15 Young Restaurant Leaders to Watch

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Ahmad Barber
Slutty Vegan's Pinky Cole.
Ahmad Barber

Leaders in a different world

The restaurant industry’s condition isn’t what young industry leaders wish for at the outset stages of their careers. But social distancing, quarantining, a shaky economy, and a consumer base wary of leaving their homes is the ongoing reality, and young, gifted folks in foodservice have been grappling with the situation with both grit and ingenuity.

Take Dig Food Group’s Taylor Lanzet, who helped pivot her company to deliver meals and fresh produce that would have been served in restaurants to the communities left most vulnerable by COVID-19, delivering a total of 75,000 pounds of food in less than a week. Or Olivia Ross, director of marketing for eight-unit chain Halo Burger, who opened crisis communication channels for customers and employees in a matter of minutes and launched the Halo Family Fund to financially support team members.

While it’s an understatement to say recent circumstances are less than ideal for foodservice leaders of all ages, if anything, this year’s hardship has proved the mettle of our industry’s young movers and shakers. Here are 15 of those young leaders who are 35 and under and who we believe are worthy of your attention.

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Ahmad Barber
Pinky Cole.
Ahmad Barber

Pinky Cole

Age: 32

Founder

Slutty Vegan

Pinky Cole had been a vegan for the better part of five years when she moved to Atlanta and found a gaping hole in its cuisine offerings. The city was lacking in tasty, plant-based dishes.

“When I moved here, I was craving some vegan comfort food and couldn’t find options,” Cole says. “I asked myself, ‘What do vegans want to eat that they can’t have in Atlanta right now?’ Then, one night, the idea for Slutty Vegan just hit me like a lightbulb.”

Hoping to bolster Atlanta’s underdeveloped vegan category, Cole, who was working as a casting director while incubating her concept, began experimenting with plant-based recipes. Her fare was inspired by her diet growing up in a largely vegetarian, Rastafarian household; her grandmother’s scratch cooking; and a desire to make vegan food that was both fun and familiar. The result was the Slutty Vegan ghost kitchen, which opened in 2018 serving plant-based burgers, fries, and other classics through DoorDash delivery.

Perhaps the most memorable element of the brand is its irreverent humor; Cole engineered her concept to play on innuendo, and, she says, to mix two of life’s great pleasures.

“We’re redefining the word ‘slut,’” she says. “We’re taking the most explicit, exciting words and desensitizing them and adding fun.”

The sassy options (like the Super Slut, a guac-jalapeño-onion Impossible burger, or the Heaux Boy, a vegan New Orleans–style shrimp sandwich) caught on with Atlantans, and, within a year, Cole had opened her first brick-and-mortar shop.

Now, with a successful store as well as food that travels exceptionally well, Cole is primed and ready to grow especially through off-premises sales—an enviable position for brands hoping to make it in today’s uncertain market.

“We’re focusing on opening up multiple locations, first in Georgia but also in other markets,” Cole says. “We grab people’s attention, and that’s why we’re making it. We shock them and delight them, and that has given us so much support from a wide range of customers.”

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Geoff L Johnson
Chris Smith.
Geoff L Johnson

Chris Smith

Age: 34

Owner

Zunzi’s

Chris Smith moves fast. While still a college student, he became a Five Guys franchisee. After adding seven Five Guys units in eight years, he happened upon Zunzi’s in Savannah, Georgia, in 2008 and fell in love.

Only six years later, he purchased the sandwich concept and got to work. So far, he has streamlined the menu to focus on South African cuisine, kicked off growth with a new Atlanta shop, and developed Zunzifest!, a monthly brand event that prioritizes people.

“Zunzi’s was founded on ... positivity, inspiration, and community outreach,” he says. “We try to live that with Zunzifest! We close early and have a team party, give away free sandwiches to our fans, donate 26 percent of that day’s sales to a local nonprofit, partner with vendors that help with providing product, and get support from our investors. It’s great for marketing. And it builds loyalty.”

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Wendy's
Wendy's exterior restaurant.
Wendy's

Jay Drumm

Age: 32

Senior Specialist, Culinary Innovation

Wendy’s

This year’s Wendy’s breakfast menu was one of the chain’s largest product launches in its 50-plus-year existence, and Jay Drumm was a key player in that nationwide launch.

After seven years in culinary innovation and product development at Wendy’s, Drumm designed the brand’s breakfast offerings, successfully navigating Wendy’s first foray into a daypart rife with competition. To build the menu, he laid out three guiding principles—simplicity, velocity, and scale—and combined those with his innate understanding of customer need and craveability.

