Hormel’s cultural anthropologist discovers what consumers really eat and why we love Spam

Cultural anthropologist Tanya Rodriguez has worked for Hormel Foods since 2007, delivering consumer insights by shopping, cooking and eating with families. (Hormel/TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — Technology has helped food companies look closely at what consumers are buying. But when it comes to what they are actually eating — and why — Tanya Rodriguez is at the table.

As a cultural anthropologist working for Hormel Foods since 2007, Rodriguez has spent time shopping, cooking and eating with families and listening to their food stories.


“It’s a delicious and hearty job,” said Rodriguez, whose official title is senior human experience research manager.

The Star Tribune recently asked Rodriguez to share some of her insights. The conversation has been edited for length.

Q: Tell me about your journey. How did you end up looking in people’s refrigerators for a Fortune 500 company?

A: Actually, that wasn’t my intent. I was educated to basically become a professor, and I was studying medical anthropology — so how people are navigating their native culture and biomedical interventions. That could be about mental health or physical health, in hospitals or botanicas. So I got interested a lot in the marketplace, what that looks like. And I was a student at UW-Madison when this opportunity came across the job board, and I was like, “Far out!”

The reason it resonated with me is because I grew up on some Hormel products. Spam and egg tacos, that was like a staple in our household in Texas. My grandma had a bunch of grandkids and that was a really tasty and value-laden option. Also my grandpa was a big-time hunter. And he would tell us, “Hey, if I don’t bag a buck, I’m gonna eat Dinty Moore.”

Q: What’s the typical week or month look like for your role?

A: My bread and butter is ethnography. So that’s doing custom research with consumers — I’m actually going out to the marketplace, going into their houses, cooking with them, looking in their pantry. Or with a food service customer I might be going onto a college campus, studying students and so forth. So those are big projects for different brands. But then a lot of my other work is in analysis. We’ve got all these insights, all of this data, and I do a lot of analysis.

So OK, we did the research. We did the analysis. Now let’s go and use it, let’s put them into action. Either we revamp our product, make a new product or change the way we do things with consumers.

A major thing that’s an everyday kind of a pulse that I’m keeping is in cultural intelligence. So I’m always finding new sources on the internet, social media sites, just to check the pulse on what consumers are doing around food.

Q: What are some things that have surprised you or upended your assumptions during your time with consumers?

A: A major thing is snacking. So I started in 2007 and that was one of our major initiatives way back then. And a lot of our food service customers were saying, ‘Hey, something’s going on. I’m not getting a lot of action at breakfast.’ So it was really interesting to see how people were “snacking their meals.” And that’s a quote from a consumer. They really started to shift from three meals a day at a table to much more like, OK, and now I’m snacking, I’m much more portable, much more convenience-driven. So I think that was pretty surprising.

There are other dynamics. I love the idea of the emerging consumer. Diverse consumers have always been here. We’ve always been interested in them. But I think there’s been such a rapid change in the demographics of the world. And so it’s been beautiful to be able to see all these food diasporas coming together to converge.

And then the last one I would say is food-as-medicine — really trying to look at those intersections between food and what is going on with people in terms of their health. We did a project on cancer. So I worked with people who were in treatment, and just being able to see all their pain points and being part of a team process to develop Vital Cuisine to address some of those pain points. That was fabulous work to be a part of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.