Luke Holden (30)
Like the Sweetgreen founders, Luke Holden graduated with a business degree from Georgetown in 2007. Unlike Jammet, Ru, and Neman, however, Holden gave the investment-banking world in New York City a go before turning to the fast-casual space.
By 2009, Holden was itching to do something entrepreneurial, and his roots as the son of a small-town Maine fisherman started calling to him. Inspired by East Village fast casuals specializing in one or two menu items, Holden, together with business partner Ben Conniff, opened the first Luke’s Lobster there in October 2009.
“It was two kids that had no experience at all in the restaurant industry, and we were just creative and resourceful and forced to make decisions with limited resources, which caused us to learn on the job,” Holden says. “We certainly made mistakes, but I think that was part of our success as well, not having a pre-determined idea on how to do something.”
Luke’s Lobster, which now has 11 locations on the East Coast, is different than most fast casuals in that the menu is short—Lobster Rolls, Shrimp Rolls, and Crab Rolls, along with Clam Chowder, sides, and seasonal items—and prices are in the casual-dining range of $15–$20. But, like other fast casuals driven by young entrepreneurs, Luke’s has committed to engaging with community and doubling down on sustainability and transparency. That even led it to build a 16,000-square-foot processing facility in Maine.
“A lot of people talk a game of traceability and sourcing from sustainable resources, but we’re actually out there dealing with the fishermen, securing the product, doing the logistics of bringing live wild-caught resources into our own plant, and then assuring that the food quality and safety programs are top-notch in the industry,” Holden says.
Kristi Ritchey (32)
Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop
Much has been said about fine-dining players moving into the fast-casual space, whether it’s Rick Bayless with his Xoco concept or the renowned Larkspur Restaurant and its spinoff Larkburger chain.
But perhaps none embody the health-minded, do-it-yourself attitude of Millennials quite like Kristi Ritchey, executive chef at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop in Southern California. Not only did she leave the same position at fine-dining restaurant Murano Restaurant and Lounge—where she was named one of Los Angeles’s top chefs by LA Direct Magazine—to join friend Jonathan Rollo at healthy-food concept Greenleaf in 2008, but she also put her money where her mouth was and lost more than 100 pounds through diet and exercise.
Now Ritchey is developing nutritious salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and more at the four-unit Greenleaf, where she says they are heavily investing in local food providers and small businesses.
“What I love about Greenleaf is that even though we’re a fast-casual company, we don’t approach our service or our food that way,” she says. “We hold to our expectations of quality customer service and quality food, the same that we did when we ran fine-dining restaurants. Everything from the customer experience to the dishes that we create, we approach it from that level, and I think that’s what sets us apart.”
Ritchey says she and Rollo are prepared to scale Greenleaf into a national concept, but for now they are focused on taking care of priority No. 1: their customers’ health.
“I think that so often in the fast-food or fast-casual industry, people are just looking for what’s the best market they can get, what’s the best profit they can get, how many target people can they get,” she says. “For us, it’s about giving people quality—a quality of life, quality food, and helping them have an overall balanced lifestyle.”
Michael Lastoria (34) & Steve Salis (31)
For Michael Lastoria and Steve Salis, a restaurant is more than just food, furniture, and customer service. A restaurant represents memories, nostalgia, and the community surrounding it. That’s why at their Washington, D.C.–based fast casual &pizza, all of the marketing efforts are grassroots, spotlighting stories from local residents, charities, and causes making each neighborhood a better place.
“We see ourselves as social entrepreneurs as opposed to pizza makers,” Lastoria says. “Pizza is the conduit that allows us to create that social change. We’re heavily involved in the communities where we set up shop, and we want to bring people together and create real-world connections, in a time and a place where we feel that’s more important than ever.”
Lastoria and Salis ask all &pizza employees (whom they call their “tribe”) to abide by four principles: initiate change, think differently, be inspired, and tell other people. They’ve created a brand built more on the people making up the restaurants than on a carefully prescribed operating model.
“I think the companies that are going to be able to prevail over time are the ones that understand who they are. They have a definable soul and purpose and are people that focus on things that are bigger than the actual bricks-and-mortar, four-walls operating model,” Salis says.
Two &pizza units are open today, with three more under construction. While Lastoria and Salis say the brand could fit into communities all across the country, they’re taking their time shaping it into a sustainable business, one that maintains a consistent culture across the entire system. For that reason, they plan to grow only through corporate-owned locations.
“One of the big differences between our business and other restaurant groups trying to do the same thing is that we view ourselves organizationally more as a tech startup than a food business,” Lastoria says. “What that means is you’re going to see transparency, you’re going to see a much flatter organization, you’re going to see leadership that’s happening at all levels of the business, and the same goes for creativity—our best ideas are going to come from those closest to our guests. We empower everyone in the organization.
