Growth of a new generation
How do you identify potential in a young person? Do you just glance at their resume? Or do you look at the scope of the impact they make on the people and businesses around them? Or maybe you see what they’re really made of when it matters most—under pressure, in the midst of a global crisis. The last year has provided the perfect opportunity to see the real potential of some of the industry’s most exciting young leaders, as they’ve been forced to carry their businesses and their teams through the most challenging period in modern restaurant history.
Here are 28 quick-service and fast-casual leaders under the age of 35 who have not only made a lasting impact on those around them, but they’ve also proved during the pandemic that their success to date is no fluke. The industry’s most exciting young executives, founders, and franchisees handled the pressure of the pandemic and are preparing for much bigger things.
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President, The Hari Group
When Raj Patel attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to get a degree in finance and accounting, his goal was to jump into investment banking, or maybe get a consulting job. He didn’t think he’d join the Dunkin’ franchise that his father, Bud Patel, had started in 1987 and grown to eight locations around Naperville, Illinois.
But when Raj Patel graduated into the Great Recession in 2010, banking jobs were, well, limited. And franchising was gaining steam. So he teamed with his dad and became the fuel to the fire that would elevate the Hari Group to massive success.
“Dunkin’ was really on a rampage at that point. They were opening up 40, 50 units a year in Chicago,” he says. “When we jumped in, we jumped in with an acquisition, and shortly after, all the growth started. We went from eight to 70 in exactly 10 years. So it’s been a ride.”
Indeed, the Hari Group now employs more than 1,000 people across 70 Dunkin locations, four McAlister’s Delis, and one Currito. It’s also signed on with Dave’s Hot Chicken to build out the Chicago market with 16 locations.
Patel says that when he joined the franchise game, franchising was still mostly made up of older men. Young people couldn’t break in because banks weren’t willing to lend to them. In the last decade, though, banks have come to embrace younger franchisees, he says, and Small Business Administration loans and other programs have helped to stimulate growth and steer more young people toward franchising.
“The changes we’ve seen in the last 10 years in the next 10 years will be amplified even more. We’re going to see a lot more youth getting into it,” Patel says. “I get emails and calls weekly from people looking to get into the franchise world, everybody from doctors to IT guys. There are a lot of people who are interested in it because the beauty of it is that you work for yourself.”
The great thing about Dunkin, he adds, is that it’s successfully stayed relevant and modern, appealing to young customers while also accommodating young operators. That’s been especially true of its technology initiatives and leadership in things like mobile ordering, which—along with all of them having drive thru—helped the Hari Group’s locations navigate successfully through the pandemic.
The Hari Group continues to expand its presence in the Midwest, which will especially include development of the other brands in its portfolio. The group has made a name for itself in the Naperville community and beyond, as it’s heavily involved in Dunkin’s Joy in Childhood Foundation, as well as Special Spaces, an organization that creates dream bedrooms for children with cancer.
“I think one of the things that’s the strength of our group is the local-store marketing aspect of it,” Patel says. “It’s about really getting out and getting involved in the community, and the community rallying around you.”
CEO, O’Cathian Group
Taylor Cain’s entry into franchising was much different than the traditional path—and much more tragic.
Cain’s parents opened their first Sonic in Nevada in the late ’90s before growing it to a thriving franchise with six locations. Cain and her siblings grew up in the business, handing out mints to guests as kids and working as carhops in high school. But after Cain’s mother died in 2012 and her father passed away in 2016, Cain was thrust into a role she’d never thought to train for at the tender age of 22: running the family business.
“I looked at it as an opportunity, because, although it came to me not in the way I would expect or the way I would have wanted, it was still this great opportunity to take what my parents had built and continue it on,” she says.
It helped that Cain had gotten a degree in business marketing, and her younger brother, Ian (now 24), got a degree in business finance and accounting. Another brother, 20-year-old Quinn, is involved with the business as well. Their combined expertise has been critical as they carry on the family legacy—and so have the lessons they picked up from their parents.
