Meet the Young Restaurant Leaders Class of 2023

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Virtual Dining Concepts
Robbie Earl.

The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for the restaurant industry, but it also presented opportunities for young leaders to shine. In response to the crisis, many of these up-and-coming executives demonstrated remarkable resilience, creativity, and adaptability. 

They quickly pivoted to new business models, embraced technology to enable contactless ordering and delivery, and implemented safety protocols to protect employees and customers. Moreover, they leveraged their digital savviness to build online communities and engage with customers in new and meaningful ways. By doing so, these 25 young leaders not only helped their restaurants survive but also positioned themselves as visionaries. 






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Virtual Dining Concepts
Robbie Earl.

Robbie Earl

Cofounder, Virtual Dining Concepts 

Age: 29

Robbie Earl recognizes how rare it is to create a new category from scratch. 

One of his favorite stories is Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and The North Face founder Doug Tompkins being lifelong friends and going on road trips together. They carved out an outerwear sports category that “changed the very fabric of everything,” Earl says. 

Virtual Dining Concepts, founded in 2020 during the peak of COVID, intended to do the same. The company creates food and beverage concepts licensed to operators with additional kitchen capacity. It was formed in response to restaurants needing extra revenue.

“I love the innovation that we're doing and bringing to the space,” Earl says. “And just seeing people experience the product, whether it is a restaurant that we were able to help or a customer that enjoyed a meal and was surprised and delighted by it, that is probably my favorite part of what we do.”

Some examples of Virtual Dining Concepts’ work includes MrBeast Burger (with YouTube star MrBeast aka Jimmy Donaldson), Mariah’s Cookies (Mariah Carey), Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen, and Robert Irvine’s American Heroes. 

Earl co-founded the company with his father, Robert Earl (founder of Planet Hollywood), and Trish Giordano, a longtime marketing executive with Earl Enterprises. He describes the partnership by quoting Isaac Newton, who once said, "if I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” That’s how he views the expertise of his father and Giordano, whose credibility and knowledge help Virtual Dining Concepts make the right decisions. 

But Earl carries his weight. He oversees much of the day-to-day operations and helps create many new brands. The three main skillsets he uses for the job are hospitality, dealing with talent, and in-depth knowledge of technology. He acquired the first two by working in his father’s restaurants since he was 14 years old and by attending Boston University School of Hospitality Administration. After graduating, Earl worked at talent management companies, where he gained a strong belief that creators could build brands and form a new industry. He also participated in several startups that gave him a broad understanding of the restaurant tech ecosystem.

Earl and his team ask several questions before recognizing a concept as viable. Could this be a national brand? Is it able to survive and thrive on its own? Is it good enough to stand the test of time? There’s also a talent litmus test. Earl says that not every celebrity is made for a brand, and not all of them have a community. 

“I always say I'd rather have one person that would buy something from me than 10 people who just want to watch and not engage,” Earl says “It’s a totally different ball game.”

Virtual Dining Concepts spends time with talent enough to understand their vision and become embedded in their following. From there, it’s data analysis of what will work and what won’t. After taste tests, the concept undergoes an operations process, which can be difficult, Earl says. The brand can’t be too complicated. For instance, hand-breading a product can take a lot of prep time. Those items can be tricky, especially if a restaurant already operates at scale. To remove this obstacle, Virtual Dining Concepts created a “speedy system” in which it learned how to get concepts to a certain number of SKUs and ease of execution. The process considers back-of-house workers’ ability to learn the product and go off of muscle memory. 

One of Virtual Dining Concepts’ biggest successes was MrBeast Burger. Earl met Donaldson four or five years prior when he was playing in the creator brand space. He originally pitched the social media sensation a different idea, and Donaldson ripped it to shreds. So Earl came back with an even stronger pitch. It was going to be pizza at first, but statistics showed burgers had a greater opportunity for disruption. 

“It wasn't originally going to be a smash burger,” Earl recalls. “So at the time, we had two to three burger concepts that we were testing and seeing what worked, and our best one was smash burgers. So in the back of everyone's head, we're like, ‘This thing is a hit no matter what. We know it's going to work.’ And we were like, ‘Oh, well, let's talk to Jimmy about the non-smash patty. And I was just like, ‘No, let's go with the best product that we possibly have with the best talent for the highest probability of success.’ And things just fell into place on it all.”

Earl says MrBeast Burger’s success resulted from hard work, preparation, and luck converging. In September, the brand opened its first physical location at American Dream, a shopping, dining, and entertainment concept in New Jersey. Thousands of customers filled the mall, hoping to see Donaldson and get a taste of the virtual sensation. It was surreal for Earl but also one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. It was one of those days—everyone stood on their feet constantly, the POS broke, the KDS system stopped working, and the menu changed a few times. 

Despite the challenges, Earl calls the restaurant “a mastery in creation.” 

“It was amazing to see the experience that people had,” Earl says. “They were happy to wait in line for however long they were in that line. It was just a surreal experience at the end of it all. I think I slept for probably 24 hours, but not until after three days because the business kept going, and I had to go back. One of the big concerns was, are we going to open tomorrow? And Jimmy was very focused on, ‘We need to make today perfect so there is tomorrow.’ And fortunately, we did. We called in some extra support, and I think it was a great experience for everyone involved.”

Virtual concepts are still in their infancy, Earl says, and the rules keep changing. Future guidelines could change everything from required menu components to customer ratings, error percentages, and core metrics that third parties hold valuable. Education is required, too. Even three years after the pandemic, many customers are curious about ghost kitchens and don’t quite understand them. All these shifts are happening simultaneously, and Earl believes it’s Virtual Dining Concepts’ responsibility to guide the restaurant industry through this innovation. 

The one thing Earl is confident in is the long-term runway of virtual brands. When a company can solve an issue, it tends to stick around. 

“No matter what the economic climate is, I think the need for our service is there. You look at the list of problems for restaurants, getting customers is at the top of it,” Earl says. “And something like what we do provides that. And through technology, I think we can further enhance and build on it with a restaurant-first approach.”

