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.