“I think the biggest thing that set me up for success was my parents taught me how to deal with people, and that’s at the basis of every business,” Cain says. “Whether it’s [quick service] or medicine or anything, you’re dealing with people, and if you can understand that aspect of things, that’s really what helps you have success.”
Cain and her brothers have continued to invest in growth through Sonic, opening a new location in Reno, Nevada, last year. Another new build is underway. As a young franchisee, Cain says she brings a “fresh set of eyes” to the Sonic business, whether it’s relating to young employees or having a grasp on new technologies. But she’s also leaned into the support that Sonic has provided her since she became a franchisee five years ago.
“What other national brand would give you know a 22-year-old a chance at continuing on their family’s business?” she says. “I never take it for granted. I tell people my family’s owned Sonic for 20 years and I plan on owning it for another 60.”
Director of Delivery, Starbucks
Starbucks was among the worst-hit quick-serve brands when COVID-19 first arrived last March, as the king of the “third place” lost one of its main attractions when the coffee shops closed their lobbies. But the company regained its footing with help from its digital strategy, which quickly coalesced around off-premises services like drive thru, carryout, and delivery.
Eugena Brown has been key to that process, spearheading the delivery channel in particular. A veteran of companies like Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, and the National Basketball Association’s Development League, Brown joined Starbucks as a strategy manager for its Global Strategy team in 2017, then became a part of the company’s delivery initiative. She says she was looking to join an iconic brand that resonated with her as a customer, and the opportunity to be a part of Starbucks’ strategic vision, particularly for its delivery efforts, provided the perfect fit, allowing her to blend strategy, technology, operations, and collaboration.
“Piloting and scaling the delivery channel felt like working at a startup within the larger infrastructure at Starbucks, and that has been invigorating,” she says.
Brown’s oversight of the Delivery channel has included everything from managing day-to-day operations to the third-party relationships, all while setting the future vision for how delivery comes to life for customers and store operators and how it shapes the innovation pipeline. She says the pandemic has changed her approach to her role in “profound ways”—and not just because delivery has become all the more critical to Starbucks’ success.
“As a leader, it’s very important to me to find creative ways to support my team and help them thrive as we navigate our new realities individually and collectively,” she says. “That shows up in a number of different ways—upholding flexibility, encouraging self-care, building and maintaining a positive culture, and experimenting with ways to collaborating effectively.”
Founder & CEO, Project Pollo
Opening a new restaurant is never easy. But imagine opening one in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—and then opening five more after that.
That’s exactly what Lucas Bradbury did when he launched plant-based chicken quick serve Project Pollo last year and then quickly scaled to six units in six months. Now he’s on the cusp of massive expansion with a concept dedicated to being better for the people and the planet.
Bradbury grew up in hospitality, as his father owned restaurants and bars. But he didn’t expect to go into restaurants himself. When he worked for a Midwest-based petroleum company after college, though, he found himself leading that company’s efforts to franchise quick serves for its convenience stores, and he attended training for Dunkin’, Papa John’s, and Which Wich as part of it. Scaling those brands gave him a crash course in how to run a foodservice business.
“We grew at a rapid pace and I learned more than I ever could in my life, and the opportunities that I’ve had in front of me today were solely because of them taking a chance on me and me taking a chance with them,” he says.
Eventually, Bradbury and his wife, Morgan, decided to move back to Texas to raise a family. He took a job with San Antonio vegan burger concept Earth Burger and helped that brand expand before leaving in November 2019 with the dream of developing his own business. He spent months developing the idea for Project Pollo, and opened the first location last September—never mind the raging global pandemic.
“Trying to create a concept during the middle of COVID wasn’t a challenge; actually, it was a blessing, to be completely honest with you, because we were seeing second-generation restaurants unfortunately go out of business,” he says. “We were able to secure some amazing real estate that nobody was taking advantage of at that time because it was so unsure what was going to happen.”
In Project Pollo, Bradbury’s mission is to provide affordable plant-based foods while also offering a place to develop people. The core menu item is a proprietary plant-based chicken product available in a variety of sub-$10 dishes. Employees are paid a minimum of $15 an hour and also have access to full benefits and vacation time. Bradbury is even moving into an employee-owned model to further support his team.
