The argument could be made that foodservice, like so many other industries, has long been a boys’ club, one in which the top leaders and innovators are, more often than not, male. And today, men continue to dominate the foodservice C-suite.
But women are on the rise, and that’s especially true in fast casual. Today, female founders lead several up-and-coming fast-casual brands across the country.
Many of them are flocking to fast casual from different fields: In a prior career, Bun Mee founder Denise Tran was an attorney; Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton were educators before they founded Marination; and Marian Cheng worked in fashion before starting Mimi Cheng’s with her sister Hannah.
Other women were restaurant veterans before launching their limited-service ventures. Chef Archna Becker of Bhojanic Market worked in fine dining and catering before setting her sights on fast casual; Christine Sfeir franchised Dunkin’ Donuts in Lebanon prior to founding Semsom Eatery; and Donna Lee of Brown Bag Seafood Co. first learned her trade as a Noodles & Co. manager and publisher for DiningOut magazine.
Regardless of their origin stories, nearly all have a drive that goes beyond the bottom line—whether it is offering healthier, affordable food; exposing consumers to new flavors and cultures; or affecting a more sustainable supply system.
“Women have to believe in themselves and surround themselves with people who believe in them,” Sfeir says. “The support ecosystem is what allows women to thrive and overcome challenges.”
Meet the 26 women building that ecosystem in fast casual.
Roz Edison & Kamala Saxton
Cofounders & co-owners • Marination
Roz Edison (pictured above) and Kamala Saxton were educators before they founded a food truck that blended Hawaiian and Korean cuisines in downtown Seattle.
“We caught the tip of the wave of a couple of flavors that Americans were opening up their palates to,” Edison says.
No longer just a food truck, Marination has grown to include three brick-and-mortar stores, the newest of which is located at Amazon’s headquarters. Each location serves a few core items and the same “aloha vibe,” but other menu offerings vary from store to store, which Edison says makes for a more fun, localized experience for guests.
Looking ahead, Marination’s sights are not set so much on unit count but impact. Edison says she and Saxton would like to establish a scholarship program for emplo yees and a restaurant incubator program called the Marination Foundation.
“We talk to people who want to start their business all the time,” she says. “So many of the skills that we learned in public education have translated over to being in a restaurant. [When] you work with a young, ambitious team, you’re constantly teaching people.”
Cofounder & CEO • Amsterdam Falafelshop
Arianne Bennett and her husband, Scott, opened their first Amsterdam Falafelshop store in a bustling Washington, D.C., neighborhood in 2004. Through company-owned and franchise stores, it has grown to four locations in the D.C. metro area and two in Boston. As the brand continues to open new shops, train staff, and consider new menu additions, Bennett says, she and Scott remain committed to bringing forth healthy, affordable food.
“Long term, we’re hoping to help a new generation of kids coming up to learn to eat fresh vegetables in a way that excites their palate,” Bennett says.
In fact, Bennett says, what excites her most about the fast-casual scene is its access to great, fresh-made food—not just pizza and subs—at all economic levels.
“A more imaginative relationship with food can temper the amount you eat and increase the quality and nutrition of what you eat. And that is good for all,” she adds.
Marian and Hannah Cheng
Cofounders & co-owners • Mimi Cheng’s
Even in New York, Marian and Hannah Cheng could never find dumplings that rivaled their mother’s. So they decided to open their own fast casual specializing in authentic Taiwanese-Chinese dumplings.
In addition to authenticity, Mimi Cheng’s is dedicated to sourcing sustainable, natural produce and meats from small farmers.
“By using quality ingredients, we are setting the bar higher and higher along with other likeminded brands, such as sweetgreen,” Marian Cheng says. “We won’t settle for anything less because we believe wholeheartedly that we are what we eat.”
Cheng says the fast-casual experience reminds her of Taipei, which is filled with mom-and-pop restaurants serving delicious food in a no-frills environment.
Cheng, who worked in fashion before opening Mimi Cheng’s, advises aspiring operators to gain restaurant experience before opening their own. Beyond that? Just be a boss.
“Be comfortable with the unknown, be resilient even when it feels impossible, and be a boss in every sense of the word,” Cheng says.
Founder & owner • Brown Bag Seafood Co.
