18 Young Restaurant Leaders to Watch

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Michael Foley

Michael Foley

The next generation

With even the youngest of baby boomers hoping to retire in the next decade, a new generation of foodservice stars are ready to make their mark on the industry—whether they’re managers or makers, franchisees or franchisors. Here are 18 young leaders under the age of 35 who are blazing a path and changing the future of foodservice.

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Michael Foley

Michael Foley

Lindsay Radkoski

Vice President of Brand Marketing

Wendy’s

Age: 33

Starting out in the industry as a hostess and server, Lindsay Radkoski earned an internship at Bob Evans—which turned into a full-time job post-graduation—then joined the investor relations team at Wendy’s in 2011. Working with executives at the highest levels of the company, Radkoski learned to see the brand and its challenges through the eyes of the leadership team. “That first role gave me a really broad view of the business, and even today that shapes how I think about what my team is working on,” she says.

Within a few years, she transitioned into a marketing finance position, where she worked on menu pricing, promotions, and sales forecasting. This past January, Radkoski was promoted to VP of brand marketing, a role that tasks her with leading promotional marketing for the company (she helped create Wendy’s 4 for $4 menu and 50-Cent Frostys, for starters).

Radkoski also helped launch a franchise pricing support team in 2017—a critical component for a company that’s 95 percent franchised. “We really needed to influence, educate, and bring our franchise system along on how we think they should be priced,” she says, adding that the team has provided pricing recommendations for nearly 1,200 restaurants to date.

Radkoski also cofounded the company’s first employee resource group, known as Women of Wendy’s. With more than 100 team members now part of the group, the program has helped drive diversity and gender equity throughout the entire company. “We’ve really been able to see it increase employee engagement and retention for Wendy’s, and it’s also served as a model for other employee resource groups,” she says.

Radkoski has been recognized as a Women’s Foodservice Forum Change Maker, and in 2013, she received Wendy’s Chairman’s Award for her work on the investor relations and strategic communications team. “I love this brand, I love the people, I love the franchise system,” she says of Wendy’s. “I have a lot of passion for making it bigger, more viable, and thriving in the future.”

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The Saxton Group

The Saxton Group

Matt Saxton

Co-CEO & Owner

The Saxton Group

Age: 35

In 1999, The Saxton Group opened its first McAlister’s Deli franchise in Longview, Texas. Since then, the company has added more than 80 units to its portfolio, with plans to hit the 90-unit mark by the end of next year. At the helm of the company is Matt Saxton, who serves as co-CEO alongside his brother, Adam. Responsible for much of the company’s top-line growth, Saxton has helped The Saxton Group reach more than $150 million per year in sales—compared with just $100 million four years ago—with units that outperform McAlister’s system AUV by more than 20 percent.

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Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A

Rachel Cathy

Business Consultant, West Region

Chick-fil-A

Age: 32

Before joining the family business, Rachel Cathy spent several years in China, working for the Coca-Cola Company during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and prepping for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. She now serves as a business consultant for Chick-fil-A’s west region, supporting franchisees in California, Arizona, and Nevada. With hopes of one day joining Chick-fil-A’s international team—the company is opening its first international franchise in Toronto this year—Cathy wants to help operators in new global markets establish and grow their business.

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Carl’s Jr.

Carl’s Jr.

Meredith Martin

Director of Marketing Communications

Carl’s Jr.

Age: 32

Following an advertising career working with brands like CW Network, Snapchat, and Ford, Meredith Martin made the move from New York City to Nashville, Tennessee, where she joined the CKE Restaurants team. Here, she’s charged with leading brand communication at all levels, from social, digital, and traditional media to store-level marketing. Her work on campaigns such as #AmazonBuyUs and “Spielburgers” has garnered both media praise and consumer attention, with the latter earning the brand a coveted Clio Award.

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Eatsa

Eatsa

Nora Naranjo

Mechanical Engineer

Eatsa

Age: 32

It was less than two years ago that Nora Naranjo got her first taste of foodservice upon joining fast-casual-brand-turned-technology provider Eatsa. In her role as a mechanical engineer, she develops front- and back-of-house automation technologies that help operators increase speed, efficiency, and convenience; serve more guests in less time; and lower stress for restaurant employees.

Most recently, Naranjo assisted in the creation of Eatsa’s Spotlight Pickup System, a program that reduces overcrowding and bottlenecks caused by mobile ordering and third-party delivery. “The fact that we’re helping customers get their food faster, that we’re helping the restaurants achieve better digital adoption and ordering goals—while at the same time keeping everyone in their jobs and the restaurant margins in check—I think that’s a really big accomplishment,” she says.

After immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico four years ago, Naranjo felt passionate about using her technology skills to better the lives of fellow immigrants in foodservice. “There was a point in the [Eatsa] restaurant where we had almost no one who was fluent in English, and the restaurant operation was still as efficient as before because the back-of-house system was so intuitive,” she says. “As an immigrant myself, I feel very proud that everyone can have the same opportunity in this country and this industry while they’re getting used to the pace of a new place.”