“Millions of customers rely on Wendy’s to fuel their on-the-go lives, and that is not something I take lightly,” he says. “It’s what drives my inspiration to find the next big flavor combination and understand how regional cuisines are infused into everyday food and culture. I like to take those flavor profiles to make food that I would like to eat and be happy to serve my family.”

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Dickey's Barbecue Pit
Shayla Partusch.
Dickey's Barbecue Pit

Shayla Partusch

Age: 29

Vice President of Purchasing and Retail

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit offers a range of dishes (think briskets, ribs, and sausages) priced slightly higher than many products served by other fast casuals. It’s up to Shayla Partusch to make sure the brand nails down the best prices for these premium items.

“I am helping our local business owners by securing the most competitive prices in each of their markets,” Partusch says. “Ultimately, their success is my success.”

Since rising through the ranks from purchasing auditor in 2014, the 29-year-old has negotiated more than $4 million in annual net savings for Dickey’s franchisees. She also oversees the brand’s retail line and has expanded it to 3,000-plus U.S. grocery stores.

“Shayla’s dynamic understanding of our bottom line, coupled with her approach to vendor relationships, makes her a force to be reckoned with in the highly competitive quick service procurement space,” says Roland Dickey Jr., CEO of Dickey’s Capital Group. “Her unwavering tenacity for excellence pushes our brand and others around her to new heights.”

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Dig Food Group
Taylor Lanzet.
Dig Food Group

Taylor Lanzet

Age: 27

Head of Supply and Sustainability

Dig Food Group

Taylor Lanzet’s position at New York veggie-heavy restaurant company Dig Food Group is no small feat.

She sources, procures, budgets, distributes, and manages all food and supplies for Dig’s 12 fast-casual restaurants. She forms relationships with diverse farmers across the country, including women and other marginalized growers. She oversees the menu development from seed to plate, often incorporating underutilized ingredients. She creates streamlined strategies for the company’s future.

And, most recently, Lanzet has worked to help reorient her company’s systems to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, rerouting ingredients to vulnerable populations.

“I was really amazed at the public outpouring,” Lanzet says. “In a week, we launched delivery to front-line workers, senior centers, schools, the LGBTQ+ community, and homeless organizations. And the public wanted to contribute and be part of it.”

Lanzet has a passion for making fresh food accessible. While studying for a degree in environmental studies at Brown University, she managed a food hub that connected low-income students, staff, and faculty with healthy, local produce. She initially joined Dig as an office manager, but it wasn’t long before she began taking on various purchasing responsibilities and was, eventually, put in charge of the entire department.

Now, with her usual goals postponed due to COVID-19, Lanzet is focused on carrying her brand through this crisis and rebuilding after it ends.

“After this year, it’s really going to be about rebuilding all of our strategies,” she says. “We’re still focused on our mission; serving great food, expanding our network of farmers, and continuing our work through equity in agriculture.”

Personally, Lanzet’s goals mirror those at the heart of her career with Dig; she hopes one day to run her own produce business, supporting a diverse network of farmers by delivering fresh foods to customers at reasonable prices.

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Chicken Salad Chick
Ali Rauch.
Chicken Salad Chick

Ali Rauch

Age: 33

Director of Marketing

Chicken Salad Chick

When Ali Rauch joined Chicken Salad Chick seven years ago, the brand had just five stores. Now, the chain is spread across more than 150 units—a rapid expansion in which Rauch has been instrumental.

Responsible for the creation of the company’s loyalty program, CravingCredits, Rauch grew the loyalty platform to 15 percent of brand sales and more than 500,000 members. She also engineered and launched the brand’s online ordering platform and grand opening program—a store-by-store initiative that resulted in a 23 percent increase in average daily sales in 2018.

Her secret to success? Determination and a passion for her brand.

“I have a very competitive spirit and have been told I’m tenacious with a capital ‘T,’” she says. “Those innate tendencies push me every day, but at Chicken Salad Chick, it’s been combined with an incredibly fun and unique brand and the most kind and generous people on the planet.” 

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Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers
Jon Kinoshita.
Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers

Jon Kinoshita

Age: 33

Senior District Manager

Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers

Jon Kinoshita first joined Freddy’s just after high school graduation, when he was in search of a temporary job to make some cash and the now-nationwide steakburger chain had only three units.

The job wasn’t temporary, however, and Kinoshita continued working at Freddy’s throughout college, eventually gaining the title of senior district manager. In this role, Kinoshita has bolstered major Freddy’s markets (including St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri), homing in on effective hiring and training measures and growth across his district while continuing to visit individual stores on a daily basis.

Kinoshita says he was drawn to Freddy’s by its potential for growth. That initial draw is also what keeps him coming back for more.

