With 12 locations in the Northeast and several more slated to open, farm-to-counter fast casual Dig Inn named former Panera Bread executive Irene Cook as its new COO.

Cook joined Dig Inn this week after leading operations at Panera for 12 years, and will focus on recruiting talent for the company and implementing a restaurant opening process as the brand grows.

With 11 restaurants in New York and one in Boston, Dig Inn has five more under development in those areas and is looking to expand to markets including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

(Click here to read an exclusive interview with Dig Inn founder Adam Eskin on the fast casual's creative supply chain plans.)

“That’s pretty big growth for a small company, so how do we put together processes immediately and start to implement those, so that it becomes a standardized process?” Cook says of one of her tasks as COO. “I just think this is a great opportunity to be on the ground floor creating the future, and do something with a concept that I truly believe in.”

Cook isn’t new to startup restaurant brands, working at Boston Market in its early stages of growth and then joining Panera when it had about 170 restaurants.

Dig Inn brought in more than $20 million in funding since it launched around five years ago, and Cook says that a new round of funds will allow the brand to continue growth for the next several years.

“Our plans, depending on which day you’re talking to us, is anywhere from 100 to who knows, 500,” Cook says. “It’s really going to depend on how well we continue to open them, and if Boston is any indication of how well new markets receive us, I don’t think there’s anything stopping us because it’s a brand that has got legs nationally.”

Another aspect Cook will focus on as COO will be Dig Inn’s culinary education program, which she says will be a natural part of the company’s external development process.

“We’re going to literally change from hiring cooks to hiring future chefs,” she says.

Cook says she believes the brand’s increasing popularity with customers is due to its “holistic approach” to the food it serves, from the source to the plate.

“It’s so amazing to see the lines of customers and everybody talking in the line about how good the food is,” she says. “We’re intending to change the way people eat, beginning with food that’s wholesome, that’s locally grown, that’s seasonal and fresh.”

By Alex Dixon

Employee Management, Fast Casual, News, Dig Inn