the ‘yellow curriculum’, which is all about training for our team members. That might involve sending someone on a specific course, or inviting a speaker to educate a team on a subject related to diversity and inclusion. The third pillar is ‘broadening our buy’ which is focussed on product and supply chain. How do we ensure we bring our key brand partners with us on this journey? How do we make sure that we are buying products from a wide, and more diverse, range of suppliers and producers? There is so much to do, so much necessary work. We realise that the twelve people on the diversity board cannot deliver the deep and lasting change that is required, and so we have created a diversity squad across all stores that is open to anyone, to help bring everyone on this journey with us.
Customers come to Selfridges for an experience that they won’t get anywhere else. If a customer chooses to visit us in store or online, I hope they feel a true sense of belonging — one that diversity, inclusion and equity generates. In this age of uncertainty and change, I hope that Selfridges is seen as a safe space, a place where you can feel welcome eating in our restaurants, or feel confident buying product knowing it has been procured with a considered mindset. I want Selfridges to be a place where valued voices drive our unique Selfridges spirit, through diverse perspectives.