If you ask Donna Lee what excites her most about fast casual, she’ll tell you her answer would have been different five years ago.
“The market had far more room for growth at that time, but as we’ve all seen, the word is out!” she says.
Despite an increasingly crowded fast-casual scene, Lee is planning for growth and would even like to create a “foolproof” guide to opening additional units of her Chicago-based Brown Bag Seafood Co.
She also doesn’t let gender stereotypes slow her down.
“As women, we are often put in a mindset that we are at a disadvantage. That itself is the No. 1 disadvantage,” she says, adding that all women in fast casual have their own unique set of skills. “If you’re tough, smart, and creative, you’ll weasel your way in.”
Natasha Case & Freya Estreller
Cofounders • Coolhaus
If you ask CEO Natasha Case (pictured at left) about Coolhaus, she’ll tell you that she and business partner and wife Freya Estreller might just have a $100 million brand on their hands. She says the “wackiness” of the brand (namely, its architecturally inspired ice cream sandwiches) allows Coolhaus to dominate a specific category.
“I really believe there is no ice cream sandwich like ours in the world, and now that we have notoriety, we can branch out into other novelty categories and beyond,” Case says. She adds that Los Angeles–based Coolhaus also garners broad appeal; it pairs well with other categories like burgers, pizza, farm to table, Mexican, and Japanese.
For a long time, Case says, men in the restaurant industry were making decisions about what consumers wanted when the majority of the decision makers were women. But now that dynamic is shifting.
“These days, there are more women in leadership/executive positions to make those choices and guide the direction of how fast casual is evolving,” Case says. “There is more of a seamless tie-in behind and in front of the counter.”
Cofounder & co-owner • Saucy Porka & Spotted Monkey
Although Amy Le spent several years in corporate media, her roots remained in restaurants. Le essentially grew up in her mother’s Chinese restaurants in St. Louis. One was full service and the other more quick service and carryout, but Le’s mother always took the time to ask customers about their days.
“It is such a simple gesture, but it is a gesture sometimes lost in the hustle of an industry dependent upon speed and efficiency,” Le says. “I believe it is a necessity to treat your quick-service restaurant with the same amount of detail and service as any fine-dining
The restaurant industry is a demanding one, but Le says the fast-casual lunch sector provides more balance for family time. Unlike her mother, who worked until 10 p.m. every night, Le works until 6 p.m. at her two Chicago-based Asian-Latin fusion concepts, Saucy Porka and Spotted Monkey, allowing her to make it home for a family dinner.
Christine Sfeir & Carine Assouad
CEO & managing director • Semsom Eatery
Christine Sfeir had already built a restaurant empire (including a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise) in the Middle East before she brought her Lebanese-with-a-twist fast casual Semsom Eatery stateside. In addition to locations in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE, Semsom opened two New York stores last year and plans for 20 in the U.S. by 2020.
“With bold, different, and fresh flavors, we aim at being the reference in Mediterranean cuisine,” Sfeir says.
Sfeir runs the business with her sister, Carine Assouad, who serves as managing director of Semsom U.S. She recently gave a commencement speech at the Culinary Institute of America and was happy to see that half the graduating chefs were women.
“Entrepreneurship and passion are not gender related,” Sfeir says. “The best piece of advice I give aspiring women in the Middle East is, ‘If your partner does not support your dream, change your partner, not your dream.’”
Founder and owner • HipCityVeg
For Nicole Marquis, the key word that any aspiring fast-casual founder must heed is plan. She spent years planning down to the most minuscule of details for her Philadelphia-based concept HipCityVeg, which specializes in plant-based foods.
She says a strong plan is not a fix-all for the unknown, but it certainly makes the process less overwhelming. She also sees more accessibility within fast casual compared with full service.
“As far as restaurant culture is concerned, fast casuals may be a little more egalitarian in that there is not a (typically male) chef/owner who occupies a position far above everyone else,” Marquis says. She adds that women can’t look for excuses in a restaurant setting, but they can use inherent skills—like being able to ask for directions. “Seek out mentors and helpers and weigh their advice carefully. Create allies. You’ll be surprised at how many people want to help you.”
Moving forward, Marquis hopes to open at least 50 locations in the next five years and bring about significant change in how people eat.
