Operations Goddess: Dana Pellicano, VP, Global/US & Canada F&B, Marriott International
We are delighted to feature Dana Pellicano for our latest F&Be interview. As vice president of F&B for one of the largest hotel companies in the world, it is very likely that your satisfaction as a guest—whether you were there for a drink, a meal, a conference, or a long-term stay —would have been her concern.
Her entry into hospitality began in high school with a job at a local pizzeria. Before moving on to hotels, Dana had worked her way up through the ranks—managing some of New York’s most popular restaurants—while also getting degrees in international studies and food studies from Fordham and NYU.
A strong advocate for women in the industry, we are excited to see the impact she makes now—and where she will go in the future.
Hi Dana! It’s always nice to talk with a fellow New Yorker—or am I being presumptuous?
No, not presumptuous at all— it’s so good to talk to a fellow New Yorker, though I’ve got New Jersey bona fides too. I was born in NJ, just 15 miles west of NYC, and moved to NYC when I was 17 … been here ever since!
I find it fascinating to go back to the beginning and see where the first seeds of a career were planted. What was your first job?
My very first job was at a pizzeria in my hometown of Bloomfield, NJ when I was 15. I was a (and this is a real title) “phone girl.” Back then, we had to answer the phones for takeout and delivery orders—phones that were nailed to walls and attached to long cords. I did that while also being a prep cook. I chopped a lot of garlic and rolled eggplant rollatini orders for a few hours a night, a few times a week!
You are currently Vice President in charge of food & beverage for the US and Canada for Marriott International. That’s a key job that, obviously, spans many properties across the continent. What exactly does this entail?
So actually, I have a global role with accountability for US + Canada—which, broadly put, means that global brand and discipline projects go through my team, and we are charged with guest satisfaction and profitability outcomes for the hotels within US + Canada.
How many hotels does this include?
Globally, we’ve got about 7500 or so hotels across 30 brands: including our select brands and extended stay, like Residence Inn, and luxury including St. Regis and The Ritz-Carlton.
Who is on your team? Which departments/team members report to you?
Directly, I’ve got a team of twelve experts in beverage, restaurant and bar, and design and development and we work with other continent leaders as well as property leaders within US + Canada. Our broader F&B team also has experts in culinary, meetings and events, and food safety.
What steps have you taken in your career that brought you to where you are right now?
I feel like everything has been a step, so to speak, and with each move, I’ve been progressing to learn or do something a little bit different. When I started working, I had very tactical jobs in restaurants that allowed me to really hone the fundamentals of the discipline—from basic prep, food safety, and storage to customer service skills. While doing this, I strived to learn other parts of the business—I was a food runner, a hostess, a waitress, and a bartender—before I became an assistant manager and then a general manager. Then when I moved to hotels, I started adding on outlets—room service, or a rooftop bar, for example. I also began learning more about hotel operations—that is, reading our management agreements and understanding how the whole business works—while also cross-training to check in guests at the front desk. I moved hotels a few times, taking chances that afforded me growth and new perspectives.
You have been with Marriott for the better part of the decade, having started as director of restaurant and bar development for the Americas. Can you tell us more about your progression within Marriott?
I actually started with The Ritz-Carlton as a restaurant manager, before becoming a director of restaurants and then a Director of Food & Beverage. I even left Marriott shortly in 2010 for Loews Hotels, where I had the pleasure of being a regional director of operations, before coming back to Marriott on the F&B team above-property (at corporate headquarters rather than directly at the hotel). A lot of people ask me how they can join a corporate team— it seems really fun, I think, to people who are creative and like to think strategically about large and complex issues. I always tell people that they absolutely need to put in the time in the discipline—in the restaurants and bars, in the hotels—so that they’re tested and really understand the business. An above-property team lives to support the hotel teams and you can’t do that without really understand the problems that need solving or processes that need improving.
How would you describe your management style?