As for Naranjo, she’s gotten used to being one of the few women and minorities in her field, joking that she once worked for a company where “there were more men named Andrew than women in the office.” But none of that has held her back. “The best tool is to be an embodiment of your skill set,” she says. “In the end, your work will speak for you, and then you’re just another engineer at the table. You’re not the woman engineer.”

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birdcall

birdcall

Peter Newlin

President

Birdcall

Age: 32

Peter Newlin headed west in search of prime skiing spots. But instead he found a lifelong career in foodservice. Pursuing an MBA from the University of Denver in 2009, Newlin didn’t take long to discover a popular gourmet burger joint in the area—or to strike up a friendship and working relationship with Park Burger’s owner, Jean-Philippe Failyau. Newlin served as a manager at the concept for several years, then stepped up to become a partner starting with its fourth location.

Since then, the duo has continued to grow Park Burger along with a handful of other brands, the most recent of which is the limited-service chicken concept Birdcall. The high-tech restaurant—complete with kiosks, an app, and a custom-built POS system—serves nearly a dozen creative chicken sandwiches, plus salads and sides. Every item is under $10, with the average sandwich ringing in at around $7. “The thinking is that you either have to decrease the quality or increase the price, and both of those sound horrible,” Newlin says. “We’d rather increase the quality and decrease the price. That’s why we decided to start with the very simple idea of a kiosk.” By investing in technology to simplify the guest experience, Birdcall is also able to pay its team members more and deliver a higher level of customer service.

Each of Birdcall’s three Denver locations features original artwork from a local street artist and is equipped with a bike station where guests can access tools like bike pumps. With plans to grow nationwide, Newlin says Birdcall is also working to make the brand a “1 percent” restaurant, donating 1 percent of sales to a community organization or charitable cause.

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The Krystal Company

The Krystal Company

Mitsi Portwood

Senior Marketing Manager

The Krystal Company

Age: 28

Getting her first job at age 16 at HoneyBaked Ham, Mitsi Portwood secured an internship—then full-time job—in the brand’s marketing department after college. Portwood then joined the Krystal team in 2018, where she oversees brand initiatives, strategic partnerships, promotions, and emerging media. She recently helped launch the company’s online ordering platform, but it’s learning how to lay out a grill with 24 Krystal burgers that Portwood counts as one of her proudest accomplishments to date.

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Kahala Brands

Kahala Brands

Leah Fine

Customer Service Representative

Kahala Brands

Age: 26

Just two years ago, Fine joined the team at Kahala Brands, a franchise company that supports 28 limited-service concepts. At Kahala, she’s charged with managing customer feedback for all brands—answering upward of 50 emails and 15 phone calls each day—while also serving on the loyalty program development team, where she helped develop Cold Stone Creamery’s loyalty program. In addition to her role at Kahala, Fine works a second job in foodservice, drives for Postmates on the side, and is going to school full-time to earn a master’s degree.

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Pōk the Raw Bar

Pōk the Raw Bar

Brandon Cohanim

Founder & CEO

Pōk the Raw Bar

Age: 22

Most 22-year-olds are just getting started in their post-college careers. Brandon Cohanim, on the other hand, operates two restaurant brands that he created from scratch, all while studying for a college degree in economics. After moving to Dallas from Los Angeles to attend Southern Methodist University, Cohanim noticed a lack of restaurants serving a staple of his West Coast diet: poke. Enter Pōk the Raw Bar, a concept Cohanim conceptualized, built, and launched in just six months. Debuting in January 2017, the concept features both signature and make-your-own poke bowls, plus matcha beverages, wines, sake, and beer. Cohanim went on to open the full-service handroll sushi bar Namo in July 2018.

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Whataburger

Whataburger

Richard Martinez

General Manager 

Whataburger

Age: 34

Joining Whataburger at age 21, Richard Martinez made his way up to team leader within a year, then was promoted to general manager at one of the brand’s San Antonio locations. Growing the store’s annual sales from $3.5 million to $5.2 million in just four years, he is one of Whataburger’s only GMs under 35 to ever do so. Not only is his restaurant consistently one of the highest performers in the region in terms of guest satisfaction, but Martinez’s mentorship has also helped five of his Whataburger “Family Members” be promoted to managers. In 2018, he was named a finalist for the Thomas E. Dobson award, which recognizes GMs who best embody the “Whataburger Difference.”

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Cauldron Ice Cream

Cauldron Ice Cream

Desiree Le and Terence Lioe

Founders

Cauldron Ice Cream

Ages: 30

One day, Terence Lioe and Desiree Le were trying to attract customers to their newly opened ice cream shop. The next, they were struggling to serve the hundreds of guests waiting in lines two hours long. “It was textbook viral,” Le says of Cauldron Ice Cream’s overnight success, which was all thanks to a mention of its trademark Puffle Cone in Cosmopolitan. Unable to deal with the demand for what the women’s magazine dubbed “the cutest edible bubble wrap that ever lived,” Le and Lioe shut down the store for two weeks, renovating and upgrading equipment to better serve their increasingly fanatic fan base. “It was a risk for us, because we didn’t know if people would come back,” Le says.