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bb.q Chicken USA
Andrew Lee.

Andrew Lee

Senior Manager, Strategy & Marketing, bb.q Chicken USA

Age: 28

Growing up in South Korea, Andrew Lee spent much time at bb.q Chicken, which debuted in 1995. When his father worked late nights, he treated Lee to fried chicken, so the brand “definitely holds a special place in my heart,” Lee says. “And I’m thrilled to be in a role where I can help open more bb.q restaurants and share my love of Korean fried chicken with customers across the nation and the world.”

The chain entered the U.S. in 2014. Lee joined the bb.q Chicken team as operations manager five years later after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. Speaking three languages (English, Korean, and Japanese) combined with financial and hospitality skills, he bridges cultures and plays an extensive role in expansion plans. As an operations manager, Lee led new store openings and implemented new online ordering and POS systems. When he first joined the concept, there were 32 locations. Now the brand has more than 150—a 400 percent increase in three years. 

“We’ll be seeing more Korean culture and cuisine go mainstream in the industry,” Lee says. “We’re already seeing Korean items like Gochujang, Mando, K-BBQ, Cupbop, and Korean Fried Chicken all over the country, and I think this trend is definitely going to continue as more people fall in love with our food and culture.”

Lee, now senior manager of strategy and marketing, continues to make his mark. In 2022, he hired marketing agency MGH and led a complete rebrand in the U.S., including a new tagline, design, and website. He also assisted with developing a new Smart Kitchen model launched in the spring.

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Bad Ass Coffee of Hawaii
Taylor Fish.

Taylor Fish

Director of Franchise Marketing, Bad Ass Coffee of Hawaii

Age: 28

Taylor Fish’s journey with Bad Ass Coffee of Hawaii began during the height of the pandemic. Although she was hired during challenging times, Fish, head of franchise marketing, has continuously been at the forefront of the brand’s growth. Since Fish was the second person hired in the marketing department after the Royal Aloha Coffee Company bought Bad Ass Coffee, there was no precedent. Fish took the initiative and launched an app that includes online ordering, a mobile wallet, and a loyalty program. The app is now the main component of the brand’s success. 

Fish also established LTOs catering to popular flavor trends while keeping true to the brand’s Hawaiian roots with island-inspired twists. She has helped Bad Ass Coffee break into 11 new markets with grand openings that raise money for charity. In addition, Fish has introduced technological tools to help franchisees with marketing, including their music program that makes “every coffee run feel like an escape.” In 2022, Bad Ass Coffee awarded 45 franchise agreements, and it is currently seeing a 76 percent increase in average unit volume compared to pre-COVID.

“This is only the beginning of what’s to come with Bad Ass Coffee of Hawaii and our robust marketing efforts. As we look to the future, it’s our aim to disrupt the national coffee franchise category with a true experiential brand like Bad Ass Coffee of Hawaii. Our passion for sharing premium Hawaiian coffee to fuel the inner badass of each and every one of our guests is at the heart of everything we do, setting a strong foundation for continued brand growth,” says Fish.

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Chick-fil-A's Kelli Mutz.

Kelli Mutz

Principal team leader, supply chain and distribution, Chick-fil-A

Age: 35

According to The National Restaurant Association’s State of the Industry Report, 96 percent of operators said their concept experienced delays or shortages of key food or beverage items during the second half of 2022. More than nine in 10 reported supply delays or shortages, and eight in 10 experienced delays or shortages of equipment or service items. Simply put, the supply chain and network behind running restaurants today has been one of the most difficult arenas coming out of the pandemic. And Kelli Mutz is navigating all of it as Chick-fil-A continues to expand at the fastest pace in its history (the brand recently opened its first Hawaii location and is even exploring international growth). Mutz spearheaded “multiple grueling undertakings,” according to her nomination, to ease supply chain constraints and provide optimal service for operators and customers. Chick-fil-A started an endeavor to lessen some of the aforementioned complications by bringing distribution in-house and serving directly to individual restaurants. 

Positive indicators emerged: product delivery has been reliable, sales and transactions increased chainwide, and, most importantly, customer satisfaction improved. 

“I am thankful for the opportunity to grow professionally at Chick-fil-A and be part of the incredible transformation in the [quick-service] industry,” she says. “The complexities of supply chain are fascinating and multifaceted. In the past few years, I have seen how my ‘velvet brick’ mentality allows me to challenge with radical candor. Although occasionally ruffling feathers, it is always with the hope of creating a healthier environment to conduct our work and to help serve customers and operators.”

Mutz was also instrumental in ensuring product was delivered in a timely and efficient manner amid the pandemic. Many of Chick-fil-A’s locations experienced soaring demand through drive-thru, resulting in a shift in service time. Mutz facilitated logistics in distribution partners and delivery staffing. 

“I am invigorated when working through hard things with others [e.g., product shortages, pandemic delays, or capacity constraints]. I hope to create clarity with truth and empathy as I work to build the Chick-fil-A brand in the niche I find myself,” Mutz adds. “Whether distributor, internal, or customer facing I want to be a conduit to helping others become their best self in an environment that cares personally and challenges directly.”

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Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken
Ryan Weaver.

Ryan Weaver

CEO, Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken

Age: 33

Ryan Weaver is bringing energy to a brand founded more than 50 years ago. He’s part of an investment group led by ex-Apollo Global Management professionals that purchased Lee’s in 2021 from industry veteran Chuck Cooper. Since that transaction, Weaver has overseen record sales (more than $213 million in systemwide sales in 2022), AUVs of $1.7 million, and an upcoming modern store prototype. In addition, the new leadership team made good on its promise to align with franchisees by purchasing 16 existing stores in the first 18 months. Those locations, based in Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, and Indiana, were bought from longtime operators ready to retire. 