Director of PR & Corporate Communications, Panda Restaurant Group
Being the voice for a massive company is never easy. Layer on top of that an unprecedented global crisis and polarizing social justice issues, and the role of a public relations professional is harder than it’s ever been.
This is the task that Jessica Chao has taken on as Panda Restaurant Group’s head of communications, and one in which, despite the challenges, she’s thriving. Chao has only been with Panda for about two years, having made the jump from a PR position with cosmetics company Revlon. But from the get-go she’s made her mark, having handled all internal and external communications, overseen crisis communications, and spearheaded projects and initiatives that help Panda take a proactive approach to its branding and the work its doing within the Asian-American community. Chao was able to quickly tap into her previous experience by partnering with social media influencers to build Panda’s direct-to-consumer communications, and she laid the groundwork to talk more about the brand’s food and executives so Panda could create more of a lifestyle messaging.
“We’ve seen great traction with people understanding the people behind the brand, getting to know our founders [Peggy and Andrew Cherng] better, getting to know our head chef [Jimmy Wang] better,” Chao says. “There’s a lot of credibility and history with those people who ultimately represent our food.”
In the pandemic, Chao took on even more important work. She worked with various teams to ensure employees of all levels have access to important information across different channels, and set up an external webpage for customers to know how Panda Express was ensuring their safety. She also advised senior leadership in how to respond to the crises that built over the course of 2020. “It’s something that I love about our company: We won’t just say things for the sake of PR,” she says. “As a PR person, it makes it harder, because sometimes you just need to get out there in a timely manner, but at least it’s real and it’s true.”
On top of this communications work, Chao has become heavily involved in Panda’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, where she’s helped bring the company’s commitments to life. That’s become even more important in the wake of growing violence toward the Asian-American community and the Stop Asian Hate movement.
VP of Finance & Development, Bubbakoo’s Burritos
Restaurant professionals commonly wear many hats, particularly those who work in emerging concepts. That’s especially true of Chris Ives, whose title belies the diversity of services he provides for New Jersey–based Bubbakoo’s Burritos. Having joined the company less than two years ago, Ives has taken charge of everything from franchise recruiting and financial operations to IT support and marketing, all with relationship building and franchise success at the core of his efforts.
The pandemic provided a glimpse at just how dedicated Ives was to Bubbakoo’s success. Not only did he ensure the brand was protected financially, but he also helped franchisees secure PPP funding, developed a new digital loyalty platform, and even jumped into Bubbakoo’s restaurants to work alongside the crew and better understand new safety protocols.
PR & Corporate Communications Manager, Duck Donuts
Pennsylvania-based Duck Donuts has become a major player in the breakfast game—so much so, in fact, that it was recently acquired by NewSpring Capital with the intention to get it to 300 locations within four or five years. And at the center of the fun and positive reputation that put Duck Donuts in the national spotlight is Kristin Kellum, the head of communications who helps franchisees with local PR while also overseeing internal and external communications.
Kellum strategically supports the marketing and operations teams with creative ideas for new products, the franchise development team with national exposure for franchise sales, and the franchisee community with promotional efforts. When COVID arrived last March, she took charge of how the brand was communicating safety procedures to customers while also overseeing the information going out to franchisees, at one point hosting daily calls to ensure the whole system was in alignment.
Chief Development Officer, BurgerFi
BurgerFi’s Charlie Guzzetta is one of those rare millennials who actually found the job of his dreams right out of college. Originally hired as a territory marketing manager for the better-burger brand, Guzzetta climbed the ladder to chief development officer, leaving a long list of accomplishments in his wake, including signing deals with several airport concessionaires, college campuses, and military bases; partnering with ghost-kitchen platform REEF; overseeing the launch of online ordering and third-party delivery; and developing a core brand culture at U.S. and Kuwait stores.
In the midst of the pandemic, Guzzetta set up a program to support frontline workers, then helped onboard new CEO Julio Ramirez after leading BurgerFi’s merger with OPES Acquisitions in December, which took the brand public on NASDAQ.
