With hundreds of great concepts and thousands of great operators, the fast-casual segment certainly holds its own in terms of both innovation and leadership. The last 10 years can arguably be called “the decade of fast casual” due to the growth and flourishing of the segment.

The May issue of QSR had a great article on the most innovative people in quick service, but this column will focus on the most influential leaders in fast casual.

Many lists like this focus on the hot, hip, or the most popular new flavors of the month. I used the guidelines for some of the James Beard Foundation Awards as a guide, and I decided to focus on those people who have a long and established record of leadership within the industry and segment.

Though the fast-casual segment has a wide range of exciting concepts, I ultimately ended up choosing the people I thought mattered the most.

Phil Friedman, CEO of McAlister’s

This was an easy choice as Phil is one of the most-liked and well-respected operators in both the restaurant and franchise industries. Under his leadership, McAlister’s has developed as a concept and experienced great growth. Phil has also taken the time to give back to the industry by serving on the boards of numerous industry groups. His presentations at industry events are always interesting and thought-provoking. No matter how busy he is, Phil always takes the time to talk to emerging restaurant leaders and mentor them. His attention to detail is apparent in everything he does. Phil’s history and bio are both long and noteworthy. Put simply, Phil is one of the greats in the industry.

Louis Basile, CEO of Wildflower Bread Company

If you have read my previous columns, you know that I am a big fan of Louis and his company. There are hundreds of bakery/café units in operation, but the 10 Wildflower stores stand out. All the meals I have had at Wildflower have been flawlessly executed. In addition, they have the best breakfast I have seen in fast casual. Louis also has an amazing attention to detail and a great interest in people. It is clearly evident that he cares about everyone and everything in his restaurants. Recently, he even gave away his old car as part of a week celebrating the Wildflower team.

Louis has also been tireless in giving back to the industry. He spends countless hours working with the National Restaurant Association and other industry groups on a number of issues, including promoting the fast-casual segment and making sure that our industry remains a great place to achieve the American dream. To put it simply, Louis cares about his team, his food, his customers, and his industry. His influence on our segment is far greater than the footprint of his 10 stores.

Husein Kitabwalla, Retail Brand Group

You won’t find the operations in every mall in the U.S., but Husein runs the Retail Brand Group, a Sodexo company. In his role as president, he oversees nine concepts and 582 locations. That is certainly no easy task, but Husein’s biggest contribution to the industry is as a thought leader in areas such as branding. He is one of the most knowledgeable and smartest people in the restaurant industry. He is able to bridge the academic, business, and foodservice worlds in a way that few are able. Business schools have not really given a fair shake to customer service–oriented industries like ours. I would not be surprised if Husein is able to change that someday.

Business schools have not really given a fair shake to customer service–oriented industries like ours. I would not be surprised if Husein is able to change that someday.

Larry Reinstein, Fresh City

Larry is probably best described as “the operator’s operator.” He is another well-respected leader whose impact is much greater than the 18 stores he operates. Like the others on this list, Larry has also generously given his time to help out numerous industry groups.

Larry and his brother were focused on quality and natural ingredients years before it was cool. Fresh City has one of the most interesting and diverse menus in the segment encompassing wraps, salads, burritos, stir-fry, and sandwiches featuring many different culinary influences. As someone who has worked with very large and complex menus, I can testify how hard it is to properly execute such a concept. Fresh City does it well.

Panera Executive Team

The fast-casual segment would not be what it is today without the growth and development of Panera. Ron Shaich and his team were among the first to give consumers across the country the opportunity to eat high-quality, affordable meals in a comfortable environment. Several members of the executive team including Shaich and chief concept officer Scott Davis have worked together since the early days of Au Bon Pain, so they have really helped develop two fast-casual concepts. In addition, the company is well-run with a balance sheet envied by all operators.

Lane Cardwell, Boston Market

Lane is an industry veteran of a number of different concepts who gave up the comfortable life of a restaurant board member to get back in the game and take a crack at reenergizing and revitalizing Boston Market. Many of us in the industry found his blog essential reading. Time will tell whether taking this job was an amazingly gutsy move or an incredibly stupid one, but it takes a great leader to even to take on such a challenge. If anyone can pull off this Herculean task, this former president and CEO of Eatzi’s can.

Fast Casual, Story, Boston Market, Fresh City, McAlister's Deli, Panera Bread, Wildflower Bread Company