I wonder if anyone from my team would read this and disagree, but I think that I’m astonishingly open, breathtakingly candid (perhaps to a fault) and that I’m decisive. I make quick decisions, again, perhaps to a fault, but I always want people on my team to know they can truly come to me with anything, that I’ll always be honest (but never mean), and that hard questions won’t languish on my desk or in my inbox without resolve.
What do you see as being the key skills or traits that have helped your success?
Years ago, we had a screening process called the QSP (Quality Selection Process) for The Ritz-Carlton and I took it again when I went to Loews, as they also used it. To say that I score high on empathy would be an understatement. I think empathy, combined with vulnerability, are traits that help you not only in leadership but in life.
The past year has obviously been really challenging for everyone in the hospitality industry. Had you been working through the lockdowns?
I was furloughed for about two months, and they were the longest two months of my life. As a person who has worked full time since she was a teen, I was really restless! But I came back and was laser-focused on helping our hotels and outlets get reopened in a new normal. The ground shifted so frequently and so often under our feet, but it was great to feel that the work we were doing was so needed and so meaningful for the hotels.
What helped keep you busy (and sane) during that time?
I went from traveling 60-70% of the year to not at all, so I found my sanity by recommitting to my exercise routine. My husband and I started playing tennis 4 times a week, and we got a trainer who kicks our butts two days a week. I actually got into the best shape of my life during the past year. I’m grateful to have been grounded to get focused.
Though things are beginning to come back, the entire hospitality industry has had to shift as a result of the pandemic. What are some of the lingering effects, specifically with regard to F&B?
It’s amazing to see how things, that were such a seemingly small part of our business, have become so invaluable now—things like mobile ordering or mobile payments, for example. Before the pandemic, we had a mobile app for ordering food in a small number of our hotels, but you can imagine how popular the app is now and how many more hotels have signed up to move this way. Ditto, we had evolved room service in a small number of hotels (prior to the pandemic), transitioning to bagged/boxed delivery and moving away from tray tables in non-luxury hotels. There were guests who loved this and guests who didn’t. Now, it seems universally beloved to have a seamless handoff of food at the door and not have someone walk all the way into your room. It just makes so much more sense today.
Do you anticipate any of these changes to be permanent—both for F&B, but also for the broader hospitality industry?
We know what huge business both takeout and delivery are to the broader F&B economy globally. I don’t see either of these going away. I read a statistic that said more than 60% of households order out at least once a week now, a number that has consistently risen over the last 10 years straight.
What are you hoping to help change in the industry for women over the next year, 5 years, 10 years?
Everything! There are women doing such important work in this space, they are really shining a light on the unique challenges women face— not just in hospitality but, specifically, in food and beverage. Joanna James has an absolutely magical documentary film called “A Fine Line” that I highly recommend viewing. She points out that while more than half of F&B workers are women, only 7% of executive chefs and restaurant owners are.
This is a hard, physically demanding business—the hours are unpredictable and intense. Many women feel they have to opt-out and move to different parts of the business in order to make the other parts of their life work. We need broad, systemic change that provides meaningful ways to address maternity leave, the ability for women to pump at work while nursing, and career pathing that allows for women at the top. This industry is slow to change and, frankly, it is still really patriarchal.
What are your top tips for dealing with your team?
I was really young when I first became a manager and, honestly, I think I owe an apology to teams that I led when I was in my 20s. I didn’t know then what I know now, which is: teams need strong, steady, consistent leaders who are honest, fair, and unflappable. I pride myself on my communications skills and having a sense of humor. My teams have fun, but they also know that the thing they do every day is important to the business and the company.
Teams thrive when they have a sense of purpose and leaders who connect those dots for them.
What is your top service tip for dealing with clientele?
Never be afraid to apologize when you mess up, which we all do. A genuine apology often gets the charity it deserves. Customers and guests need to feel confident that you’ve got processes in place to continue to value their business and that you never take it for granted; they need to see people showing up for them—recognizing their spending and their loyalty. Customers have choices—and it can never feel lost on us that we’ve been chosen.
I have heard you have a passion for baking in your spare time at home?
My husband wishes I would stop! But I do, I love to cook— and I really love to bake.