Senior Vice President, Rush Bowls
Nicole McCray is a veteran of the natural foods space, and is applying that knowhow to the smoothie and bowl concept Rush Bowls, where she’s led retail operations, CPG product expansions, and franchising efforts. McCray led a restructuring initiative in the weeks before COVID-19 as Rush Bowls prepared for expansion, and was forced to maintain those efforts in the pandemic’s darkest days. She also took charge of the company’s pandemic strategy, which included highlighting Rush Bowls’ health aspects and off-premises service opportunities.
Owner, Parthenon Gyros & Yips Yogurt Chips
There were a lot of solutions that helped restaurants out of the COVID depths last spring, from digital ordering capabilities to off-premises service solutions. But Erin Vranas took a slightly different tact with her 50-year-old, Madison, Wisconsin–based restaurant Parthenon Gyros: She launched a new CPG line, Yips Yogurt Chips, which packages the restaurant’s dried Greek yogurt chips. The healthy snack exploded in popularity and is available now in 23 markets. Meanwhile, Vranas didn’t take a paycheck last year so she could keep her team employed.
Founder & CEO, Vale Food Co.
If you’re looking for a classic story of grinding to launch the restaurant of your dreams, look no further than Sunny Ilyas. Back in the early 2010s, the Exercise Physiology major at Florida State University balanced school and working three jobs to get his dream business off the ground, initially starting with a meal delivery service that grew to 400 subscribers before he switched to a fast-casual model in 2016. Vale Food Co. has since grown to six locations dishing affordable, healthy bowls packed with nutrients.
Passionate about foods that are better for people and the planet, Benjamin Johnson teamed with Jesse Konig to launch a hot dog truck at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2014. They then moved the operation to Washington, D.C., and grew it to a mobile fleet of food trucks, plus farmers market and catering operations, before opening their first brick-and-mortar in D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood in the middle of the pandemic.
Senior Manager of Consumer & Corporate Communications, Jack in the Box
Aside from its munchies, Jack in the Box might best be known for its quirky communications, whether through marketing or social media. And Morgan Higgins has been a critical cog in that communication wheel, managing the brand’s social media presence as well as its consumer PR and internal, corporate, and franchise communications. In her five years with Jack in the Box, Higgins has supported some of the brand’s most high-profile moments, including its “Jack vs. Martha” Super Bowl ad campaign with Martha Stewart, the Merry Munchie Meal box with Snoop Dogg, and the Super Jack Monday promotion that celebrated everyone who called out of work sick the day after the Super Bowl.
Higgins proved her worth during the pandemic when she managed an integrated communication strategy to ensure everyone from Jack in the Box’s customers to franchisees and employees were informed on steps the brand was taking to keep everyone safe.
Franchise Owner, Woops! Macaron
The millennial transformation of the franchise world has been underway for several years, and while it’s been assumed that younger franchisees would help modernize the industry and expedite its acceptance of technology, that hypothesis was validated during the pandemic. Just look at Woops! Macaron franchisee Lauren Ireifej. The Southern California owner, who bought into the brand at just 24, brought youthful energy to the concept, having partnered with social media influencers and created a branded “popup cart” that set up in places like hotel lobbies and corporate offices. And when she was forced to shut down her mall-based kiosk at the beginning of the pandemic and pause her event and catering orders, she quickly set up an outdoor location and created a unique ordering link for delivery and curbside pickup ordering. Those aggressive actions led her to nearly doubling her pre-COVID sales once she reopened.
Director of Operations, Luke’s Lobster
Growth and development are at the core of Josh Allen’s career in the restaurant industry. He worked his way up through the New York restaurant industry specializing in training, and in 2019 joined Luke’s as director of training and organizational development. In his tenure with the seafood fast casual, Allen has implemented a micro-learning English language training platform, developed a continued-education program called “Luke’s Academy,” rewritten trainings for frontline employees, rolled out training for COVID-19 safety standards, and established a scalable 360 review cycle focused on development. Allen is now pursuing a doctorate in education in human resources development, focusing specifically on learning systems and organizational development. Through that, he plans to create a scalable system that makes better managers by making better learners.
