Cousins Maine Lobster founders.

To say 2020 was a tough year would be the understatement of the young century. Not only did COVID-19 brutalize sales and disrupt everyday business, but also, civil unrest, a tense presidential election, and a spate of natural disasters created a volatile environment in which every day seemed to bring some fresh catastrophe for operators and society at large to deal with.

Throughout this year, QSR’s Fast Forward podcast has shared perspectives from industry leaders about how they’re navigating all of these challenges, evolving their businesses, and preparing for an uncertain future. Each interview has wrapped with a variation on the same question: “In this challenging time, what’s encouraging you or bringing you hope?” What follows is a look at how 23 limited-service restaurant executives answered that question over the last 10 months.

Answers from executives have been edited and condensed for clarity. To view the entire Fast Forward archive, click here or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

Image credits:The Culinary Edge

Michael McFall, co-CEO, Biggby Coffee

“I am just astonished by people’s resilience. I always knew, but I’d never lived through it. You think back in history of the harsh things that we’ve gone through over the last 100 years, and you think to yourself, ‘How would today’s population react if we were to have a world war, if we were to have a pandemic flu?’ And we now see the resilience and the way people are treating each other. I’m really encouraged by that.”


Image credits:Biggby Coffee

Scott Deviney, CEO, Chicken Salad Chick

“The American spirit is not one to stay cooped up. Our society is ready to go back to work. One of the statistics I read recently said that for 73 percent of the people, the first thing they want to do is go sit down in a restaurant with their family or friends. We’re going to get back to normal, and we typically have short memories; once things open back up, we’re going to get back to our routines again. And I think that the people who have done it right, that have had the right culture, the right purpose of business, will be the ones to be strong and succeed long-term. And I think that’s what will separate [restaurants] going forward is [customers] want to support the ones that help support their community when the times were tough.”


Image credits:Chicken Salad Chick

David Leonardo, CEO, Chill-N Nitrogen Ice Cream

“I think one of the things that’s given me a lot of hope and has made me very excited about what we’re coming up against in the months ahead is the fact that I’m getting more and more people calling that are interested in investing. If we’re at a point in this country where people are looking at figuring out ways to invest and become entrepreneurs, then that gives me hope not just for the industry, but for the country. Ultimately, putting capital to use, especially by entrepreneurs, is a huge indicator about where we are as a country. So the fact that over the last couple months I’ve seen more leads come in than I’ve had in seven months is a good sign and gives me a lot of hope for the future.”


Image credits:Chill-N Nitrogen Ice Cream

Jim Tselikis, Cofounder, Cousins Maine Lobster (above, right)

“When you start a business, you always have these peaks and valleys, and sometimes your valleys are so low you wonder if the business is going to survive. And now we’ve got one that came that no one could have ever predicted or seen coming in this pandemic. But I still think that if you think outside the box, if you work hard enough, if you take a step back and breathe and say, ‘Hey, these are going to be trying times,’ I really do believe there’s a silver lining. It may not even be the business or the things that you’re doing now. But there is a silver lining in that when things return to normalcy, people are going to be so excited to get out, to go to breweries and drink beers and do these things, that it comes back stronger than it was. And maybe that compensates for some decrease in sales and the real trying times for business owners or individuals throughout the country.”


Image credits:Cousins Maine Lobster

Akash Kapoor, CEO, Curry Up Now

“We’re going to be back, and I think we’re going to be very strong, and we’re going to be very lean, and we’re going to be meaner than before. As far as our financials are concerned, this is a gut check. This is a huge gut check in how quickly most restaurant groups were impacted. I think we should all be very conservative.”


Image credits:Curry Up Now

André Vener, Cofounder, Dog Haus (above, right)

“Looking outside my window and seeing everybody walking by with their dogs and taking the kids out on bike rides and being there for their neighbors and respecting the social distancing yet waving across the street—I hope that we all continue to be there for our neighbors, our community. Continue being there for your kids, going for those bike rides; continue to have your family dinners and continue to reach out to your friends and family and let them know that you’re there for them. Being there and realizing what you have, I think that will be the most important part.”


Image credits:Chris Flynn

Kyle Welch, President, Epic Burger (above, left)

“Like other restaurant operators in the city of Chicago, we’re all fighting over that same lunch business customer or that dinner rush. But during times like this, we’re in this together. And you have this incredible camaraderie in the industry that came together. We’re on email threads with other executives sharing best practices, and all of a sudden you realize that this is more than just you. This is about people coming together.”


Image credits:Epic Burger

Olivia Ross, Director of Marketing, Halo Burger

“What gives me hope for the future going forward is this younger generation that’s not accepting the status quo. I think that Gen Z is awesome, they’re inspiring, and they’re so innovative. I love seeing what they’re already doing right now. They’ve completely thrown everybody for a loop. You see Gen Z not afraid to go against the grain, and they’re pushing people above them to understand that there’s not always one way to look at things, that there’s always going to be new approaches that could be better. I’ve watched them start to grow up and join the workforce, and for me, they give me a lot of hope because they’re such big dreamers and they’re OK with going after it. That’s kind of rubbed off on everybody else. I love seeing what they’re doing, and it gives me hope. And I think we’ve seen a lot of it play out even this year.”