“For Lee’s, we continue to see a lot of opportunities to continue to evolve how we leverage technology in our business—this is everything from keeping our app and loyalty program relevant to embracing newer sales channels, including delivery, and looking at our technology stack we utilize in our restaurants,” Weaver says. “We are also focused on being thoughtful about our menu mix, looking to cull slower moving or more expensive products while also continuing to focus on our core products and building LTO offerings around those.”

In March, Lee’s signed the most significant development deal in company history when franchisees Noman Aiyash and Leo Gonzalez agreed to build 12 new restaurants in the next seven years in the Detroit market. Weaver has also been part of three new franchise openings, improvements to corporate infrastructure, and the reintroduction of an annual franchisee convention that’s increased communication efforts between the company and operators. 

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Playa Bowls
Abby Taylor.

Abby Taylor

Cofounder and CMO, Playa Bowls

Age: 32

As you might imagine for a fine artist by training who traveled the world to surf, a 9 to 5 gig was never going to cut it for Abby Taylor. A self-described “Jersey Shore girl,” Taylor and Rob Giuliani (also an avid surfer) came across myriad versions of superfruit acai and pitaya bowls during their travels. They decided to bring the category, which was hardly mainstream in 2014, to the Jersey Shore. The pair lived above a pizza shop and asked the owner if they could set up a single umbrella stand on the boardwalk in front of the business. They borrowed an umbrella, played music, bought a blender, and stood up a small refrigeration unit and devised a small menu that featured many of the items still available today. “Nobody knew what it was,” Taylor says. “But once people tried it, the line was down the road.”

Today, Taylor’s creative spirit is on full display as CMO. She oversees the creative identity of the Playa Bowls brand, from its bright colors and playful imagery to catchy slogans and social media campaigns to its menus. She’s hand-painted many of the shop’s murals as well. Taylor was recognized on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list and won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Regional Award for Innovation in 2019.

And along the way, Playa Bowls ballooned to more than 175 shops nationwide across 20 states, making it one of the largest players in the now-crowded segment. Playa Bowls kicked off 2023 by announcing a 40 percent increase in average-unit volume as well as aggressive plans to open 250 stores over the next five years. Just in 2022, the chain debuted 36 units and signed 77 agreements. It entered nine new markets and inked deals to reach seven fresh ones.

“The brand really is how Rob and I live our lives,” Taylor says. “It's so much in our DNA. It's not fake, and people see the authenticity in it. They grew with us from the stand to all these locations. … It’s a concept that could work anywhere.”

Playa Bowls navigated the pandemic without any closures. Fortuitously, it had begun partnering with third-party platforms prior to COVID and was able to tap in-app advertising and promotions when lockdowns arrived. Also, it didn’t hurt the product was built to travel. During that stretch, the chain expanded its catering program and made it easier to order delivery in bulk from Playa Bowls’ app. Additionally, Taylor led an initiative called “Helping Heroes” that opened an avenue for communities to make donations toward providing bowls and smoothies to essential workers.

Going forward, Taylor says, the brand’s mission will mirror its day one goals—introduce a healthy lifestyle to new audiences and do it with personality. “I feel like we’re only at the top of the iceberg honestly,” she says.

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Kelsey McManemin.

Kelsey McManemin

Senior Director of Marketing, Salata Salad Company 

Age: 32

In her four years at Salata, Kelsey McManemin has grown from director of field marketing to senior director of marketing, overseeing the marketing strategy across the national, regional, and local levels. When she joined in 2019, her first initiative was revamping the entire grand opening marketing. The renewed strategy led to record sales numbers for an opening, and since then, Salata has debuted 27 restaurants. In addition, the unit opening in Mesquite, Texas, in April 2022 achieved the highest grand opening sales in company history. The success is due largely to McManemin’s programs—one that fills key field marketing roles with industry veterans and another that supports franchisees by outlining the best ways to get involved in the community. 

Her responsibilities include brand strategy, product innovation strategy, loyalty program, guest retention and app strategy, managing local and national public relations efforts, and the new Mobile Kitchen, which serves as another revenue driver for franchise stores closing for a remodel. Her team’s tactics have proven successful as Salata set sales records in 2022, delivering 9.25 percent comps growth and an AUV of $1.3 million. In 2023, McManemin will help the chain open 16 stores and fill a pipeline of 50 stores. 

“For the industry as a whole, I believe we will continue to see innovation in the digital space, especially in the way of new avenues on how to reach customers where they are consuming content,” McManemin says. “Additionally, the reach and audiences we are seeing with influencer marketing will certainly play a larger role in strategy development, customer acquisition and budgeting.”

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Taco John’s
Korey Taylor.

Korey Taylor

Director of Digital Engagement, Taco John’s

Age: 31

From launching her career at NASCAR Digital Media to helping create the Einstein Bros. Bagels mobile app, Korey Taylor is a force in the digital marketing and loyalty space. After joining Taco John’s International in September 2020 as lead manager of digital engagement, Taylor quickly proved herself a strong leader and was promoted to director of digital engagement in August 2022. 

“Taco John’s has a strong culture of fostering growth from within. Being the youngest director in the company, I’ve experienced this firsthand,” Taylor says. “There is an understanding that age is just a number, and our company recognizes the value that each individual brings to the brand.” 

Most recently, Taylor not only constructed a new points-based rewards program for Taco John's International—called Bigger Bolder Rewards—but also designed and launched an improved mobile app for the 375-unit Mexican quick-service brand. 

“Receiving the support I need to roll out systemwide initiatives from our chief-level executives, franchisees, and our Board has helped advance Taco John’s exponentially in the digital space in a rather short amount of time,” she notes.

Making guests feel “seen” with more personalized experiences is a priority for Taylor and constantly improving the digital user experience. Rolling out more advancements with the guest in mind is planned for later this year, which aligns with Taylor’s personal mantra: “Tomorrow is determined by what you do today. Small wins each day help us prepare our brand for future success,” she says.

“Young leaders are more ‘aware’ than ever before,” she adds. “The foodservice industry is rapidly changing, and we must be nimble and quickly adapt to trends and anticipate consumer needs.”