Vice President of Marketing, Moe’s Southwest Grill
A part of the Moe’s team for only four years, Jenny Williams has rocketed up the marketing ranks, having been promoted from marketing manager to director and now vice president. In her time with the brand, she’s overseen the relaunch of Moe’s website and app, the latter of which has a database of nearly 4 million users representing more than 20 percent of total sales.
In the midst of COVID, Williams has been part of the leadership team that’s set franchisees up for success through the sharing of best practices and the roll out of two years’ worth of innovations in a six-week time frame, including targeted loyalty campaigns and curbside pickup functionality.
Senior Director of Marketing, McAlister’s Deli
McAlister’s has undergone a digital transformation in the last few years, with new custom app, website, and loyalty platforms that boast online ordering, rewards, email marketing, and CRM capabilities. Overseeing owned and paid digital marketing channels, Jessica Wu-McConnell has led that transformation and has helped McAlister’s to grow its loyalty membership base to more than 1 million members in less than a year while increasing its participation rate by seven times. With that part of the digital transformation in place, Wu-McConnell helped launch and scale new ordering options, including curbside pickup, first-party delivery, and tableside ordering—all critical pieces to McAlister’s COVID rebound.
Director of Brand Insights & Analytics, Inspire Brands
Michael Auzenne’s resume already reads like that of a Wall Street bigwig: He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and completed stints at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and the Boston Consulting Group before taking the position of director of marketing analytics at Inspire in 2018 and, in 2020, being promoted to director of brand insights and analytics.
Auzenne says he was interested in taking on a job where he could build something new and be a part of a company that was fast-paced and exciting. And at Inspire, he found just that. Working specifically for Buffalo Wild Wings, Auzenne’s job requires him to collect data on everything from pricing and promotions to advertising and labor—and from sources like credit-card data and third-party vendors—and then assess potential strategies based on that data.
“There’s just so much going on, and my role is to figure out what’s important, when is it important—is it important now or later—and what is the threshold where we need to act?” he says. “It’s going through all of these data points and [looking at] what’s doing great, where are there areas of opportunity, and using data to answer those questions.”
Having a wealth of resources from Inspire’s portfolio of iconic restaurant brands at his fingertips has been critical to his success in this role. “It’s been a phenomenal crutch to lean on a bit, especially as someone who doesn’t have the decades of restaurant experience,” he says. “I’ve asked a lot of dumb questions. It’s great to have other brands that have been doing this for decades and have done it really well.”
Culture has been a key focus for Auzenne in his time at Inspire. Not only has he served as a mentor and coach for colleagues, but he also arranged an “Ice Breaker” series during the pandemic that facilitated connections between corporate team members as they worked remotely. All of it is an effort to draw more from Inspire than just what his title implies.
“I think it is probably a bit of a millennial cliché,” he says, “but I do value having a purpose-driven company where we want everyone to succeed.”
Owner & CEO, The Halal Shack
Jamal Rasoully set out to unite people and culture through food with his fast casual The Halal Shack, a concept that was inspired by New York City street food and has grown from one location at the University of Albany to almost 15 across the country in just three years. Specializing in nontraditional real estate like higher education, The Halal Shack was rocked by COVID shut-downs, but Rasoully has helped it stay afloat by launching a ghost kitchen operation and improving upon store processes.
Director of Operations, Ike’s Love & Sandwiches
Ike’s has quietly become a formidable sandwich fast casual, and that strong position is in no small part because of team members like Savanna Lawrence. Lawrence has been with the brand since starting as a frontline employee at age 19, and was promoted to every managerial position available until landing the title of director of operations. In this role she’s led field training, manager and area manager development, and marketing rollouts, while even helping the brand transition to an enterprise POS system supporting more data-driven decisions.
During COVID-19, Lawrence has spearheaded regular Zoom calls with managers to discuss health and safety protocols, menu standards, and culture building, while also overhauling the brand’s training manual to ensure consistency across Ike’s system.