Image credits:Halo Burger

Adrienne Ingoldt, Chief Brand & Experience Officer, Jack in the Box

“I think that as marketers and a marketing industry, we need to continue to be open to the tools that we have at our disposal, and one of those great tools is each other. I think we can emerge from this crisis stronger than before if we keep our communication lines open. I’ve had the ability and luxury of being able to connect with other CMOs across categories, across industries, and share our best practices, what our strategies are on the challenges we’re facing. And I think that that open communication is a great opportunity for people to be humans together navigating the situation. And I hope that the team mindset continues as we all come out of this pandemic.”


Image credits:flickr: Thomas Hawk

Kyle Noonan, Founder & CEO, FreeRange Concepts

“You have to figure out your purpose again and be reminded to get back to the basics of our industry. The hospitality industry is taking care of people, and we have seen the most success as an organization during this time when my team goes out and tries to figure out a way to take care of somebody, make somebody’s day a little bit better. So it’s getting back to the root of who we are as an industry, what we’re all about, and it’s people taking care of people. And if we can do that, you enjoy your days.”


Image credits:FreeRange Concepts

Kevin Miles, CEO, Mendocino Farms

“I’m looking forward to 2021 as we can get back and see our guests and smile and joke with them in the future. What we’re seeing in our business right now is giving me a lot of hope. I think guests out there, whether it be in Texas or in California or across the country, are craving that engagement with restaurants and being out there and seeing their favorite server, their favorite cashier, eating their favorite meal in somewhat of a normal environment again. Although it may not ever be exactly the same, I think everyone’s looking forward to that as soon as they can get back out and do it.”


Image credits:Mendocino Farms

Anthony Pigliacampo, CEO, Modern Market

“This too shall pass. People need to eat. They need to gather; they need social connection. I think more than anything, what gives me hope is I’ve always found that whenever I’m in the darkest place, I’m usually uplifted by going out, by being around other people, by eating great food, by just having great experiences. And that’s not going away. We will get through this. We’ll figure out how it works after, and we’ll get back together in our favorite bars and restaurants and enjoy all the experiences we enjoyed before.”


Image credits:Modern Market

Carin Stutz, CEO, Native Foods

“This industry is the most generous ever. We started a group called GLEAM, and it’s really about mentoring in the industry, where we’ve already paired well over 100 mentors and mentees … to help connect restaurant executives who have lots of experience with people who really want to make this a career. So it’s finding those ways to give back and finding the most generous people in this industry that are all willing to join together and make a difference. It just doesn’t get any better than that, despite the pandemic. That’s the silver lining.”


Image credits:Native Foods

Otto Othman, Cofounder & CEO, PINCHO

“To be quite honest, it’s kindness. We’re seeing more and more of it. So many people here locally in Miami are going above and beyond in helping each other. It brings me joy to see how many people are getting together and giving back. People are doing fundraisers through different drives, and guests are reaching out to us saying, “Hey, how can we feed families in need?” It’s such a beautiful thing. If there’s one thing that COVID did for us, at least, it has brought a ton of us together. We can all live with more or less of any material things, but at the end of the day, what we seek the most is human connection. Although we’re all apart right now, it feels that we’re much, much closer together.”


Image credits:PINCHO

Michael Osanloo, CEO, Portillo’s

“I am in awe and inspired by my front-line hourly team members. I visit a lot of our restaurants, and in many instances, I’m going through the drive thru with my mask on and just acting as a guest. I’m blown away by the kindness, the decency, their willingness and ability to put themselves out there and take care of our guests. It’s really easy to see some of the negatives. But I try to spend more of my time thinking about all the positive examples, all the individual heroes that we interact with when we donate food to first responders, particularly health care professionals, and see the heartfelt thanks that they have. I think there are so many of these little vignettes of people acting unbelievably kind and decent and humane, and that’s what keeps me motivated.”


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Jeff Levine, CEO, Raw Juce

“I personally view this like a chance to reset your thinking. I think that everybody had to take a look at this and say, ‘We’re doing something wrong. What can we do to make the world a better place?’ If everybody takes that mindset and just does a little bit better, whatever that means to them, this world will become a better place, and we can hopefully avoid these kinds of pandemics or disasters in the future. From a business standpoint, I’ve learned so much. You make all these changes, tighten your belt and run your business differently under the circumstances. And then you look back to, Why was I doing it that way before? We’re getting rid of our corporate office. There’s just no need for it. I don’t know that we’re going to do Discovery Days where people come here. If someone wants to come, great. But we’ve done virtual Discovery Days, and they were amazing. The way we look at things as business owners, we just need to look to a different place because everything is changing and it’s changing rapidly and is changing all the time.”