“I think prior to this you saw a lot of hierarchy and bureaucracy, and that’s changing drastically,” he adds. “What that allows us to do is it allows us to innovate quicker, it allows us to be on the forefront in everything that we do and the choices that we make.”
Jethro Naude (34)
The year 2010 wasn’t a banner year for launching restaurant concepts. The Great Recession had put a strain on lending, and consumers’ discretionary incomes were tight. And yet somehow, Huntington Beach, California–based Slapfish fought through its first year with the dogged determination to become a leading fast-casual purveyor of sustainable seafood.
Jethro Naude, the brand’s cofounder and economist, says he and business partner Andrew Gruel threw as much money as they could into the business, which originally afforded them just a food truck. They used the truck for about a year to establish the brand, leveraging social media to put the business on the map.
“I’d like to say we applied our youth in the flexibility and the adaptability to the market,” Naude says. “When you don’t have much money and you’re young and you’re working on your feet, you kind of just use the tools that you have at your disposal.”
The entrepreneurs now have one brick-and-mortar Slapfish open, with two more on the way in Southern California and a 75-unit franchise deal signed for the Middle East. The restaurant dishes out sustainable seafood tacos, sandwiches, plates, and other items with the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic success at its core.
Naude says the days of cheap, greasy food are over, and that he and Gruel hope young customers’ desire for ethically sourced, high-quality food will help Slapfish grow into a national concept with hundreds of stores.
“Being young, being flexible, being adaptable, it allowed us to make changes we needed to make on the fly,” Naude says. “We haven’t been stuck in a rut, we haven’t been close-minded or naive to certain trends that are fluctuating almost on a daily basis in this industry. It allowed us to not just survive, but also strive.”
Matthew DeBusk (34)
Only 34 years old, Matthew DeBusk has already been around the block in the quick-serve industry. The vice president of brand development at Atlanta-based Great Wraps had previous executive experience at Moe’s Southwest Grill and Shula’s before being recruited to help turn the 25-year-old Great Wraps into a fast casual that resonates with Millennial consumers.
And it’s not just DeBusk representing the younger generation at the company. He says chairman Mark Kaplan and president Bob Solomon, both foodservice veterans, built out a young corporate team to jumpstart the brand, which is actively overhauling its menu and growth strategy in order to better compete with national fast-casual players.
“We’ve got very diehard, aggressive, passionate people who love their jobs and love the roles that they’re serving and supporting the franchisees,” DeBusk says. “But essentially we’re designing this brand almost, it seems, for ourselves. When we think about the décor and the materials that we’re using and the minimalistic approach and the overall package—it’s not just the food, it’s not just what can we serve in terms of the menu, but what’s the overall package, the overall atmosphere that we would want to enjoy for ourselves?”
DeBusk says the balance between veterans like Kaplan and Solomon and the younger staff helps bring energy and experience to the company. “Our office mentality and our team mentality is hard-core startup mode,” he says. “It’s everybody showing up early to the office because we want to be there and we can’t wait to get started.”
Heather Perry (31)
The coffee industry may be well established with brands like Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, and Dunkin’ Donuts filling out markets coast to coast, but Heather Perry, vice president and director of training and consulting for six-unit, California-based Klatch Coffee, thinks the prevalence of those brands has built a category ripe for innovation.
“The great thing about your Starbucks and your Caribous is they’ve opened our consumers up to a world of possibilities when it comes to coffee,” she says. “They made it the norm to come in every day and drop $5-plus on your cup of coffee. So they’ve done a lot to set the industry where it’s going.”
Perry, a two-time national barista champion and past chair of the Barista Guild of America, has been in the coffee business for 20 years, as Klatch Coffee was founded by her father, Mike Perry. These days she’s working to improve the brand through flavor and equipment innovations, as well as its sourcing practices. Klatch is building sustainable source partnerships in which it invests in the communities where its coffee beans are grown.
“It’s not a matter of buying from a farm once a year and then not looking back at that farm, but it’s a matter of how do we take this community and make coffee a sustainable part of their lifestyle,” she says. “So with our direct trade program, we’re looking at what farmers are doing in their communities and how we can support that.”
The coffee category, Perry says, is not immune to many consumer trends affecting the industry. She expects health to play a bigger role in coffee moving into the future, with customers paying closer attention to the size of their beverages and the nutrition of add-in products like milk. Transparency will also be key, she says, and she is working to educate consumers about what various coffee labels, like “fair trade” and “organic,” really mean.