What do you love to make most?
I love making soft pretzels and I really love making focaccia. Anything soft, warm, and salty is my jam.
Yum! With or without jam, that’s our jam too! We love to feature favorite recipes and recommendations—do you have one to share?
I think a great basic starter recipe is the basic Bon Appetit Focaccia bread - all you need is 850 grams of bread flour, some water, olive oil, salt, and yeast. I love how these simple, basic things come together to form pure doughy magic! Invite me to a party, there’s a good chance I’ll show up with fresh, hot focaccia for you.
Dana, consider the invitation extended!
Bon Appetit Shockingly Easy Foccacia Recipe
1 ¼-oz. envelope active dry yeast (about 2¼ tsp.) 2 tsp. honey 5 cups (625 g) all-purpose flour 5 tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 Tbsp. Morton kosher salt 6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for hands 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for pan Flaky sea salt 2–4 garlic cloves
1. Whisk one ¼-oz. envelope active dry yeast (about 2¼ tsp.), 2 tsp. honey, and 2½ cups lukewarm water in a medium bowl and let sit 5 minutes (it should foam or at least get creamy; if it doesn’t your yeast is dead and you should start again—check the expiration date!).
2. Add 5 cups (625 g) all-purpose flour and 5 tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 Tbsp. Morton kosher salt and mix with a rubber spatula until a shaggy dough forms and no dry streaks remain.
3. Pour 4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil into a big bowl that will fit in your refrigerator. This puppy is going to rise! Transfer dough to bowl and turn to coat in oil. Cover with a silicone lid or plastic wrap and chill until dough is doubled in size (it should look very bubbly and alive), at least 8 hours and up to 1 day. If you're in a rush, you can also let it rise at room temperature until doubled in size, 3–4 hours.
4. Generously butter a 13x9" baking pan, for thicker focaccia that’s perfect for sandwiches, or an 18x13" rimmed baking sheet, for focaccia that's thinner, crispier, and great for snacking. The butter may seem superfluous, but it’ll ensure that your focaccia doesn’t stick. Pour 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil into center of pan. Keeping the dough in the bowl and using a fork in each hand, gather up edges of dough farthest from you and lift up and over into center of bowl. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat process. Do this 2 more times; you want to deflate dough while you form it into a rough ball. (We learned this technique from Alexandra Stafford, who uses it to shape her no-knead bread.) Transfer dough to prepared pan. Pour any oil left in bowl over and turn dough to coat it in oil. Let rise, uncovered, in a dry, warm spot (like near a radiator or on top of the fridge or a preheating oven) until doubled in size, at least 1½ hours and up to 4 hours.
5. Place a rack in middle of oven; preheat to 450°. To see if the dough is ready, poke it with your finger. It should spring back slowly, leaving a small visible indentation. If it springs back quickly, the dough isn’t ready. (If at this point the dough is ready to bake but you aren’t, you can chill it up to 1 hour.) Lightly oil your hands. If using a rimmed baking sheet, gently stretch out dough to fill (you probably won't need to do this if using a baking pan). Dimple focaccia all over with your fingers, like you’re aggressively playing the piano, creating very deep depressions in the dough (reach your fingers all the way to the bottom of the pan). Drizzle with remaining 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Bake focaccia until puffed and golden brown all over, 20–30 minutes.
6. Hold off on this last step until you're ready to serve the focaccia: Melt 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat. Peel and grate in 2–4 garlic cloves with a Microplane (use 2 cloves if you’re garlic-shy or up to 4 if you love it). Return to medium heat and cook, stirring often, until garlic is just lightly toasted, 30–45 seconds. (Or, if you prefer raw garlic to toasted garlic, you can grate the garlic into the hot butter, off heat, then brush right away.)
7. Brush garlic-butter all over focaccia and slice into squares or rectangles.
8. Do Ahead: Focaccia is best eaten the day it's made but keeps well in the freezer. Slice it into pieces, store it in a freezer-safe container, then reheat it on a baking sheet in a 300° F oven.