Neil Hershman.
Tim Hortons' Katerina Glyptis.
Jenn Ruppert.
Big Chicken Young Leaders.
Viridiana Viveros Guzman.
Christian Lee.
Nick D’Antonio.
Inspire Brands young leaders.
Richard Kwon.
Neil Hershman.
Richmond Green.
Brian Lehrer.
Tyler Tombs.
Cory Hibbard.
Ahmed Abouelenein.
Doinita Leahu.
Kim Hollis.
Restaurant Brands International Young Leaders.
Austin Titus.
Nick “Baby Nick” Tsigaris.
Jordan Clegg.
Reilly Berk.
Jacob Baxter.
Micana Gallaway.
Emilee Straziuso.
Andrew Regalado.

In the face of unpredictable economic times and ever-changing consumer tastes, these rising stars have shown remarkable resilience and strategic prowess. They are the embodiment of a new era of leadership, driving growth, sustainability, and inclusivity in their organizations and communities alike. As these young leaders navigate the twists and turns of the quick-service landscape, their passion and creativity shine through, illuminating the path forward for the entire industry.

The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for the restaurant industry, but it also presented opportunities for young leaders to shine. In response to the crisis, many of these up-and-coming executives demonstrated remarkable resilience, creativity, and adaptability.

They quickly pivoted to new business models, embraced technology to enable contactless ordering and delivery, and implemented safety protocols to protect employees and customers. Moreover, they leveraged their digital savviness to build online communities and engage with customers in new and meaningful ways. By doing so, these 25 young leaders not only helped their restaurants survive but also positioned themselves as visionaries.







Katerina Glyptis

President, Tim Hortons U.S.

Age: 30

Katerina Glyptis’ family immigrated from Greece to the U.S. and settled in Cleveland where they established a line of fast-casual Greek American diners. They’d place a young Glyptis in her highchair while her mom rang up customers, immersing her in the vibrant quilt of restaurant culture.

“Restaurants are real, tangible. Food is innate and routine to people’s lives … It’s something memories and communities are built over. Breaking bread with people is so immediately real, and it’s something that really attracted me to this space,” Glyptis shares.

Read more on Katerina’s story here.

Jenn Ruppert

Vice President of Marketing, MAD Greens

Age: 34

In her role, Jenn Ruppert oversees all marketing endeavors, ensuring they align with company objectives and drive sales while enhancing customer engagement across various channels. She collaborates with different departments to maintain brand consistency and satisfactory customer experiences. Noteworthy contributions include her involvement in developing imaginative limited-time offers within the healthy fast-casual sector, such as Tacomania, Cleopatra Salad, and the Seared Ahi Tuna menu. Additionally, she was involved with menu pricing analyses to maintain competitiveness while ensuring profitability.

Her initiatives extend beyond menu strategies. Ruppert reintroduced the Lucky Croutons MAD Scratch & Win game, enhancing the dining experience with surprise discounts. She also positioned MAD Greens at the forefront of technological advancements by participating in drone delivery service tests.

Looking ahead, Ruppert will play a crucial role in MAD Greens’ strategic planning for expanded growth, franchise opportunities, and a revitalized dining experience. She contributed to unveiling a refreshed prototype design and helped roll out a new website and sales marketing materials for franchising. Ruppert’s personal motto, “hungry for fun,” reflects her commitment to making healthy eating an adventure. She aims to inspire restaurant marketing professionals and envisions national expansion, sharing healthy and delicious food with a wider audience.

“My primary goal is to continue growing and inspiring restaurant marketing professionals,” Ruppert shares. “While in-house brand marketing for restaurants may be viewed as an unconventional career path and challenging to break into, I find it to be incredibly rewarding and exciting.”

Trisha Durham

Head of Training

Age: 31


Will Gladson

Marketing Manager

Age: 26

Big Chicken

Will Gladson and Trisha Durham are both integral parts of Big Chicken’s success story. Durham has played a big role in maintaining high standards and smooth operations across Big Chicken’s network of restaurants. Her journey from general manager to head of training showcases her dedication and leadership within the organization. Durham’s unique approach to training, including the implementation of a mobile-based learning management system, has facilitated efficient onboarding and skill-building for new hires, leading to the successful opening of numerous new locations. Without her dedication and leadership, Big Chicken wouldn’t have opened 18 new units in 2023 and another four so far this year.