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Taco Bell
Katelyn Zborowski.

Katelyn Zborowski 

Director of product marketing and menu innovation, Taco Bell

Age: 32

If there are two pillars Taco Bell leads out front on, it’s marketing and menu innovation. Few, if any, restaurant brands do it better. And Katelyn Zborowski is fully aware of that reality. 

“For a marketing leader, there is no greater responsibility than to fuel and nurture a growth mindset culture,” she says. “Creating a culture of courage, creativity, and respect will unleash repeatable success that others can only dream of.”

Zborowski grew up watching her family operate Tim Hortons locations in Canada, getting an insider’s look into what it takes to run a franchise. She began her career with Taco Bell Canada and helped the business stack consecutive years of double-digit same-store sales growth. In 2018, she relocated to Irvine, California, to support Taco Bell’s U.S. fleet with a “contagious energy that continues to burn as bright as it did on day one.” Under Zborowski’s purview, Taco Bell has launched record-breaking products spanning traditional LTOs to digital innovations to permanent platforms, including the Toasted Cheddar Chalupa, $2 Grilled Chicken Burritos, $5 National Taco Day Gift Set, $5 Build Your Own Cravings Box, At Home Taco Bar, and Taco Bell’s Grilled Cheese Burrito.

During COVID, Zborowski became a sounding board and source of optimism, colleagues say. “Her courageousness to speak up, demonstrate radical transparency and champion for good are reminiscent of abilities well beyond her years,” Zborowski’s nomination wrote.

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KK Corporation
Keshuv Kash Aggarwal

Keshuv Kash Aggarwal

President, KK Corporation 

Age: 33 

Keshuv Kash Aggarwal joined KK Corporation as a store manager when he was 16 years old, but his introduction to restaurant leadership started well before then. The company was founded in 1997 when his mother, Renu Aggarwal, purchased her first Subway restaurant in Houston. 

Aggarwal says being raised in the company and surrounded by strong leadership has shaped his approach as he’s worked his way up the company’s ranks. After managing a store as a teenager, he became the company’s IT manager. From there, he was elevated to business development manager, then vice president of operations, and eventually chief operating officer, a role he held in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Gulf Coast. 

Under his leadership, KK Corporation provided meals for Houstonians without food and water. Aggarwal and his team kept stores open late and created catering packages that were delivered to temporary shelters and local hospitals. His car and the company’s office both flooded during the hurricane, but that didn’t stop him from setting up an emergency fund for employees that were impacted by the storm. 

Aggarwal became president of KK Corporation in 2019, and a year later, he was tasked with leading the business through the COVID-19 pandemic. He took some lessons he learned during the hurricane, working to keep stores open while providing financial assistance to employees through an emergency relief fund. 

Today, he leads a company with 146 Subway franchise locations, including 136 stores in Houston and 11 stores in upstate New York. He says Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 reinforced the importance of the people making the business possible. 

As president of the company founded by his mother, Aggarwal has focused on infusing KK Corporation’s culture with a sense of fun. Successes are celebrated and shared across the organization, and training processes have been updated to be more energetic and engaging. 

“One of our core values is that we’re built on joy,” he says. “Hard work and dedication are important, but it’s also important to have fun. If you look at our Instagram or our LinkedIn, you can see how much fun we’re having with our staff.” 

He has focused on creating more confidence across teams by giving staff more ownership over their areas of expertise, whether upper-level management or store-level employees.

“In order to create confidence in teams, you have to set goals and you have to set expectations. In order to set goals, you have to provide data,” Aggarwal says. “There’s a lot of feedback and following up on those goals, but we always try to make it fun with the way we’re cheering everybody on.”

He also is a big believer in self-education. He holds a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship and has earned certificates in corporate management, real estate development, and leadership strategies. 

“I’m really into doing education seminars with my team,” he says. “For example, we had a professor of psychology come and talk to upper management about how to think with a different part of their brain when issues arise. For me, it’s all about how we can keep learning, keep getting better as an organization, and keep bringing innovative ideas to be a successful top franchisee.”

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Saisethsons Hospitality Group
Aman Kalia.

Aman Kalia

Culture, Training & Development Operator, Saisethsons Hospitality Group 

Age: 34 

Aman Kalia, leader of culture and training for Tim Hortons franchisee Saisethsons Hospitality Group, leads with a servant leadership philosophy and is guided by “H.E.A.R.T.” values—hospitality, excellence, appreciation, relationship, and training. He also facilitates character building by leading weekly workshops around hospitality conflict resolution and personal values discovery classes.

“We as a company believe in raising the bar,” Kalia says. “The theme, ‘being different is better than being better’ plays in all the work or projects we do, and how we invest in our people.”

During the pandemic, Kalia led an objective to over-communicate the latest restaurant updates and trends to team members via multiple channels, including video calls over Zoom. He scouted workers’ needs systemwide and allocated company resources and funds to give extra support. He ensured no employee was laid off and provided extra training classes and virtual workshops to continue developing personal and professional skill sets.

“It is difficult and challenging at times because it’s easier to have a rock star team member than to give that individual the gift of a better career and then train them for that role, while we now have the need of training the replacement as well,” Kalia explains. “So more times than not, it does feel like we struggle all the time, but in hindsight we have made people better than before and developed leaders.”

In addition to his current role, Kalia has served as production manager, field training manager, senior training manager, and executive of human engagement and resources. 

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Hungry Howie’s
Samantha Hebel.

Samantha Hebel

Manager of Advertising, Hungry Howie’s

Age: 31

Samantha Hebel’s history with Hungry Howie’s began over 20 years ago. The daughter of seasoned Hungry Howie’s franchisee owners, Hebel's first experiences with the brand included running the register, making pizzas, and delivering orders in her teenage years. Currently, she is manager of advertising. Hebel works closely with operations to support franchisees and talk them through current and forthcoming promotional materials. She is also responsible for all budgets and strategies for the brand’s advertising and media agencies. Hebel’s long standing with Hungry Howie’s helps her resonate with franchisees that she now assists in her everyday job. Hebel has felt the most accomplished by helping franchisees. She develops promotional communications and individualized local marketing strategies, such as creating grand opening plans for new locations.

