Ever since QSR published its first issue back in September 1997, the limited-service restaurant industry has undergone seismic changes—changes that have helped grow the industry into a $234 billion behemoth influencing how Americans eat every day.
Many factors have shaped the evolution of the highly competitive, influential, and fast-changing limited-service industry in the last two decades. But perhaps none has had a greater impact than the people leading the charge—those building the empires, setting the trends, training the leaders, and engineering the massive turnarounds that come to define the industry of today and tomorrow.
We've rounded up 20 of the most influential leaders who have shaped the past two decades of quick-service and fast-casual success—and who have set the stage for the next 20 years and beyond.
J. Patrick Doyle
CEO, Domino's Pizza
The second-largest pizza company in the world—one that's closing in on Pizza Hut as the largest U.S. pizza player—Domino's delivers more than a million pies per day. But the stat that CEO and 20-year Domino's vet J. Patrick Doyle might be even prouder of is the fact that, as of year-end 2016, more than 60 percent of orders placed in the U.S. were made via digital channels, whether it was via Twitter, text messaging, smart watches, Google Home, or Facebook Messenger.
"That number has gone up every year, and I think it will continue to go up. But when we launched our digital platform eight or 10 years ago, I don't think any of us thought 60 percent is where we'd be today," Doyle says.
In addition to the brand's evolution into a tech leader, Doyle's other proudest achievement is Domino's culinary reinvention, which dates back to 2010, when he led the (unofficially named) "Our Pizza Sucks" campaign to fix Domino's food.
"For 50 years, the speed and efficiency of our delivery was what drove growth, then it simply stopped," Doyle says. "There's all sorts of change coming, and the brands that are going to thrive in this
environment are those that are experimenting and trying a lot of things and not simply relying on things that worked for a long period of time."
Executive Chairman, Starbucks
Almost 34 years ago, Howard Schultz got into the coffee business aiming to forge a more personal connection between people and coffee. When he became CEO of Starbucks, the Seattle-based chain had just six stores. In the three decades of success and growing pains that followed, Schultz grew the coffee concept to include more than 21,000 locations in 65 countries. From offering healthcare coverage to all employees to temporarily closing some 7,000 stores in 2008 to teach baristas how to make the perfect espresso and creating a culture of experimentation via instant coffee packets, a dynamic digital payment and rewards program, and high-end roasteries, Schultz brought some elusive luxury to the chain coffee shop.
CEO & Chairman, Chipotle
When 28-year-old Steve Ells opened a tiny Denver taqueria called Chipotle in 1993, he hoped it would generate enough cash to support his plan for a high-end restaurant. Some 2,250 Chipotles later, Ells still hasn't opened that fine-dining spot, but his brand helped shape a then-burgeoning fast-casual segment that has grown 550 percent since 1999. The made-to-order, quality-focused chain also jump-started an invasion of chefs into the fast-casual realm. In 2016, chef-driven fast casuals ranked as the industry's second-hottest trend, according to the NRA. Following a food-safety crisis in 2015, Chipotle—built on transparency as a core principle—owned up to some glaring supply-chain and food-handling issues. Ells is now sole CEO, and earlier this year same-store sales once again started to climb.
CEO, National Restaurant Association
When Dawn Sweeney took the helm at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in 2007, the restaurant industry was fresh off of 18 consecutive years of growth. But her arrival unexpectedly coincided with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, making her first task a tall one.
"We had to pivot quickly to build a financial trajectory to continue to advance and protect the industry from a suddenly very different environment," she says. That hasn't stopped Sweeney from growing revenue at the nation's largest restaurant lobby from $50 million to $100 million during her 10-year tenure. Early on, she focused on the business side via programs like ServSafe and industry-supporting health-insurance portfolios. Recently, she's pivoted yet again to build the group's advocacy agenda, growing partnerships with all levels of government and state restaurant organizations that are so vital to developing the workforce of tomorrow.
"We've activated and built stronger, more supportive relationships with all 52 state restaurant associations to align around the advocacy agenda, membership goals, business relationships, and industry issues we're facing," she says. "There's an urgency on our part to band together to make sure we're bringing the very strongest kind of singular focus together to be able to deal with these."