Chef & founder • Bhojanic Market
Growing up, Archna Becker was always in the kitchen, learning to cook from her grandmother. Her first professional venture was an award-winning catering business followed by the fine-dining Atlanta restaurant Bhojanic, which features authentic, home-style Indian fare.
Last year, Becker launched a food truck to bring Bhojanic to festivals and special events. Now she is entering the quick-service space with Bhojanic Market, which opened on Emory University’s campus in January. She’s already relishing the new format.
“The best part for me is to see a guest from the decision point to the actual consumption and to see the reaction. That is much harder in a full-service situation since there are so many layers of people between the creators and the eaters,” Becker says. “It’s a great platform to get your passion and style out there.”
She hopes to bring the concept to three to five more neighborhoods in Atlanta over the next five years.
Founder & owner • Bun Mee
In 2011, when Denise Tran left her career as a lawyer to launch Bun Mee in San Francisco, she says most of her friends and colleagues didn’t even know what a banh mi was.
“When I launched Bun Mee, my mission was to make the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich a part of the everyday lunchtime vernacular,” Tran says. “It’s the most rewarding feeling to know you’ve played a part in expanding people’s culinary taste buds.”
Having worked in an industry far different from foodservice, Tran says the restaurant world is not so different from other industries when it comes to the challenges faced by women. Although male founders and leaders outnumber women in hospitality, she tries not to focus on it, but rather on what she can do.
“The best advice for women in this business is to have thick skin, work hard to know your operations, be decisive in your decision making, [and be] fair and firm when dealing with others,” she says.
Samantha Wasser & Chloe Coscarelli
Creative director & cofounder • by CHLOE
For Samantha Wasser (at right in photo), a picture can be worth a thousand words. The cofounder (along with Chef Chloe Coscarelli, left) of new vegan fast casual by CHLOE has an eye for Instagram and knows that serving food that is not only tasty but also photographable drives customer engagement.
“We’re seeing diners … considering how their food will photograph almost as much as how it tastes, and the fast-casual space enabled us to play to that much more,” Wasser says.
Indeed, the brand’s Instagram and Facebook pages are filled with dazzling pop-art photos, and the aesthetic extends to the physical space itself. Located on a charming street in New York’s Greenwich Village, by CHLOE features a bright open space that welcomes even the most carnivorous of diners.
“We’re seeing that eating vegan food is not so much a trend, but a lifestyle,” Wasser says. “Because of that, we are hoping to expand by CHLOE beyond New York in the coming years.”
Cofounder & COO • Roam Artisan Burgers
Roam Artisan Burgers’ mission is a serious one: to positively impact the planet by serving nutrient-dense burgers. But cofounder Lynn Gorfinkle says these tenets do not detract from a lighthearted, warm dining experience.
“What’s really wonderful is you come into Roam, and it’s not thrown into your face. We don’t use the word healthy because it means a lot of different things to a lot of different folks,” Gorfinkle says.
This approach allows San Francisco–based “smart casual” Roam to attract customers who deeply care about what they put in their bodies, as well as those who just want a good burger in a comfortable atmosphere without the pretension.
“There seems to be a real need for more higher-quality places accessible in a casual setting,” Gorfinkle says. “For us, it’s everything from a few families coming in with kids at 5:30 … and an hour later it rolls into more of an adult crowd who’s sitting there having their really great glass of wine and craft beer.”
Leticia Skai Young-Mohan
Co-Owner & CEO • LoLo’s Seafood Shack
LoLo’s Seafood Shack—“where the Caribbean meets Cape Cod”—is actually not so far afield. Opened by restaurateur Leticia Young-Mohan and her husband, Chef Raymond Mohan, in 2014, this Harlem restaurant is the first concept in Young-Mohan’s newly launched Island Time Hospitality Group.
“Our brand is hinged on quality and value,” she says. “The fast-casual model allows us to feature quality ingredients at an accessible price in part by having a more compact front-of-house team.”
She finds the challenge of engineering a diverse menu (like a sustainable spiny dogfish sandwich, steampot combos, and seafood boils) in an efficient and consistent manner to be exciting. Her ultimate plan is to develop new concepts within Island Time Hospitality. After all, she says, it’s also a great time to be a woman in foodservice.