“My dedication to the Hungry Howie’s brand and its franchisees comes from the opportunities and success it has carved for myself and my family over the years. Growing up with the brand and being fully submerged in the business, I was able to witness the hard work and passion it takes to be successful in a highly retail and competitive industry,” says Hebel. 

In the past eight years, Hebel has played a pivotal role in developing Hungry Howie’s marketing strategies, producing sequential growth for the same stores. She has also been responsible for executing plans to improve the profitability of underperforming locations. Hebel thrives on keeping open communication with her team while creating an optimistic and transparent work environment. 

“If we are not communicating and working together as a team to reach a goal, then we may be missing the next ‘big’ idea. I do my best to lead by example each and every day. I encourage we strive for positivity throughout, to always have passion for what we do and the brand,” she says. 

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Tacos 4 Life
Knox Huffman.

Knox Huffman

Franchise owner, Tacos 4 Life

Age: 26

Knox Huffman sometimes has difficulty believing he’s made it to where he has. Just four years ago he walked into a Tacos 4 Life and decided he wanted to be a part of a brand that’s mission extended beyond the counter. He began as a cashier in an Arkansas location with no restaurant experience. In three months, he was promoted to team lead. A few months later, Knox was elevated again, this time to assistant manager. In under 12 months, and at just 22 years old, Knox found himself store leader of a Springdale, Arkansas, restaurant.

“That absolutely blows my mind. I think about these facts and have no explanation to fall back on other than that God walked alongside me and guided me in every single decision,” he says. The cool thing about Tacos 4 Life is that this job not only pays the bills but gives its employees incredible purpose. That is a rare thing in any line of work and something to be treasured.”

Tacos 4 Life has long deployed a model where its business supports raising meals for children worldwide. Huffman ensures employees understand the brand’s broader goals and their role in getting there. Some workers even followed Huffman across state lines when a location in Tulsa, Oklahoma, became available. Since buying the unit in November 2022, the store has seen a 50 percent sales jump. “I want my restaurant to be a place where people come to work and feel valued and loved,” Huffman says. “I want my employees to want to come to work because they know it is a joyful and fun atmosphere. A healthy and positive culture for my team really matters to me.”

During the pandemic, Tacos 4 Life only leaned into its ethos further. Knox moved from Springdale to Little Rock in 2020 to lead the Shackleford store in a restructuring as its operating partner. He helped the team raise 256,939 meals that year. 

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Velvet Taco
Sara Walker.

Sara Walker 

Director of People Development, Velvet Taco 

Age: 33

Sara Walker has quite the repertoire: the work ethic of a baby boomer but the technical skills and collaborative nature of a Gen Z and millennial. Top it off with an incredible sense of urgency, and you have someone who embodies the “Be Relentless, Never Settle” core value of Velvet Taco. 

Walker joined Velvet Taco seven years ago as a manager but quickly outgrew her position. She had the innate ability to train others, manage projects, and pay attention to detail.

This made Walker a perfect fit for her current role as director of people development, where she takes charge of training initiatives, new restaurant openings, and operational communication. Moreover, she oversees the streamlining of the entire restaurant support office. 

The brand’s recent GM Leadership Conference was spearheaded by Walker, where she showed off her flair for organizational and operational skills. She also helped modernize Velvet Taco’s training platforms by implementing a new LMS.

Walker consistently seeks feedback on how she can be better and serves as a role model for others, nurturing an environment of continuous improvement, her nomination said. 

“What’s kept me at Velvet Taco for so long is the empowerment and the support that I get from our leadership team,” Walker says. “It always feels good when you come into work, and people appreciate who you are.”

According to her nomination, Walker is open-minded and has her finger on the pulse of the brand, remaining flexible to change her processes as the company grows. She is careful to think creatively yet remains courteous to the brand's integrity. 

During the pandemic, Walker stepped out of her managerial position at the restaurant support office to work as a manager at one of Velvet Taco’s restaurants for five months. She worked on the front lines to support the brand in its time of need, even while she was six months pregnant. She never complained and uplifted every team member she came across. 

Operationally, she implemented new systems and protocols during the pandemic to ensure the safety and health of her team. She proved she could impact both the training of Velvet Taco’s people and its operations by working on pivoting the Weekly Taco Feature program. 

This pivot was crucial to providing relief to the teams working on the Weekly Taco Feature concept; she implemented a process to cross-utilize existing ingredients to ease the operations for the management teams. 

Walker is a talented young leader with a steadfast loyalty to Velvet Taco’s operations and people, according to her nomination. She has helped move the brand’s training platforms into the 21st century and continues to improve daily. 

“I think the thing that’s gotten me so far is always being willing to lend a helping hand, staying positive and being willing to fail, even if it’s just working through it together as a team,” Walker says. “If you don’t fail, you’re not trying.”

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Megan Sprague
Megan Sprague.

Megan Sprague 

Head of Public Relations, Raising Cane's (formerly of Wingstop)

Age: 31 

Megan Sprague is humble, hungry, and smart, according to her nomination. A force to be reckoned with, she joined Wingstop in 2017 as a communications associate (in May, she was named head of public relations for Raising Cane’s) and quickly climbed the ranks to senior director of public relations and chief of staff. 

“It’s crazy to think about all we’ve accomplished in the six short years I’ve been at Wingstop,” Sprague says. “I’ve always done my best to remain an ideal team player […] never complacent.”

Never complacent indeed. She has grown the communications team and crafted media approaches that have helped Wingstop on its way to becoming a top 10 restaurant brand, all with kindness and resilience.

She was a key driver of the Cannes Lions award-winning campaigns such as Thighstop and Blazed & Glazed. Thighstop delivered over 5 billion-plus impressions alone. 