“My biggest inspiration is the ability to grow professionally and witness my peers do the same,” he says. “[This] allows us to play a part in the company’s growth.”

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Jersey Mike's
Jersey Mike's exterior restaurant.
Jersey Mike's

Jamie Kapalko

Age: 32

Deputy General Counsel

Jersey Mike’s

It’s an understatement to say that restaurant law is complicated. Jamie Kapalko’s specialty is sorting through this tangled web of rules and regulations for Jersey Mike’s, helping the sub chain to safely navigate everything from privacy laws to third-party delivery regulations.

Annually, Kapalko prepares a new franchise disclosure document, which she calls “the Bible of what it means to be a Jersey Mike’s franchisee.” She also handles a cornucopia of diverse corporate contracts, advises the purchasing team on what to buy in the future (for instance, upcoming plastic bans could mean a shift in goods purchased by the chain), and stays abreast of the latest legal developments that could impact the brand.

“My job is to find creative legal solutions to address every situation,” she says. “I try to keep the big picture in mind. It’s not just about what the law says; it’s about how it affects our company, our franchisees and their team members, and our customers.”

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fresh&co
fresh&co food on a colorful background.
fresh&co

George Tenedios

Age: 32

CEO & Cofounder

fresh&co

George Tenedios knows the restaurant industry. He spent his childhood working in his family’s restaurants, which led him to co-found fast casual fresh&co with his father, Steve Tenedios, in 2010.

The concept was inspired by a need the Tenedioses saw in New York City’s dining scene for clean, quick cuisine. Now, after a dozen years of business and with 19 locations, fresh&co has established a reputation for affordable-yet-upscale, healthy fare like the Italian Impossi-Bowl (Impossible meatballs, zucchini noodles, tomato sauce, vegan parm, fresh basil, and vegan breadcrumbs).

In the future, George Tenedios plans to continue with the formulas that have made fresh&co a success.

“Our passion … is to create dishes that are approachable for any diet, or lifestyle. We have it all, and we offer realistic options our customers can indulge in,” he says. “It has worked for us for the last 10 years, and will continue to help us grow our brand … across the country.”

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Protein Bar & Kitchen
Venecia Willis.
Protein Bar & Kitchen

Venecia Willis

Age: 35

Senior Culinary Manager

Protein Bar & Kitchen

Venecia Willis works to blend the past and the future in Protein Bar & Kitchen’s menu.

“When you can connect a flavor or experience to a memory, you are able to truly connect with the guest,” she says. “Creating dishes that have flavor memories is the first step, but putting a spin on them to make them healthy, protein centered, and delicious is the key.”

Willis’ first culinary role model was her grandmother, and she says that her memories with her grandmother motivate her even today. To create a menu that is familiar to guests and yet pushes them to sample something new, she balances that personal kitchen history with a savvy for up-and-coming trends in food and beverage.

This philosophy is evidenced in Protein Bar & Kitchen’s fare; while old favorites like chili and breakfast scrambles are on offer, these dishes are spiced with trendy, clean ingredients like riced cauliflower and Beyond Beef.

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Cousins Subs
Courtney Hendricks.
Cousins Subs

Courtney Hendricks

Age: 30

Human Resources Manager

Cousins Subs

When Hendricks came on board with Cousins Subs last year, the chain was at the tail end of a major rebrand. To mirror the chain’s updated identity, Hendricks quickly kickstarted a plan to update the human resources department, too.

Over the past year, Hendricks has been revamping hiring, training, projects, and presentations processes and establishing more progressive recruiting tactics, behavior-based interview guides, and new trainings. Her ongoing innovations are underpinned by four core values she outlined for the brand in 2019: staying grounded, optimism, purpose, and passion.

Hendricks says her success is based on leadership lessons she learned from mentors early in her career. “From day one, I knew I wanted to be in a leadership role, and because of that I gravitated towards strong and emotionally intelligent women who displayed the qualities I think are vital in today’s world,” she says. “I’m so grateful that I had managers who genuinely cared about my personal and professional aspirations, and it’s my hope and legacy to do the same for someone else like me someday.”

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Halo Burger
Olivia Ross.
Halo Burger

Olivia Ross

Age: 24

Director of Marketing

Halo Burger

In her journey from Halo Burger intern to director of marketing, Olivia Ross has helped lead the 97-year-old Michigan chain through some of the most difficult challenges that a restaurant can face: the Flint water crisis and this year’s coronavirus outbreak.

After being promoted to Halo Burger’s marketing coordinator while still a student at Northwestern University, Ross helped the brand regain trust from customers affected by the water crisis. Then, after overseeing marketing for Meritage Hospitality Group (the second largest Wendy’s franchisee in the U.S.) for a period, Ross returned to Halo Burger in 2019 as director of marketing. Under her leadership over the last year, the eight-unit chain has launched a new loyalty program, rebranded online channels, and debuted an anniversary campaign that doubled store sales over the same period the previous year.