Controller & Executive Team Member, Clean Juice
Every restaurant company needs a financial whiz to oversee the dollars and cents, and for Clean Juice, that person is Nathan Mora. Mora has been the financial brains behind this explosive juice brand, helping Clean Juice develop a full-service Account Services program for franchisees to manager their books and deliver monthly Financial Performance Reviews and P&L statements. He’s also provided real-time financial analysis during the pandemic, during which he even helped Clean Juice’s corporate stores apply for and receive PPP funding.
VP of Operations, Voodoo Doughnut
It might be hard to find someone in fast casual with a more rounded experience than Celise Ellis. Prior to Voodoo Doughnut, Ellis served as vice president of people and operations for MOD Pizza’s U.K. stores, and in her seven-year career she’s garnered domestic, international, and franchise business development experience that has focused on everything from operations and human resources to recruiting, supply chain, and new construction and design.
That experience came in handy during the pandemic, when Ellis led Voodoo’s rollout of online ordering, car-side pickup, and third-party delivery—all while providing support to the store teams that were charged with executing new production introductions and promotions.
General Manager, Tropical Smoothie Cafe
One of Tropical Smoothie’s rising stars, Zelia Miller is only 22 but has already been awarded Manager of the Year for her high-quality work running four cafes in the Atlanta area. Each of her stores averages over $1 million in sales and rank among the best-performing locations in Tropical Smoothie’s 900-unit system, and they also clear company goals for service, speed, guest experience, and excellence. That’s one of the reasons Miller’s stores are regularly chosen to pilot new products, procedures, and platforms, which during the pandemic has included curbside service, branded delivery, and POS upgrades.
Senior Training Manager, Jeremiah’s Italian Ice
Julianna Voyles’ accomplishments read like those of someone twice her age. The head trainer for booming treat brand Jeremiah’s has led training for 12 corporate and 14 franchise units, launched the brand training program Cool School, founded the Frog Fun(d) Scholarship program for team members, and pioneered the Frog Squad Summit company conference. Voyles, who started as a server for Jeremiah’s in 2013, was tasked during the pandemic with ensuring the safety and wellbeing of her team, who had to travel to support the opening of 10 new franchise locations.
Director of Public Relations, Chick-fil-A
Few companies know the value of good public relations as Chick-fil-A. Constantly in the spotlight as a quick-service leader in many regards, the chicken giant needs an A+ communicator to handle the rigors of the job—and Jackie Jagodzinski fits the bill. Jagodzinski is known to keep her team grounded by saying “It’s PR, not ER,” and the mother of three is committed to building a strong culture by encouraging her team to prioritize family time. When COVID arrived, though, Jagodzinski stepped up for Chick-fil-A by cutting her maternity leave short and throwing herself into the mental and emotional care of her team, hosting one-on-one conversations and creating space for them to disconnect from the elevated workload.
Founder & CEO, Nick Filet
Nick Kline was just 24 and had two years of restaurant management experience when he decided to open a fast casual dedicated to serving affordable, 100 percent filet mignon sandwiches. Nick Filet’s first location opened in a Philadelphia suburb in 2018, and customer response to the menu—which, along with the steak sandwiches, includes lobster rolls, filet grilled cheese, lobster mac and cheese, and seasoned french fries—was so strong that Kline has franchised the concept and expanded to three locations.
Regional Vice President, Jersey Mike’s Subs
Hillary Hutchinson has worn a lot of hats for Jersey Mike’s in her decade with the company. She started as a local marketing manager before moving up to handle marketing for all corporate stores in Florida, New Jersey, and North Carolina. She then moved into store operations, and before long was an area director for 25 stores, and later one of three regional vice presidents for Jersey Mike’s, a role that has her overseeing 12 area directors responsible for 600 locations. It’s a job she took over just months before COVID-19, when she was tasked with communicating operational changes to all stores under her watch.
Peter Yang (second from left)
Cofounder & Chief Development Officer, Pokeworks
Poke stormed the fast-casual industry five years ago, and once the dust settled, it was clear that Pokeworks had commanded a leadership position in the category. As part of the founding team that brought Pokeworks to life, Peter Yang has overseen the brand’s development from unit No. 1 to its roughly 60 units today in 20-plus states and three countries. That’s included sustainable store designs and recent ghost-kitchen and drive-thru initiatives.