These days in the quick-service and fast-casual restaurant industries, the Millennial reigns supreme. The coveted demographic, approximately 20–35 in age and roughly 80 million members strong in the U.S., is the all-important target whose liberal tastes and propensity for all things digital and social media has forced the industry into a new era of innovation and transparency.
But it’s not just the purchasing behavior of Millennial customers that is leading to big changes in the limited-service realm anymore. The generation is also increasingly leaving its fingerprints on the decision-making process, with more young guns streaming into the corporate suite or launching their own enterprises.
These young leaders share plenty in common. They talk about the importance of culture, of community, of an “anti-corporate” mentality. They’ve embedded sustainability, charity, and a healthy lifestyle into the fabric of their work. And they all admire the fast-casual chic and forward-thinking ethos of brands like Chipotle.
Meet the 11 Millennial leaders, all 35 and under, who are poised to become the next generation of influential quick-service and fast-casual leaders.
Nicolas Jammet (29), Nathaniel Ru (28), & Jonathan Neman (29)
Graduating business majors, especially from colleges like the prestigious Georgetown University, often dream of careers in investment banking, financial planning, or corporate consulting. The limited-service industry is not always among the top picks for emerging business leaders.
But Nathaniel Ru, Nicolas Jammet, and Jonathan Neman saw an opportunity in the evolving foodservice industry when they graduated from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business in 2007.
“As students, we wanted access to this healthier, cleaner, honest food to eat, and we wanted it in an environment that was affordable and convenient,” Jammet says. “We didn’t see that, but you still saw this kind of shift in the existing fast-casual places, that they were starting to focus on healthier options or health-focused menu trends. And you saw customers starting to want it, you saw customers starting to want to know more about their food.”
“We didn’t feel like there was a place that really provided the food or stood for the values we believed in,” Neman adds. “So out of wanting to solve this problem and wanting to create something, we decided to do it ourselves.”
The result is Sweetgreen, a fast-casual salad bar the three men founded in Washington, D.C., upon graduation. Along with pre-designed and customizable salads, the restaurants offer wraps, juices, frozen yogurt, and other healthy foods using many local ingredients.
Neman says the founders’ youth and inexperience with the foodservice industry forced them to create something simple.
“So when we approached this issue of healthy eating, we had to solve it in a very simple way, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we chose salad, because salad is all about the quality of the produce and all about the source of the food,” he says.
Beyond being a destination for healthier and locally sourced foods, Sweetgreen was established as a lifestyle brand that Jammet, Neman, and Ru say they modeled on retailers like lululemon, Patagonia, Nike, and Whole Foods, as well as quick serves like Chipotle and Starbucks. Sustainability is woven into the fabric of the company, along with four other core values that Jammet says they “live and die by”: creating solutions in which the company wins, the customer wins, the community wins (the “triple bottom line”); cultivating authentic food and relationships; creating meaningful connections every day, from the farm to the customer; and making an impact on the community.
Sweetgreen opened seven new units in 2013 and now has 22 locations in five states and D.C. Last year, the company offered between 21 and 41 local ingredients on store menus, purchased $1.9 million worth of local produce, and donated $50,000 to organizations that support healthy eating in homes and schools. In addition, the brand’s SweetLife festival, a music festival that evolved from a block party the founders threw with their second unit, hosted 22 bands and 18,730 guests.
“We’re really excited to keep bringing this idea of a ‘sweet life’ to more cities and communities, and I guess the key word is community,” Jammet says. “It’s really important that when we do pick a city or a neighborhood to open in, we understand the customer there, we understand what problem we’re solving, why they want us, how we should fit into that community, and everything from menu to design to seating to who we hire.”
The founders say they have no unit-count goals at this time, but their ultimate aspiration is to be the leaders in the healthy fast-casual space. Steve Case, the former cofounder of AOL, is among the crowd believing Sweetgreen can accomplish just that. The brand recently received $22 million in funding from Case’s Revolution Growth fund, which is investing in entrepreneurs using new approaches to disrupt large industries.
“It’s a really fun industry in that you get to work with people and you get to work with food, two incredible things, and there’s a lot of opportunity,” Neman says. “I think you ’re going to see more and more educated, young people coming into this industry.”
Casey Patten (33)
All Philadelphia natives Casey Patten and David Mazza wanted was a decent hoagie in their adopted hometown of Washington, D.C.
When, in 2008, they stumbled upon some real estate on H Street with plenty of character but in dire need of some TLC, they decided that if they couldn’t find a good hoagie shop, they would start their own.
That H Street real estate became the first Taylor Gourmet, a fast-casual sandwich concept that Patten calls a “cooked-from-scratch kitchen meets gourmet Italian deli.” The brand has grown to nine units, each with premium and specialty ingredients, a focus on sustainability and community, and a handcrafted design that is both industrial and rustic.
“For us it was coming up with the anti-deli design,” Patten says. “So, how could we bring you into a space where you are going to eat a phenomenal, fresh hoagie in the deli and feel like you are not there? And it’s from all senses, from music to textures to the look and feel to materials.”
Patten says the fact that he and Mazza, 40, are young has helped them be able to make changes on the fly and adapt the concept to the demands of their peers. The new limited-service startup scene being driven by young, entrepreneurial operators, Patten says, has been founded on integrity—product integrity, customer integrity, operations integrity, and employee integrity. He points to Portland, Oregon–based Stumptown Coffee as a brand after which he and Mazza modeled Taylor Gourmet.
“They started really small, they believed in what they did, they grew slowly but in the right way, they interwove themselves into the community, and they essentially glued themselves to the coffee industry as the hippest, the coolest, the best roast out there,” he says. “We always take a look at them and we say that, as we continue to grow, that’s how we want to grow and that’s how we want to be perceived.”
Patten says he and Mazza have plans for the brand—which has become a favorite of President Obama and other D.C. movers and shakers—to become the “top premium sandwich provider in the industry.” Five or six units will open this year, and the company is looking into opening in additional markets and potentially nontraditional locations.
“We want to honestly become the anti-corporation that still can get things done, but isn’t broken down with bureaucracy and different levels of communication and five different levels of leaders,” he says. “We still want to be the small Washington, D.C., hoagie shop.”