But Sprague’s leadership influence extends beyond the communications team. She also serves as the chief of staff to Wingstop’s executive team, pushes event strategies, and spearheads platforms such as “Flavor for Good.” Additionally, during the pandemic, Sprague led both the Wingstop COVID-19 task force and the Social Justice task force following the death of George Floyd. These crucial initiatives ensured Wingstop not only weathered the pandemic but also did what was right. 

Sprague’s nomination describes her as a creative phenom with flawless strategy development and execution. She has helped the brand grow from 1,000 to 2,000 locations, all while living “The Wingstop Way.” 

“I work for the best brand in the world, sell chicken wings for a living, and get to do it all with my favorite people,” Sprague says. “What’s more fun than that?” 

17 of 26
Caribou Coffee
Jonathan Hock.

Jonathan Hock

Director of franchise operations, Caribou Coffee

Age: 32

Jonathan Hock is at the controls of a game-changing era in Caribou’s history. The brand launched its domestic franchise program on October 21 and celebrated the opening of its first U.S. franchise last November in Wooster, Ohio. Hock, who assumed his role in 2022, is Caribou’s inaugural director of franchise operations. When moved into the role, naturally, Hock entered an entirely new business segment for the chain and faced the challenges of creating systems and tools as he worked to bring the franchise system to light. Hock focused on Caribou’s philosophy of “One System, One Process, One Team” to create an operation that would ensure consistency as the plan progressed.

"Through my role at Caribou, I've found great purpose in empowering our team and enhancing our franchise operations that allow others to bring premium coffee experiences to our guests,” he says. “I’m passionate about our brand and what we stand for, and hope to encourage others to find that same passion. I'm lucky to say that I've had a hand in this brand's evolution since I took on the role as director of franchise operations and am eager for what is to come.”

Presently, Hock continues to spearhead efforts in assisting franchisees with operations, training, design, construction, IT, and marketing and guarding Caribou’s standards as new operators enter the fold. He continuously connects with franchisees before, during, and after the signing process. Hock is also heading up a vetting process to find franchisees who understand the brand’s values, which led to the implementation of Caribou’s “Store Brand Excellence Form,” which guides franchisees o how to deliver an experience to its standards. 

“If I were to be recognized for my contribution to the company, it really goes back to the foundation of Caribou's purpose—creating day making experiences that spark a chain of good, that drives our team to success,” he says.

18 of 26
Call Your Mother Deli
Daniela Moreira.

Daniela Moreira

Owner and Chef, Call Your Mother Deli

Age: 32

Chef Daniela Moreira is one-half of the dynamic duo that created Washington, D.C.-based Call Your Mother Deli, alongside her husband Andrew Dana. The “Jew-ish” deli offers unique takes on traditional deli fare with influences from Moreira’s childhood in Argentina. 

While the food is key to the brand’s success, Moreiera says “people are the most important ingredient.” 

The people-first mindset was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when Call Your Mother expanded from one to seven locations and surpassed 200 employees. Moreira and Dana expanded their benefits to include language classes, practical skills workshops, and parental leave. Pledging to keep all employees on the payroll throughout the public health crisis, they also created an online fundraiser that offered passes to skip the line at Call Your Mother for a year and the chance to name and create your own bagel. The nearly $75,000 in proceeds went directly toward employee wages. 

“We prioritize customers by hiring personable people and then prioritize our staff in order to be one of the best places to work,” Moreira says. “I’m proud that we were able to keep all employees on payroll during the pandemic and offer them new and practical benefits. We also always prefer to promote internally, and it's been amazing to watch our staff evolve and grow into the roles they want to be in. From prep cook to supervisor, baker to finance whiz, the list goes on and on. It's such a gift to be able to provide our team with the opportunity to choose their own path within the company.”

19 of 26
Fulton Holdings
Maxwell Fulton.

Maxwell Fulton

President of Fulton Holdings, Jimmy John’s franchisee

Age: 24

When Maxwell Fulton became a general manager at Taco Bell at 18 years old, he already had his career path mapped out. He knew he wanted to be a franchise owner, and he knew he had to align himself with the right leaders to help get him there. So he learned the ropes at Domino’s as a district manager, then at Burger King’s parent company, Restaurant Brands International, as a franchise operations consultant for the Southeastern U.S. division.

Fast forward to November 2022, when Fulton closed an impressive roll-up acquisition consolidating seven Jimmy John’s units—six in Maryland and one in York, Pennsylvania—from three franchisees. That meant adjusting three separate teams to one set of systems, a challenge for even the most seasoned entrepreneur. The deal also included a development agreement to build five additional locations in the Baltimore area.

And he’s not done yet; the young entrepreneur plans to have 20 stores under his belt by 2027. As of press time, Fulton had eight open stores, with two locations in development in Eldersburg, Maryland, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with eight more in the pipeline.

As Fulton continues on his path to double in size over the next two years through new builds and additional acquisitions, he emphasizes the importance of building a strong company culture to support growth—which for him has meant offering a $15 minimum wage and other industry-leading benefits. 

“My team is aligned with our goals, and with that, we're proud to say we are generating sales comps three times the brand average while also increasing profitability by over 70 percent year-over-year so far for 2023,” he notes. “Take care of your people, and they'll work with you to achieve your business goals.”

As Fulton grows his portfolio, there’s also the potential to expand outside of Jimmy John’s and become a franchisee of other concepts; Inspire Brands’ portfolio also includes Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic, Dunkin’, and Baskin-Robbins.

“My journey so far as a franchisee within the Inspire Brands system has been nothing but a great experience,” he says. “With six distinct brands to learn from, the level of innovation and strategic planning from Inspire is incredible. I'm excited about not only my franchise journey with Jimmy John's, but how the brand will continue to evolve and strengthen to position us for success for years to come.”

“I'm excited to continue seeing young restaurant professionals move up in the industry,” Fulton adds. “There is no better experience than having moved up within the industry and proving yourself along the way. Younger talent continues to bring a unique perspective that can position brands for long-term success as the industry faces unforeseen staffing and financial challenges.”

