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    Fast Forward: A Podcast from QSR Magazine

  • Made for restaurant executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders, each episode of "Fast Forward" features an interview with fast-casual founders and visionaries who discuss the ongoing successes and challenges of building a restaurant company from scratch.

    Melissa Barnes / Melissa Barnes Photography
    Blaze Pizza founders Rick (left) and Elise Wetzel scaled the fast-casual pizza brand to more than 300 locations in about six years.

    Blaze Pizza started as a business plan scribbled on a Chipotle napkin back in 2011. At the time, Rick and Elise Wetzel were founders of the successful snack brand Wetzel's Pretzels, but they recognized an opportunity in the booming fast-casual model to turn pizza into a more personalized, lunch-driven category. Eight years later, Blaze Pizza has more than 300 locations and has been called the fastest-growing restaurant chain ever. 

    In this conversation with QSR magazine editor Sam Oches, the Wetzels explain the genesis of Blaze Pizza, the ongoing competition among fast-casual pizza brands, and how they are positioning the company for future success. 

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    Dog Haus
    Dog Haus founders Quasim Riaz, Hagop Giragossian, and Andre Vener (from left).

    Dog Haus has carved its own niche within the fast-casual restaurant industry. With a sports-bar vibe and a chef-designed menu, this brand has created an upscale, laid-back experience that's packaged in a franchise format. And while Dog Haus is expected to double in size in 2019, it's not all been smooth sailing since day one. 

    The three founders of Dog Haus—Quasim Riaz, Hagop Giragossian, and Andre Vener—sit down for a conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, discussing the genesis of the business and the learning curve they've experienced while growing Dog Haus to more than 30 locations across the U.S.

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    Farm Burger
    Farm Burger cofounder George Frangos.

    In the wake of successful brands like Five Guys and Shake Shack, America fell in love with the better-burger category, which serves high-quality beef and other upscale ingredients in a fast-casual format. Atlanta-based Farm Burger, though, strives to be a better better-burger concept. The 11-unit chain is deeply committed to local sourcing, having been launched as the fast-casual spinoff of full-service farm-to-table restaurant Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia.

    In this episode, Farm Burger cofounder George Frangos sits down with QSR editor Sam Oches to talk about this upscale concept and how it's stayed true to its farm-to-table mentality while scaling operations across the country.

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    CAVA
    CAVA cofounders Ted Xenohristos, Ike Grigoropoulos, and Dimitri Moshovitis (from left) brought on Brett Schulman (far right) as CEO in 2010.

    Childhood friends and first-generation Greek Americans Ted Xenohristos, Ike Grigoropoulos, and Dimitri Moshovitis first opened full-service restaurant Cava Mezze in Washington, D.C., in 2006. The fast-casual spinoff, CAVA, opened in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, in 2011 and has since grown to 75 locations across the country, bringing authentic Mediterranean flavors to American consumers in markets big and small. 

    In this interview with QSR editor Sam Oches, CEO Brett Schulman discusses CAVA's evolution, its big acquisition of Zoes Kitchen, and how the brand is transforming Americans' perceptions of Mediterranean flavors and ingredients.

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    &pizza
    &pizza cofounder and CEO Michael Lastoria.

    &pizza is a thriving fast-casual pizza shop that marches to the beat of its own drum. It designs its restaurants to reflect their local communities. Its employees get the company’s signature ampersand logo tattooed on themselves. It hosts free weddings in its shops every Pi Day (3/14).

    The beating heart of this 35-unit brand is cofounder and CEO Michael Lastoria. A former advertising professional, Lastoria has carefully constructed a brand and culture that represent far more than its signature pizza options. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Lastoria explains how he’s rethinking the fast-casual narrative—and inviting other entrepreneurs to steal from his playbook.

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    Doug Gifford
    Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol.

    In 2015, Chipotle was the fast-casual restaurant industry's gold standard, with double-digit growth quarter after quarter. But with several cases of E. coli and norovirus in the fall of 2015, that all came crashing down. The company's comeback has been a bumpy ride to say the least, but new CEO Brian Niccol, who joined the company from Taco Bell in March 2018, has helped right the ship and get Chipotle back to growing again.

    In this exclusive conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Niccol explains how his experience from Taco Bell has helped inform his decisions at Chipotle, how the digital revolution is making the Chipotle experience easier than ever, and how he's preparing the company for bigger things ahead.