“Women are great multitaskers and traditionally are thought to be genuine caregivers,” Young-Mohan says. “Quite naturally, we have what it takes to be successful in this industry.”
Founder & managing director • Dee Daa
When it comes to running a fast casual, Mallika Sukjaro relishes an opportunity to turn the status quo on its head.
For example, her concept Dee Daa uses authentic Thai ingredients in its sauces, which are flash-frozen and delivered to New York City.
“This food science is what allows me to bring my beloved Thai cuisine to our restaurants on the other side of the world in a fast-casual format,” Sukjaro says. “I’m excited to see how technology can be utilized in a fast-casual setting.”
Like many Fast Casual 2.0 concepts, Dee Daa will soon launch a dinner menu that builds on the “street food” lunch menu.
Whether it’s experimenting with dayparts or piloting new tech solutions, Sukjaro likes being on the cutting edge and recommends a pioneering perspective.
“Keep your eyes on the horizon, and keep your feet grounded so you don’t get lost in your own ideas,” she says.
Founder & CEO • Grabbagreen
Keely Newman was a vice president at CitiGroup before she founded healthy fast-food concept Grabbagreen with friend Kelley Bird. She was also a mother who was frustrated by the lack of wholesome food options when she traveled with her children.
Newman attributes much of Arizona-based Grabbagreen’s success to the fact that she didn’t start in the restaurant industry and therefore didn’t follow convention. She also says being a woman in what has often been a boys’ club can also be a positive. “In a lot of ways, that sometimes plays to your advantage because you’re an anomaly,” she says.
While she is excited by the rapid, word-of-mouth growth of the brand, her No. 1 goal is encouraging healthy eating habits among children.
“We have a children’s table in every location, [and] seeing that table filled with little kids who drove their parents to Grabbagreen is what is very exciting to me,” she says.
President & COO, Sweetgreen
Karen Kelley, a restaurant industry industry veteran and startup whisperer, joined sweetgreen as president and chief operating officer in late 2013 after successful stints with fro-yo concept Pinkberry and salon chain Drybar. Kelley has been tasked with helping founders Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru, and Jonathan Neman scale their vision for sweetgreen while protecting the brand values at its foundation. Click here to read more about how Kelley is building on the concept's momentum.
Bettina Stern & Suzanne Simon
Fifteen years ago, Chaia cofounders Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon were in a cookbook club together and wanted to open a business. When their hopes to launch a food truck were dashed, the pair decided to direct their enthusiasm into a blog named “Loulies,” for Stern’s grandmother. The blog featured recipes, kitchen tricks, and shopping tips. Having established a foothold on the D.C. food scene through the blog, Stern and Simon finally launched their business in 2015: Chaia, a Mexican fast casual. Read more about the business here.
Chef, Stall 11
Chef Melanie Molinaro has all the trappings of a rock star chef: a fine-dining pedigree, a smattering of stylish tattoos, and close ties with a trendy, local farm. What’s less expected is this chef’s new concept, Stall 11, which will be elevating vegetarian and vegan fare. Molinaro’s Stall 11 was the second concept to come onboard Baltimore food hall R. House, which will eventually host a total of 10 limited-service concepts. Find out more about Stall 11 here.
Owner and Chef, Kasa Indian Eatery
When Anamika Khanna cofounded Kasa Indian Eatery in San Francisco in 2008, she wanted to start a revolution: She wanted Americans to fall in love with Indian cuisine. But long before entering the fast-casual scene, Khanna held a deep passion for food. Throughout her time growing up in the projects, attending the London School of Economics, and working as a lawyer and later a stay-at-home mom, Khanna has always loved to cook. Read more about Khanna and Kasa Indian Eatery here.
Adriana López Vermut
Owner and Cofounder, Pica Pica
Eight years ago when Adriana López Vermut gave birth to her first child, her father asked how she would stay connected to her Venezuelan heritage. The two hatched a plan to introduce the Bay Area to Venezuelan cuisine and thus Pica Pica was founded. Specializing in authentic arepas—hot corn-patty pockets stuffed with hearty fillings like beef and plantains—Pica Pica has become a mainstay in the Mission district and was even featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” Read more about Vermut and Pica Pica here.