My father had a pharmacy in St. Louis, and I started working the candy counter when I was 8 years old. Fast-forward to when I worked in financial planning. At one point I was at Denny’s and Winchell’s, and my boss asked me to be the controller. Everybody somewhere in their career has a pivot point. My boss basically said, “Jim, you’re on the track to be the CFO, but if you don’t want to do two years of being the controller, you ought to look into other positions.” It changed my life. I moved from finance to operations and have spent the last 32 years in that role.

I ran restaurants for Winchell’s and then moved to Taco Bell and actually made the 59-79-99 “Run for the Border” campaign. I became what I call the entrepreneur’s best friend, helping them scale. I built up Noah’s Bagels, then Jamba Juice. I ran a health club company for 10 years, came to Starbucks, and then Freebirds.

Working in foodservice is all about being a great coach. If you can lead others and help them become their very best, you can be incredibly successful in this business. There are only three reasons people are in it: You love working with your team members, you love serving guests, and you love posting results on the scoreboard. Those three items are the only reason to be in this business; otherwise everything that can go wrong does and it will defeat you.

I loved that pizza is the second-biggest category behind burgers, and that Rick and Elise Wetzel took a nonconforming, different approach to it. Everybody jumped in the category because it was novel. The novelty ultimately wears off, and you get down to execution of the brand. It all comes down to the experience it’s composed of: the food, the speed and the friendliness of the servers, and the design. Food tastes better in a better-designed, better-feeling place.

We believe in the next five years or so that we can become a $1 billion brand. We’re very focused on leading this category. Whether it’s better burgers, better burritos, better Asian food, there’s always a category leader. We’re determined to be that.

What’s your favorite menu item at Blaze Pizza?

Build-your-own pizza with spicy red sauce, fresh ovalini, grilled chicken, and lots of veggies—mushrooms, banana peppers, red peppers, zucchini, and spinach.

What’s your favorite restaurant or type of food, excluding Blaze?

I still like Taco Bell after spending so many years there. I also like Hopdoddy.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

I do long-distance road cycling, and I have a passion for fine wine.

What is the best piece of advice you think quick-service executives should hear?

My father didn’t love everything he did every day. When I was a little boy, he said to me, “Pursue your passion. If someone will pay you to do something you love, that’s a blessing.”

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