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    Nékter Juice Bar
    Nekter Juice Bar cofounder and CEO Steve Schulze.

    The last decade has witnessed an incredible rise in juice, smoothie, and açai bowl concepts, particularly as American consumers have turned their attention toward more nutritious and plant-forward dining options. Nekter Juice Bar was one of the first to capitalize on this movement, having opened its doors in 2010 and then franchising across the country.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Nekter cofounder and CEO Steve Schulze offers a look inside the company's rise and explains how a fresh product, convenient model, and investment in franchising have helped it expand to more than 120 locations.

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    Torchy's Tacos
    Torchy's Tacos founder Mike Rypka.

    By the time he turned 30, Mike Rypka boasted a resume that chefs three decades his senior could only dream of, having served as the head chef at organizations like the World Bank, MTV, Disney, and Dell. So when he decided to open his own project in Austin, Texas, in 2006, he surprised more than a few loved ones by opting to do a taco truck. 

    That taco truck, Torchy's Tacos, gradually became a beloved Austin institution, and now has more than 60 fast-casual locations, with "Damn Good Tacos" as its star. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Rypka tells the fascinating story of how Torchy's came to be—and he explains why a passion for your product must always be priority when launching your own restaurant.

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    MOD Pizza
    MOD Pizza cofounders Scott and Ally Svenson.

    Ally and Scott Svenson didn't need to start another business. After selling their first brand to Starbucks and then helping a second foodservice company grow to acquisition, they could have retired and enjoyed life with their four sons. But the itch to build something returned, and in 2008 they launched the fast-casual brand MOD Pizza.

    What started as a "laboratory" in downtown Seattle for customized pizzas and enhanced hospitality has since become the largest fast-casual pizza chain in the world, with more than 400 locations in 70-plus markets. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, the Svensons describe the motivating factors for getting back into the foodservice industry and why they view their business as a people place, not a pizza place.

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    Marination
    Marination cofounder Roz Edison.

    The food-truck trend that raced to popularity a decade ago had many exciting characteristics for foodservice entrepreneurs, among them the ability to enter the space at a relatively low cost and the opportunity to try out innovative menu ideas. That was exactly what appealed to Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton. The business partners, inspired by chef Roy Choi and his Kogi BBQ truck in L.A., developed the idea for their own food truck at a dinner party in February 2009, and by June had hit the streets of Seattle with their truck concept, Marination. Leveraging Saxton's Hawaiian heritage, Marination serves a fusion menu that includes staples like Spam Sliders, a Kimchi Quesadilla, and a Pork Katsu Sandwich.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Edison describes how that simple dinner-party idea evolved into a popular Seattle mini-chain that now has a truck, three fast-casual brick-and-mortars, and a sister full-service concept, to boot.

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    Your Pie
    Your Pie founder Drew French

    There may be bigger fast-casual pizza brands, but only Your Pie can claim to be the first in the category. The Athens, Georgia–based brand opened its first location in April 2008, when founder Drew French was just 23 years old and had recently graduated from the University of Georgia. In 11 years, Your Pie has grown to around 70 locations in 19 states, becoming an embedded fixture in its communities with Italian-inspired recipes, alcohol service, and a laid-back ambiance.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, French explains how he came up with the fast-casual pizza idea before everyone else, and tells us why he's OK with there being so many competitors in the category.

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    Souvla
    Souvla founder and CEO Charles Bililies

    It didn't take long for Souvla to make a name for itself in the fast-casual industry. Launched in San Francisco in 2014, the brand quickly became a favorite among those looking to spot future top performers across the category. How did it become such a cult favorite? Credit goes to founder and CEO Charles Bililies, whose fine-dining pedigree extended to Souvla, from its chef-forward menu to its all-Greek beverage menu and its elevated hospitality program.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Bililies explains why he left the fine-dining world for fast casual, and he tells us which two business components are the most critical to restaurant-industry success.

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    Former Zoes Kitchen and Veggie Grill CEO Greg Dollarhyde

    Greg Dollarhyde knew he didn't want to build restaurant concepts from scratch, but he also had the skill set necessary to taking brands from potential to profit. After bouncing around to several restaurant-industry leadership positions, he struck gold with Baja Fresh, a fast-casual burrito joint that he grew to nearly 300 locations before selling to Wendy's in 2002 for $275 million. Since then, he's served as the CEO of both Zoes Kitchen and Veggie Grill, two concepts that he helped set up for massive fast-casual success.

