It’s the foodservice industry’s biggest annual event: the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show (a.k.a “the NRA Show”), where nearly 60,000 professionals and 2,000 exhibitors gather to learn how to be bigger and better. Going in without a guide can be overwhelming. But don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.
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Panel Preview // Carin Stutz Q & A
In Her Nature
Così CEO Carin Stutz talks about her success as a female fast-casual executive.
Carin Stutz is no stranger to the foodservice industry. Having started with a part-time job at McDonald’s in high school, she went on to major in food and nutrition at Western Illinois University and worked her way up to vice presidential positions at Wendy’s and Applebee’s.
After serving as president of global business development at Brinker International, parent company of Chili’s and Maggiano’s, Stutz was named president and CEO of fast-casual concept Così in late 2011. Her early success at Così, which has included a brand overhaul and turnaround from near-bankruptcy, has established Stutz as one of the leading female executives in the fast-casual arena.
Stutz will be a panelist at QSR’s NRA Show educational session, “Year of Women in Foodservice: Lessons learned by successful female executives and entrepreneurs who are blazing trails.” She spoke with QSR about her experiences as a female in a fast-casual leadership position, and shared the advice she gives other women working to advance in the foodservice industry.
What did the process look like that led you to become CEO and president of Così?
I had heard about it through a recruiter in the industry who had called me about the position, and I knew that I wanted to complete my career in the foodservice industry as a CEO. I honestly thought it would take me a while to find a position, and I had just begun to interview [when] I was very blessed to be offered different positions as a CEO, and I chose Così.
I thought it was interesting. I saw it was in the fast-casual segment and on trend with where the industry is heading as far as fresher foods and more locally sourced ingredients, and it certainly was going to be a challenge from a turnaround situation. It looked like a challenging and fun opportunity.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your job thus far?
It’s the smallest company I’ve ever worked for, so I would just say limited resources and financials. We don’t have deep financial pockets here, so we have to be very mindful. I often use the words pace and prioritization. You stay very focused on doing the things that matter the most.
How would you describe your leadership style at Così?
I would say collaborative but decisive. [I’m] very results-oriented, but at the same time, we have to be very innovative in how we make this brand relevant again.
In what ways were you mentored as a woman in the foodservice industry?
Hear more from Stutz at QSR’s "Year of Women in Foodservice" panel!
In 1994, I heard of this organization called the Women’s Foodservice Forum. When I went to their annual leadership conference for the very first time, if there was any question of whether or not this would be an industry for me, that was the group that convinced me there was a future for women in the foodservice industry. They really focus on developing … and making those positions become available, and developing the talent and the skills and the leadership capabilities to step into the next role.
I credit a lot of my ability to get to this CEO position to the Women’s Foodservice Forum. But I’ve also had some great leaders and former CEOs that I’ve worked with in the past who were willing to sponsor me and help me get to the next level.
What qualities do you possess that have made you handle situations in your career differently than a man?
My nature. I’m probably more collaborative and maybe less hierarchical. I am very willing to reach out to all levels of the organization for input and advice. I think from time to time I will see people use chain of command. I guess I was just always raised that everyone is unique. Everyone has a tremendous amount of value, whatever role. … They’re all so important to help us achieve goals and create a great industry here.
What characteristics do women have that are uniquely suited to executive positions in the industry?
My best thinking on women in the industry is, No. 1, women are incredibly engaged. It’s a different relationship that women have with brands and with positions than men. I think women are very good financial stewards of the company’s assets, and I would say that having women mixed in a team opens up a dialogue and, therefore, increases your company’s ability to be innovative, as well.
What are some ways that you try to advance the careers of other women?
I think we have yet to get to this position. At this point, I feel like there’s an opportunity for me to give back. People have mentored me and looked after me, [and] I’m now in the position to be able to do that for other women and even men who I come across in the organization, as well.
When I came here, we had 10 district managers, at the time all male, and now we have three women district managers. To start to introduce some talented women who can step up and be leaders in this organization—I’m really excited about what they bring to the table, and already they’re adding a lot of value.
What piece of advice do you give women when you are trying to help them advance?
Define your career goals. You have to know what you want. You have to know what’s possible, what you can go after. You have to ask, Which skills do I have today, [and] which skills do I need for that next position? Then you have to close that gap.
Any other advice or thoughts you have on women in foodservice?
You can tell I’m such a fan of the Women’s Foodservice Forum. It really serves a great purpose for leaders, but more importantly, it’s a great organization that, when you go there, your network [and] working opportunities are huge. There’s so much talent there that makes you want to be part of the foodservice industry. I think there are a lot of people who question whether or not the foodservice industry is a great career for women, and I think when you go there and you see the talent that is there, you’ll see it’s definitely a place where you belong.