Founder of Rise and Fast Casual Innovator Has Died

    Tom Ferguson was a trailblazer in the fast-casual world, bringing his fine-dining expertise to the better-breakfast category.

    Fast Casual | February 18, 2022 | Nicole Duncan
    Tom Ferguson.
    Ferguson was an early proponent of using technology to streamline the restaurant experience.

    Tom Ferguson, founder and CEO of Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken, has died at age 57.

    The chef and entrepreneur had been a fixture in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, restaurant scene for years, but his influence reached much farther. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ferguson was among a growing legion of chefs who applied elevated techniques to the burgeoning fast-casual sector.

    Rise, which he founded a decade ago, has been a forerunner in the breakfast boom, with franchise growth taking it as far as Kansas and Oklahoma. Just weeks ago, the 16-unit micro-chain signed a deal for Orlando, its first Florida location, and it’s also slated to open in California later this year.

    Rise’s journey to franchise powerhouse

    In addition to his culinary expertise, Ferguson was a savvy businessman. He cut his teeth on that side of the industry in 2000 when he started Durham Catering Company after noticing a deficit of quality in the sector. Not long after, in 2008, he founded quick serve Only Burger, back at a time when much of the country had never heard of Shake Shack and the better burger category was still in its infancy. Only Burger, which started as a food truck before expanding to brick-and-mortar, is still in operation today.

    Ferguson was also an early proponent of using technology to streamline the restaurant experience. Even before the pandemic, Rise offered both online ordering and in-store kiosk ordering, putting it in an enviable position when COVID struck.

    How Rise used tech innovation to drive sales

    Rise has remained a nimble player in terms of menu adaptation. In its early days, doughnuts were as much a focus as biscuits, but over the years, the concept scaled back to zero in on the latter. Then, in 2019, it rebranded from Rise Biscuits Donuts to Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken as a way to emphasize another pillar ingredient (four of its 10 signature biscuits feature chicken, including Nashville hot and buffalo varieties).

    While the cause of death was not disclosed, Rise issued the following statement:

    "We are terribly saddened by the passing of Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken Founder and CEO Tom Ferguson, Jr. Tom was a fearless visionary, a leader, a mentor, and a devoted husband and father. The Rise franchise owners, employees, and the people Tom worked with over the many years all mourn his loss. We will miss his unbridled enthusiasm, his positivity, his passionate pursuit of life, and his ability to connect, relate to, and encourage people to believe in themselves. Tom’s vision gives us a clear working path for the future of Rise."

    Through his successes, Ferguson remained dedicated to the people on the ground floor of his restaurants. He was a long-time advocate for a higher minimum wage and made a point of providing employees with a livable salary and benefits. (As of last year, staff at corporate-owned stores earned more than $15 per hour.) These measures have helped insulate Rise from the ongoing labor shortage. At the same time, ongoing tech advances could open the door to even higher wages farther down the line.

    “The biggest thing for me is really defining the culture and giving opportunities to people who live for us,” Ferguson told QSR last August. “Seeing those goals come into achieving that, that flow of people moving up through the company and making more money and having a better lifestyle is really important to me.”