Risk was nothing new to the pair, who dreamed up the idea for Cauldron with no restaurant experience to speak of, launching the first location in Santa Ana, California, in 2015. “On the day we opened, I checked my bank account and there was $70 in there,” Lioe says. “We literally had nothing. So we were just hoping that we’d work as hard as we could and that work would translate into the community liking us.”

Several locations later—including its first international outpost in Toronto, with more units to come in the Texas market—Lioe and Le maintain this hard-work-pays-off mentality, toiling in Cauldron’s flagship location daily and continuing to dream up Instagram-friendly items. “We work the line like everybody else. We mop the floors, we clean the toilet seats,” Le says. “And we still try to make things that have the same potential of going viral.”

Their latest concoction: the Fluffypuff sandwich, a Japan-inspired invention that took more than 150 hours to perfect. “People can make something that looks really crazy and cool on Instagram, but then you try it and it just tastes like sugar,” Lioe says, adding that Cauldron is dedicated to creating items that both fuel guests’ fascination and entice their tastebuds. “It needs to be good-looking enough to go viral, but when somebody tries it, it has to taste good, too.”

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Junzi Kitchen

Junzi Kitchen

Yong Zhao

Cofounder & CEO

Junzi Kitchen

Age: 34

Born and raised in China—with a degree in life science to boot—Yong Zhao didn’t exactly have plans to enter the limited-service industry. But in 2014, he cofounded Junzi Kitchen, a concept dedicated to producing high-quality, healthy, authentic Chinese food, initially serving out of one location in New Haven, Connecticut. Zhao was accepted into the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute to help build and grow the brand, and within three years, Junzi had opened four locations between New Haven and New York City. Zhao’s goal for the concept is to be the largest Chinese food brand in New York City by 2021, with plans to grow nationally and globally in the not-too- distant future.

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Subway

Subway

Ra’Chard Dennis

Director of Restaurant Operations, North America

Subway

Age: 35

After learning the ins and outs of retail at the Target Corporation, Ra’Chard Dennis jumped headfirst into foodservice, working for Yum! Brands before joining the Subway team as a consultant in 2011.

There, he quickly became the territory manager for Indiana and Kentucky, overseeing franchise sales, operations, and marketing for north of 750 restaurants. After just three years in the role, Dennis was promoted to director of restaurant operations for North America, driving the operations strategy for more than 27,000 restaurants. “The easiest way for me to describe what I do for the Subway brand is that it’s my job to ensure the sandwich artists and our customers have a good experience,” he says.

In recent months, Dennis has been charged with leading the largest refresh project in Subway history—dubbed Fresh NOW—in an attempt to update the overall look and feel of the brand. The refresh will also introduce new menu items and flavors (though Dennis’ go-to order will always be a 6-inch tuna on wheat bread with extra pickles).

With eight years at Subway under his belt, the Indiana native continues to have a genuine passion for the brand. “I still get goosebumps today when I’m out with my family or friends and I see the Subway logo or somebody carrying one of our famous cups,” he says. “For me, it’s one of those things where, ‘Wow, I’m making an impact on that.’”

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Chicken Salad Chick

Chicken Salad Chick

Meggie and John Schissler

Franchisees

Chicken Salad Chick

Ages: 30 and 31

As two of the brand’s youngest franchisees and the first to bring Chicken Salad Chick to Texas, Meggie and John Schissler are dedicated to growing the concept in the Lone Star State. Despite little foodservice experience—Meggie worked as a marketing assistant at the brand’s corporate office, while John’s background is in education—the couple have already opened a second location, with plans to develop another half-dozen in the Fort Worth area.

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City Barbeque

City Barbeque

Samantha Shaffer

Marketing Manager

City Barbeque

Age: 33

In the 11 years Samantha Shaffer has spent at the Ohio-based barbecue brand, she’s been promoted more than half a dozen times—working her way up from cashier to shift manager prior to serving as the company’s first local store marketer (lsm). Before long, Shaffer was training and managing other LSMs, then progressed to the role of regional marketing manager. These days, Shaffer serves as marketing manager for the entire brand, managing City Barbeque’s loyalty program, social media platforms, and marketing campaigns. She built the company’s Instagram and Twitter followings from scratch, while also growing its Facebook fan count from hundreds to well over 100,000. (Flip to Page 50 for more on Shaffer’s marketing efforts.)

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Taco Bell

Taco Bell

Taylor Montgomery

Senior Director of Marketing

Taco Bell Corporation

Age: 32

Taco Bell fans can thank Taylor Montgomery for many of their favorite campaigns, promotions, and menu items. In his time with the company, he’s done everything from introduce $5 Boxes to launch nationwide delivery via GrubHub. He was also the brains behind the recent “Taco Mode” partnership with Lyft, where—at the tap of a button in the ride-sharing app—passengers can navigate to Taco Bell to grab tacos for the road. Montgomery has grown both the breakfast daypart and beverage business, thanks to the launch of items like “Experiential” Freezes in flavors such as Skittles, Watermelon, and Pop Rocks.