20 of 26
FAT Brands
Mason Wiederhorn.

Mason Wiederhorn

Chief Brand Officer, FAT Brands

Age: 32

Mason Wiederhorn joined Fatburger in 2012 as a videographer before quickly moving to creative director and most recently chief brand officer in 2021. Overseeing more than 25 employees across various departments, he is responsible for creative and construction initiatives. He's personally designed more than 100 restaurants across FAT Brands' portfolio and overseen construction timelines and development processes for 150-plus upcoming openings in 2023. Wiederhorn is also behind Fatburger's refreshed store design, where he balanced vintage branding with modern upgrades. Johnny Rockets, Pretzelmaker, and Native Grill & Wings also underwent comprehensive rebrands. 

Wiederhorn has played a vital role in FAT Brands' cobranding efforts. Using insights from the Fatburger/Buffalo's Express combo that began in 2013, he spearheaded Johnny Rockets' first cobranding with a fast-casual version of Hurricane Grill & Wings. He also led FAT Brands to its first tri-brand opportunity with Fatburger, Buffalo's Express, and Hot Dog on a Stick. The tri-brand store is located in a 1,000-square-foot endcap space in Los Angeles. At press time, Wiederhorn was preparing to launch the first Fatburger and Round Table Pizza location. 

In terms of what's ahead for his company, Wiederhorn believes the digital landscape will be "dramatically overhauled" as predictive, personalized, and frictionless ordering and delivery systems take hold. 

"At FAT Brands, we are currently focused on improving the customer journey, namely the frictionless ordering experience, and accuracy and efficiency in operations," Wiederhorn says. "In order for us to deliver on those, we're heavily focused on back-of-house operations to support our own digital transformation of each brand in the FAT Brands family."

21 of 26
Fuzzy's Taco Shop
Andie Smirl.

Andie Smirl 

Franchise Sales Manager, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop 

Age: 33

Nobody ‘bleeds Baja’ like Andie Smirl does for Fuzzy’s Taco Shop. She started as a cashier on the weekends at 17 and has so deeply immersed herself in the brand’s culture that she worked her way up to the corporate office, where she now serves as franchise sales manager. 

“To say ‘I have grown up alongside the brand’ is a huge understatement,” Smirl says. “I was proud to work at ‘the coolest place in town’ at 17, and now I am still just as proud.” 

While managing her own store in Denton, Texas, Smirl knew she had found "the one” and married herself to the brand and team. She immediately wanted to bring the good vibes of Fuzzy’s Taco Shop to new markets across the country. 

And she did. After discovering her passion for working directly with franchisees, Smirl stepped into her current role in 2019 and has inked deals that have helped grow the brand. 

Last year, Smirl was the driving force behind Fuzzy’s Taco Shop’s biggest franchise deal, a 50-store agreement with restaurateur Richard Maddox. This deal will expand the brand into new markets in Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee and existing markets in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. These stores will also include a drive-thru, a first for the brand.

Since she was 17, Smirl has evolved into the voice of Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and continues to remain at the forefront of bringing good vibes, stellar food, and chill prices to new markets across the country.

22 of 26
Original ChopShop
Cody Alacron.

Cody Alarcon 

Controller, Original ChopShop

Age: 34

Cody Alarcon—the company’s third corporate hire—began at Original ChopShop seven years ago when there were only three shops. As the controller, he’s supported 17 openings, including three new markets. That will continue in 2023 with four store debuts, good for 21 percent unit growth. 

Alarcon has been a critical influencer in creating sophisticated systems and infrastructure, allowing for accessible data and rapid growth. In 2022, Original ChopShop experienced a record $41 million in annual sales and $2.5 million in AUV, an increase from $36 million and $2.4 million in 2021, respectively. He was a significant part of that growth by managing internal accounting, reporting, and forecasting and overseeing external corporate partners, like audit firms, credit card processors, payroll systems, healthcare benefits, accounting systems, point of sale providers, third-party ordering platforms, and the company’s insurance policy provider.

Outside of day-to-day accounting processes, Alarcon's responsibilities include payroll, corporate and shop-level invoicing and billing, budget planning, financial data review, lease administration, new store opening project management, and managing all insurance and permitting for the brand. 

"I believe Original ChopShop will continue to develop into a lifestyle brand, integrating into the lives of guests by not only providing a delicious, better-for-you meal, but also by inspiring guests to Just Feel Good with every brand interaction,” Alarcon says. “We are already engaging with guests virtually through platforms like our app and social media channels, but in the future, there will be fast and innovative solutions to make the ordering process even more convenient. Original ChopShop will be on the cutting edge of these developments.”

23 of 26
Dickey's Barbecue Pit
Simoné Smith.

Simoné Smith

Vice President of Development, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

Age: 32

Simoné Smith’s colleagues have used the word “firecracker” to describe her personality. When she first applied to work at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit as a project manager seven years ago, one of the employees told her she was applying for one of the hardest roles at the company. She thought they were saying she couldn’t handle it but Smith is no stranger to dealing with adversity. Her mother passed away when she was 12 years old. 

“I was like, ‘If I could handle that, I can handle anything you guys throw at me,’” Smith told them. 

Now the vice president of development, Smith has led the opening of hundreds of locations, including 173 in Q1 2023 (inclusive of virtual concepts). During the pandemic, Dickey’s was still expanding. Smith helped her project managers prepare for production delays when ordering necessities to build out stores, such as cooking equipment, refrigeration, and lumber. She formed a strong relationship with suppliers to anticipate demand. But Dickey’s wasn’t only focusing on the expanding brick-and-mortar locations. Smith’s team also aided in the growth of its three new virtual kitchen concepts in Dickey’s and other restaurants. 

Smith’s goal is to hit a 1,500-unit restaurant count by December—counting brick-and-mortar and virtual. 

“That’s how I’ve always been. I’m like, ‘OK, what’s the next goal? And everyone’s like, ‘Can we stop?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want to stop,” Smith adds. 