At 24, Ross’ list of accomplishments belies her age, as does her well-developed personal marketing strategy. “At any age, but especially as someone early in their career, it’s important to be realistic about what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can ask the right questions,” she says. “Marketing is a balance of creativity and logic; a lot of our jobs exist in a gray area and dare us to think outside the box. As someone who’s naturally curious with a love of learning, this gray area presents a welcome challenge.”

While Halo Burger temporarily closed its doors in March due to COVID-19, under Ross’ direction the brand continued clear, open crisis communications with staff and customers. The company also quickly established the Halo Family Fund, supporting employees with 25 percent of all gift-card sales. It was able to reopen six of eight restaurants on May 1 for drive thru and carryout.

Ross isn’t letting the pandemic stop her momentum. “My goal is to grow alongside the company as we expand into new markets here in the Midwest,” she says. “I’d like to see us continue to feature Michigan-focused LTOs, partner with local brands, and magnify our community presence.”

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gusto!
Kelly Keevan
gusto!

Kelly Keevan

Age: 34

Director of Financial and Human Resources

gusto!

Kelly Keevan doesn’t have a degree in accounting, but she’s skillfully built out the accounting department at gusto! as the health-forward fast casual has grown to cover five outposts across Atlanta.

While she might not have area-specific training, Keevan has learned the ropes from her hands-on participation in gusto! stores and with the team. She says that gleaning knowledge from her days on the job, her colleagues, and her customers is the biggest motivator in her career.

“I truly enjoy learning new things, and working at gusto! offers me the opportunity to discover something new each day,” she says. “Our people and guests are also a big source of inspiration. gusto! is about opening minds and encouraging people to do something different and shake themselves awake, which really shows throughout the company. Plus it does not hurt to get to work with an amazing group of people.”

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Blu’s Barbeque
Blu’s Barbeque exterior.
Blu’s Barbeque

Zach Bergenholtz

Age: 25

Founder, Owner, & Operator

Blu’s Barbeque

Zach Bergenholtz perfected the recipes for his Dallas shipping-container-turned-restaurant, Blu’s Barbeque, while still a student at Texas Tech University.

“Dating back to my youth and growing up in Plano, Texas, I always enjoyed cooking with my dad,” Bergenholtz says. “Then, when I went to … college, I became the go-to barbecue guru for fraternities and sororities. I spent several years homing my smoking skills.”

Bergenholtz says the Dallas area has a shortage of good barbecue, which led him to open Blu’s in a converted 45-foot shipping container in early 2019. The emphasis at Blu’s is on high-quality cuts of meat, homemade sides, and a welcoming, community-focused vibe.

Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, the restaurant continued serving guests through its walk-up window, requiring people to stand 6 feet apart. Key in the crisis was Bergenholtz’s close, personal communication with his customers.

“Our customers call me on my cellphone in a panic if staff do not answer the phone during busy times to confirm we are open,” he says. “With guests traveling a long distance [to visit us], they want to speak to someone given our societal changes.”

Bergenholtz retains high hopes for the future. In coming years, he plans to build out additional stores in Texas and beyond. He also plans to add to his nearly 300 acres of farmland to support Blu’s supply chain.

“I am open-minded and eager to see Blu’s in markets around the country. I can adapt the menu based on geographical market expectations,” he says. “I would also like to be able to support a portion of our food chain from farm-to-smoker. It’s not about saving dollars to cut out the ranchers but, instead, having full control over the food we serve.”

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Restaurant Brands International
Joshua Kobza.
Restaurant Brands International

Joshua Kobza

Age: 32

COO

Restaurant Brands International

It’s been a big year for Restaurant Brands International (rbi). The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich attained icon status as a player in 2019’s chicken wars (and even kept the brand afloat while the coronavirus devastated its peer restaurant chains). Appointed to COO in January 2019, Joshua Kobza has helped guide the company through these recent seismic shifts.

The 32-year-old already has several notable accomplishments under his belt as COO and also as RBI’s chief technology and development officer and CFO, both positions he held prior to 2019. He was responsible for identifying Popeyes as a major opportunity for RBI, helping the company acquire the chicken brand in 2017. He also launched a mobile ordering app for Burger King and delivery and a mobile ordering app for Popeyes.

Now, as COO, his focus is
incredibly broad: He’s responsible
for building new international
franchise partnerships, boosting tech innovation, and overseeing human resources, global business services, supply chain, global operations,
and more.