CEO & Chairman, Chick-fil-A
Like his father, Truett Cathy, the late founder of fast-food juggernaut Chick-fil-A, Dan Cathy believes that memorable, attentive service is key to building a successful company. If you can achieve record sales numbers while doing so, all the better. The company generates more sales per restaurant than any other U.S. fast food chain (over $4.4 million in 2016) while consistently ranking first in restaurant customer service surveys, with consumers raving about the cleanliness, quick and convenient service, and hardworking employees—an elusive honor in fast food.
Nathaniel Ru, Jonathan Neman, Nicolas Jammet
A trio of college buddies spot a void in the healthy lunch market and raise $350,000 to open a casual salad shop in D.C. Ten years, 70 locations, and millions in venture-capitalist funding later, they've achieved something more elusive than becoming a go-to for regionally sourced salads and cold-pressed juices; they've built Sweetgreen into a lifestyle brand trafficking in healthy and sustainable food (overhauling its plant-driven menu four times a year), technology (transitioning to 100 percent cashless this year), and community service (through initiatives like in-school nutrition education) that's come to epitomize the millennial consumer generation.
Founder, CEO, and Executive Chairman, Panera Bread
Just ask Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich: Building the industry's leading fast-casual chain isn't always enough. You have to keep innovating to stay on top. Starting with a move to antibiotic-free chicken and a phase-out of trans fats, the chain has cleaned up its menu over the past decade—culminating in the recent completion of its "No-No List" goal to remove all artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, and colors from its menu, which was announced in 2015. Shaich now has his sights on closing the healthy-food-delivery gap, as the chain aims to offer delivery in 40 percent of stores by year-end.
Former CEO, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Popeyes was a struggling, sleepy fast-food chain when former KFC exec Cheryl Bachelder joined the board of directors in 2006 and then became CEO. Her 10-year tenure would come to be one of the most successful by any CEO in quick-service restaurant history, as Popeyes' stock quadrupled and the chain added more than $1 billion in U.S. sales. Her efforts to reduce costs, speed up service, and add new menu items emphasizing the chain's Louisiana roots—while also rebranding the concept and its moniker—catapulted Popeyes back into relevancy. She stepped down this spring when it was announced Burger King owner Restaurant Brands International would buy Popeyes for $1.8 billion.
Former CEO, McDonald's
When Jim Skinner took over burger giant McDonald's in 2004, the company was floundering. He spent the next eight years carrying out the Plan to Win, a strategy focused on improving service, food, and ambience, and not necessarily opening new stores. Skinner presided over increased sales, reimagined menus, modernized restaurants, and innovation in the form of premium coffee drinks and healthier smoothies and wraps. By the time he stepped down in 2012, McDonald's stock price had more than tripled.
CEO, Yum! Brands
Before Taco Bell became the cheeky millennial brand with boozy Cantina outposts and loco brand mash-ups, it was a struggling value Mexican chain. In 2011, Greg Creed took the helm as CEO, overseeing introduction of the wildly popular Doritos Locos Tacos line and the premium-priced Cantina Bell menu, which quickly turned Taco Bell into Yum's fastest-growing U.S. brand. Now in charge of all three Yum brands (including KFC and Pizza Hut), the leader known for clever marketing and innovative new items aims to stage a similar turnaround for lagging Pizza Hut.
Arby's was coming off of three consecutive years of shrinking sales and margins when Paul Brown joined the then-lagging sandwich chain in 2013. During his tenure, sales have swelled 20 percent thanks to his leadership over menu innovation (the chain launches 14 new LTOs a year, recently including Smokehouse Pork Belly and Venison Sandwiches) and clever public relations efforts (like his authentically self-deprecating segment on Jon Stewart's final Daily Show episode in 2015). With sales on track to hit $4 billion in 2018, the future looks bright for Brown's Arby's.
CEO, Shake Shack
"The bigger we get, the smaller we have to act."
This guiding principle can be found on the office wall of Randy Garutti, CEO of the 133-location Shake Shack burger chain, which he's been a part of since Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group launched it as a single hot dog stand in New York in 2004.
"Back then, the chefs from Eleven Madison Park, the owners, and I were all in back flipping burgers," Garutti says. "Now we're working hard to stay connected to our roots as we grow."
That means developing a strong leadership team from employees who often start as hourly workers, as well as treating each Shack like a one-off brand that reflects its community—whether it's in Brooklyn, New York, or Lexington, Kentucky.
Despite a slowdown in early 2017, the chain expects to earn more than $350 million in revenue this year, and aims to eventually open 450 Shacks in the U.S. alone.