Known for her positive outlook on life, Smith says staying optimistic isn’t always easy. She believes hope is an important element in executing a plan but in her time as a mentee of Dickey’s CEO Roland Dickey, Jr. she has learned the importance of making detailed plans as well as commitments to set herself up for success. As a result, she thinks ahead instead of dwelling too much on the problem. 

“That’s part of that optimism, just staying positive there and just OK, what’s the solution? Let’s not get caught up in the problem. How can we change this?” Smith says. 

Dickey’s belief in Smith is how she stays so invested in the brand. It continues to teach her about leadership. She appreciates the flexibility that Dickey Jr. has given her. She can communicate with him if she doesn’t like a strategy or wants to do something different. 

“I think that’s my favorite part. I can change things up if they don’t work. I don’t have to go through a lot of red tape and ask for permission,” she says. 

Smith’s style of leadership mirrors that of Dickey Jr.’s. She believes in working hard and doing anything possible to reach the final product. She wants her team to be self-sufficient and understands there are opportunities to move up in the company.

“My goal is to really create other leaders,” Smith says. “I don’t want them to be dependent on me. I don’t want to micromanage them. If they need me my door is always open to bounce ideas off of but, I really want them to grow and to learn and sometimes they have to learn from their mistakes too.” 

24 of 26
Naf Naf Grill
Ian Bruggeman.

Ian Bruggeman

Director of FP&A (financial planning and analysis), Naf Naf Grill

Age: 29

Ian Bruggeman's foray into the restaurant industry with 40-unit Naf Naf Grill wasn't just shaped by COVID—it was founded on it. In January 2020, Bruggeman left his job at the Indiana State Pension Fund to join his partners at 316 investments—formerly one of the largest and most successful QDOBA franchisees in the system—to become the first Naf Naf Grill franchisee in the country in Indianapolis.

Never having worked a day in a restaurant, Bruggeman had to quickly learn from his cooks, bakers, managers, and front-line workers to catch up. He and his team opened up the Carmel, Indiana, location on March 16, 2020, and closed that Friday due to the pandemic, and didn’t reopen until May 25.

"That management experience was invaluable, and seeing how a fast-casual restaurant ran from the ground up paired with my finance and accounting background allowed me to take the next step in my career,” Bruggeman says. “But it was a trying experience; anyone that ran a store during COVID knows just how difficult it was, and it was even more difficult opening two restaurants during the throes of the pandemic.”

He and his team led the restaurant to significant sales growth over the next year. They opened another location in downtown Indianapolis, which were eventually bought by Naf Naf Grill and became corporate locations. This allowed Bruggeman to transition from an operations role to his current role as director of financial planning and analysis. 

“My long-term goal for Naf Naf Grill is to make Middle Eastern cuisine accessible to as many folks in the United States as possible while remaining true to our founder’s authentic recipes, vision, and culture,” Bruggeman says. “If we stay true to who we are, and execute the brand, then I think the opportunity set is limitless for us.”

25 of 26
Jersey Mike's
Jersey Mike's Krystina Romero.

Krystina Romero

Help Desk Manager, Jersey Mike’s 

Age: 35 

Within months of arriving at Jersey’s Mike’s in October 2022, Krystina Romero had completely revamped the tech help desk, which supports franchise owners and covers nearly 2,500 locations across the country. The sandwich chain’s proprietary POS was created wholly in-house and is supported exclusively by the help desk. The team also supports new store owners and existing owners opening new locations. That’s a significant job, as Jersey Mike’s opened 308 locations last year, with another 300 restaurants planned in 2023. 

Bringing eight years of experience as a customer success trainer and learning specialist at Microsoft, Krystina started her position at Jersey Mike’s by learning the day-to-day business and getting her team of two supervisors and 11 techs on the same page. One of her first efforts was shifting the team’s mindset, reminding them of their customers' perspectives. The team responded with a renewed commitment to responsiveness and support, felt immediately and appreciated by the franchisees. 

Romero also increased the efficiency of the help desk by implementing internal service-led agreements and new monitoring metrics. She implemented regular self-assessments and feedback sessions, which bolstered the team’s morale and empowered them to take more ownership of their work. She models the behavior for impactful review of the assessments for her supervisors, so they can learn and lead upcoming reviews. 

"My proudest achievement as the Jersey Mike's help desk manager is cultivating a customer-centric culture where every interaction is rooted in empathy, understanding, and the genuine desire to provide exceptional assistance,” Romero says. 

26 of 26
Jeremiah Italian Ice’s
Casey Cooley.

Casey Cooley

Director of Franchise Development & Real Estate, Jeremiah's Italian Ice

Age: 34

Casey Cooley has impacted Jeremiah's Italian Ice’s franchising strategy from the very beginning. After joining Pivotal Growth Partners in 2019—a full-service growth and development consultancy—he was assigned to Jeremiah’s and helped launch the brand’s franchise opportunity. Since that turning point, the brand has awarded more than 260 franchise units across more than 115 groups and has seen more than a 350 percent increase in new units in fewer than four years. In addition, the chain celebrated its 100th location in January. 

“I think holistically dessert is having a re-emergence—cookies, frozen treats, cakes, etc.,” Cooley says. “They are fun, colorful, family-friendly, and approachable to most, if not all, demographics. I think virtual experience will cool off some, and people will look for those instances where fellowship and community can be facilitated and held-desserts have always been a part of that.”

The pandemic did little to stop the momentum. In 2020, Cooley and his real estate team identified 50-plus locations to open the following year by taking advantage of second-generation spaces that an operator could quickly convert. 

Although travel restrictions complicated site selections, Cooley leveraged relationships with national and local real estate brokers to ensure franchisee support. Jeremiah’s managed to open its first 10 franchise units in 2020. The chain doubled that total in the first six months of 2021. By the end of that year, the company had 40 franchise locations. Fast forward to 2023, the brand operates 102 locations (83 of which are franchised) throughout Florida, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Colorado, Tennessee, Alabama, Nevada, and Texas.