    These days, Dollarhyde is an industry investor and sits on the board of directors for Veggie Grill and Blaze Pizza. In this conversation with QSReditor Sam Oches, he offers lessons from his illustrious career and gives some advice to fellow entrepreneurs looking to make it big in the fast-casual restaurant industry.

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    SAJJ Mediterranean
    SAJJ Mediterranean cofounder and CEO Zaid Ayoub.

    Fast-casual Mediterranean is having a moment. The customization format so popular in fast casual has become the perfect vehicle for the fresh, often healthier profiles of Mediterranean foods, and brands like CAVA and Zoes Kitchen are helping dishes like hummus, pita, shawarma, and falafel go mainstream.

    SAJJ Mediterranean is one concept striking while the iron is hot. The Bay Area brand launched in 2012 as a food truck, and has since grown to 10 California brick-and-mortar locations, with plans for 20 by the end of 2020. CEO and cofounder Zaid Ayoub sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to explain how the brand balances authenticity with new customer trends—and how technology has empowered SAJJ to take its unique flavors to the people.

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    Brown Bag Seafood
    Brown Bag Seafood Co. partners Zach Flanzman and Donna Lee.

    Historically, seafood has maintained something of a small corner in the limited-service restaurant industry. Few brands outside of Long John Silver's and Captain D's have managed to expand nationally, and those that have succeeded have largely been known for fried seafood options.

    But that's starting to change, thanks to fast casuals like Chicago-based Brown Bag Seafood Co. Founder Donna Lee launched the concept as a way to offer Windy City residents the kind of fresh, healthier, fish-forward fare she preferred for her own diet. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Lee and business partner Zach Flanzman share how they're building a seafood culture in Chicago while navigating the challenges of running a multiunit restaurant operation.

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    Melt Shop
    Melt Shop founder and CEO Spencer Rubin.

    There was a time, not so long ago, when fast-casual brands built around one menu item started to gain some traction, whether it was meatball brands or doughnut brands or even avocado brands. Then there was the grilled-cheese trend; a wave of grilled-cheese concepts sprung up in the early 2010s, offering premium takes on the comfort-food sandwich. But while many of those brands faded away, Melt Shop—a fast casual founded in New York City in 2011—managed to evolve into a thriving melted sandwich franchise that is carving its own niche in fast casual.

    Spencer Rubin, founder and CEO, sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to talk about how Melt Shop evolved on the path to success, and how its position within Aurify Brands' portfolio has given it a big advantage.

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    Salt & Straw
    Salt & Straw cofounder Kim Malek.

    Howard Schultz famously committed to a “third place” mentality when scaling Starbucks into the global icon that it is today, creating a space outside the home and office where consumers could feel comfortable. And Kim Malek now hopes to accomplish the same thing through ice cream. The cofounder of Portland, Oregon–based Salt & Straw—and former Starbucks executive—is working with her cousin and cofounder Tyler Malek to build a national ice cream brand that pairs a dedication to local communities with “deliciously interesting” ice cream.

    Kim sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to share what she learned from Schultz and her newest mentor and investor, Danny Meyer. Plus, she talks about how telling stories through ice cream has helped the company plant roots in the communities it serves.

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    Wing Zone
    Wing Zone cofounder and CEO Matt Friedman.

    College campuses can be tough for running a restaurant business. Students are fickle, the hours are late, and come summer time, your key demographic clears out of town. But for Matt Friedman, college campuses have been a perfect real estate opportunity for his fast casual Wing Zone, which he has scaled to nearly 100 units around the world.

    Friedman sat down for a conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches to talk about how he mastered college towns, and how his commitment to delivery in the early 1990s is paying dividends for the business today.

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    Honeygrow
    Honeygrow founder and CEO Justin Rosenberg.

    For its first few years in business, Honeygrow enjoyed the same kind of momentum and accolades as other trendy fast casuals popping up on the East Coast. Its unique stir-fry menu and ahead-of-its-time touchscreen ordering platform helped it earn a loyal following and propelled it out of its home market of Philadelphia and into cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. But in 2018, Honeygrow's momentum came to a screeching halt. The launch of sister concept Minigrow, along with a three-unit expansion into Chicago, proved to be bad bets, and Rosenberg was forced to make some difficult decisions in turning the brand around.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Rosenberg details the story of Honeygrow's rise, reveals the red flags that convinced him it was in need of an overhaul, and shares the secret to how the brand successfully righted the ship.

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