Image credits:Raw Juce

Garrett Mills, CEO, RibCrib BBQ

“As we all go through this together and we think about it as kind of this never-ending, terrible problem, I think we [need to come] to the realization that that’s why we’re all in this, to solve problems. It happens to be a tragic one, and it happens to be one that feels like it has no end in sight. But nonetheless, it’s still just a problem that we’re navigating. I think the ones that come out stronger are the ones that can solve the problem best and really have the most fun doing it, and that’s what I tell our team. How did we take this threat and turn it into an opportunity and view it as this unique problem that it’s our responsibility to solve? It’s somewhat of an optimistic outlook on something that is hard to find optimism in. But I think if you are able to have that mindset, you could somehow turn this into a potential positive, even though it’s certainly tragic.”


Image credits:RibCrib

Michelle Bythewood, President, Salata

“It’s just about remaining positive and doing things with love, purpose, and gratitude. I think it’s something that we can all live by and just take a breath and really realize that people are dealing with things, whether it be at home or work. And I’m just giving people a little more grace and coming together during this time. And I think this will continue to press forward, and it will hopefully be a better world.”


Image credits:Salata

Todd Graeve, CEO, Scooter’s

Hope is such an important word and one that we talk about in earnest at Scooter’s. We want to be that beacon of hope, that state of normalcy, warm smiles with a warm cup of coffee. That’s something that’s just a part of the DNA of what we deliver to our customers. As we’ve been working remote, my wife and I have been taking long walks in the neighborhood. It felt different in these times the last few months, certainly the heaviness of the environment we’re in at the moment. It was tough, but walking through the neighborhood, you see something almost harkening back to the past: a father throwing the baseball around with his son in the front yard, people looking up when you’re walking by, waving and saying good morning. When you go out, be prepared to socialize with community. It brought hope for me and my wife. It could be uncharted, a little bit darker times, but there was this point of hope, even just on a normal walk. That felt good and it reminds me that there’s a lot of kindness and good out there, and hope for our communities.”


Image credits:Scooter’s Coffee

Pinky Cole, Founder, Slutty Vegan

“No matter where you are in the space right now, it will always get better. Finances may be tight. I promise you, you’ll overcome it. I’m a walking testimony of it. I would have never imagined having a multimillion-dollar company after losing my first restaurant. And here I am, just a girl from East Baltimore, Maryland, that moved to Atlanta and started this concept that I am intentional about making into a billion-dollar company. If I could do it, you can do it too. Do not give up on your dreams. Anything that you want to be in your life, you can use this as an opportunity. It’s a blessing, and it’s a lesson—learn from it. And then you could be expert. You could teach people and do good for the world.”


Image credits:Ahmad Barber

John Kolaski, Founder & CEO, SocialEats

“People are beginning to realize just how important the food and beverage and hospitality industry is to the fabric of our lives. We are intertwined into every special occasion, whether it’s for that takeout dinner, that nice occasion, that hotel stay for the weekend, or that celebratory birthday, retirement anniversary, wedding, whatever that may be. There’s so much that revolves around hospitality. It is something that, for many of us who have been doing this for decades, we’ve always known that it’s low-margin, it’s hard work, but we like that. That’s what we love about it. We enjoy that. The silver lining, I hope, is that other people recognize just how much work goes into this industry and come back with a little bit more respect for those operators, those mom and pops, that cashier, that cook, that dish washer, that housekeeper, and just love and respect them that much more, knowing a little bit about what they’re going through and just how fragile this environment is. So many people rely on our industry to put food on the table and a roof over their heads at night for them and their families. We’re struggling today but hopeful for tomorrow to be better and easier and that there’s help on the way, that everyone could get back to work and do what they love.”


Image credits:SocialEats

Aaron Noveshen, Founder & CEO, Starbird

“It really comes down to being empathetic—be empathetic to your team. They’re nervous. They don’t know what’s coming around the corner. And even though we ourselves as CEOs or business owners have our fears, we’re likely in a better position than most of the people who work for us. Having that type of empathy and belief in the people on the team, and investing in those folks, will build a much brighter future.”


Image credits:The Culinary Edge

Clay Dover, CEO, Velvet Taco

“It’s the resiliency of not just the industry, but specifically Velvet Taco. I’ve been amazed; the restaurant-level operations teams and the people that we’ve had here have stepped up. When I see a general manager on their day off coming in to help another new GM figure something out, that gives me hope. Look, we had to make some tough decisions, as everyone else did within the industry. But the investments that you make on the culture side… There’s a saying that says tough times don’t last, but tough people do. I fully believe that both for Velvet Taco and within our industry. I believe that we will make our way through this. We just had a leadership meeting looking ahead to 2021, and some of the ideas and some of the thoughts from our operations folks were just phenomenal. So I’m very happy and forever grateful for those people who have stepped up.”


Image credits:Kathy Tran / Velvet Taco
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