"The world is changing by the minute," Garutti says. "We're proud of the way we continue to help that evolution and find our way within it while remaining at the core of who we are."
Founder, Five Guys Burgers & Fries
The original David to the fast-food burger industry's Goliaths of McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King, Five Guys ushered in a fast-casual hamburger era marked by better-quality food on the go. Jerry Murrell launched the retro chain in 1988 with his wife and five sons, divulging ingredient origins long before transparency became a trend. Growth was measured for the first 15 years, but since Five Guys adopted the franchise model in 2003, growth has exploded. Now with some 1,500 outposts worldwide (and another 1,500 in development), Five Guys averages 100 openings per year while holding fast to its family-driven, authentic roots.
CEO, The Elliot Group
Alice Elliot may not have ever masterminded a miraculous quick-serve restaurant turnaround or helmed a fast-casual rising star, but as the leader of the industry's most respected headhunting firm, she's easily been one of its most influential players of the past quarter century. The native New Yorker launched her first solo personnel venture out of a one-bedroom apartment in 1984 and has since grown The Elliot Group the same way she matches people to the perfect job: one relationship at a time. Her knack for finding and nurturing human capital is complemented by a near-inexhaustible passion for mentoring and coaching—oh, and knowing when a little blunt feedback is necessary.
The late founder of the world's largest restaurant company, Fred DeLuca had a startup story that was not unlike many in the bootstrapping restaurant industry. He began in 1965 with $1,000 and a little sandwich shop to help pay for college. The name changed from Pete's Super Submarines to Subway three years later—when the owners decided to grow through franchising—and grew exponentially, reaching 2,000 locations by 1988 and quadrupling that number by 1994. Today, there are more than 44,000 locations worldwide, with U.S. sales reaching $11.3 billion in 2016. Until shortly before his death in 2015, DeLuca remained a hands-on co-CEO, personally signing corporate checks and stopping by Subway locations incognito to try the food and chat with franchise owners.
Former CEO, Popeyes and Dunkin' Donuts
One of the most emulated leaders of the restaurant industry, Jon Luther continues to impact the industry through mentorship. The CEO of Dunkin' Brands—parent company of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins—from 2003 until 2009, and its chairman from 2006 to 2013, Luther helped turn Dunkin' from a regionally known coffee brand to a worldwide powerhouse. He launched the award-winning "America Runs on Dunkin'" campaign and spearheaded a menu transformation far beyond doughnuts. More recently, he's offered up his indispensable expertise as chairman of Arby's Restaurant Group Inc. and the Culinary Institute of America, and as lead director of the board of Six Flags Theme Parks and board member at Brinker International.
President & COO, Focus Brands
Risk-taking is as much about taking a leap before you're ready as it is about seeing a need and jumping in to help. "When you jump, you have to be willing to hustle to over-deliver beyond what someone who's typically qualified or experienced will do," says Kat Cole, COO and president of North America at Focus Brands.
This concept—which Cole has dubbed #hustlemuscle—has been a theme of her whirlwind career, starting as a teenage Hooters waitress who jumped in to cook chicken wings when the entire kitchen staff quit. Two years later, she was boarding a plane for the first time to open Hooters' first location in Australia. Now at Focus Brands, a $3 billion company that owns brands like Cinnabon, Moe's Southwest Grill, and Auntie Anne's, Cole displays a blend of confidence, curiosity, and humility that fit the disruptive company's tech-savvy, collaborative approach to growth.
"Brands that have won and shaped this industry are the ones that are willing to be authentic and follow the true consumer truth instead of protecting their legacy ways," she says
Chairman, CEO, and President, Sonic Drive-In
Growing from a quirky, regional fast-food darling to a national juggernaut without compromising identity is no easy feat. Sonic Drive-In has done so through a combination of throwback appeal and dynamic menu innovation, all under the watchful eye of 32-year vet Clifford Hudson. In the 22 years since he became CEO, Sonic's system-wide sales have grown from $880 million to $4.5 billion, and its enterprise value from $200 million to over $2 billion. Moreover, the brand has captured millennials' imagination through the vintage appeal of the drive-in and the wily innovation of an upstart brand that doesn't take itself too seriously—from offering 1.3 million customizable drink flavors to rolling out wildly popular limited-time offers like pretzel dogs and oddball shake flavors.
The five times weekly e-newsletter that keeps you up-to-date on the latest industry news and additions to this website.