As a key figure in developing marketing strategies, Gladson has significantly contributed to the brand’s growth and visibility, especially through innovative partnerships and digital initiatives. His collaboration with Shaquille O’Neal’s sports management agency and his hands-on approach to marketing, including menu taste tests and foosball tournaments, reflect his creative and dynamic leadership style. He actively tests new technologies and strategies in flagship locations to ensure operational excellence across the franchise. This year,  he has been instrumental in working with third-party agencies and partners to guide the creative direction of initiatives such as the launch of crinkle cut fries, the celebration of O’Neal’s birthday, and the Big Bracket Challenge. On the digital side, Will led an audit of Big Chicken’s presence on third-party delivery platforms and worked collaboratively with the marketing team and Thanx on the launch of Big Chicken Rewards.

Together, Gladson and Durham represent the dynamic and forward-thinking ethos of Big Chicken. Will’s strategic marketing initiatives complement Durham’s focus on operational excellence and employee development, creating a synergy that drives the brand’s continued success in the restaurant industry.

Viridiana Viveros Guzman

New Restaurant Opening General Manager, Portillo’s

Age: 29

Viridiana Viveros Guzman, Portillo’s new restaurant opening general manager, is a pivotal figure in the company’s growth strategy. With plans to expand to 920 locations, her role in opening locations across the country is essential. While facing challenges as a DACA recipient, Guzman’s journey from an hourly team member to a leadership role exemplifies determination and dedication.

Guzman is lauded for her modern approach to restaurant operations, emphasizing team development and embodying Portillo’s core values of family, greatness, energy, and fun. Over the years, she has opened 37 restaurants and trained thousands of team members and managers. Her focus on scalable processes, hospitality, and mentorship has been instrumental in shaping the fast casual’s operational framework.

She authored the company’s new restaurant opening team manual and implemented a mentorship structure. Guzman also spearheaded initiatives like a video content series to engage team members and new concepts, such as Portillo’s Kitchen 23.

As a Latina leader, Guzman understands the importance of representation and opportunity. She ensures that every guest feels welcomed and valued while empowering team members to realize their potential. Her story serves as an inspiration, highlighting the transformative power of opportunity and the importance of opening doors for others in the restaurant industry.

Guzman’s impact transcends the physical expansion of Portillo’s; she fosters a culture of growth and inclusivity, making her a standout leader in the restaurant industry. As of now, the brand operates around 85 restaurants in 10 states. This year, the plan is to open nine units.

Christian Lee

President, Flame Broiler

Age: 28

Christian Lee has amassed extensive experience in the restaurant industry, notably as a Flame Broiler franchisee for over four years. His hands-on involvement has cultivated a profound comprehension of the business, shaping him into a versatile leader.

“Flame Broiler is not just a restaurant chain to me; it is deeply intertwined and connected with my upbringing, passion, values, and aspirations for my life,” Lee says. “It started early on, with my first memories in life being in the first store with my dad. I vividly remember the sights, smells, and sounds of him specifically making our famous Magic Sauce by hand.

“My parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea and opened a small rice bowl shop in Fullerton, California, in 1995,” he adds. “They started the business with the purpose of giving my brothers and me opportunities they didn’t have. For many immigrants, their aspirations which are birthed out of survival, create far more than that for the next generation.”

Lee’s leadership philosophy revolves around his passion for uplifting individuals and communities. He perceives restaurants as agents of transformation, offering opportunities and fostering connections with customers. His background in social entrepreneurship further reinforces his commitment to holistic well-being.

Lee, alongside his family, drives Flame Broiler’s strategic direction, focusing on aligning the company with its mission, vision, and values. He actively embodies these principles across the organization, resulting in a notable 50 percent turnover rate decrease and significant expansion.

“So often, culture never leaves strategy meetings and employee handbooks. There’s frequently a gap between the aspirational and theoretical vs. the experiential when it comes to culture,” Lee says. “But the experience is the most honest and important gauge of an organization, not what’s written in the culture document. We’re always asking ourselves, “is there a consistent culture that’s lived and experienced, and are there servant leaders that are exemplifying that culture throughout the organization?”

Under his guidance, the support center team tripled in size, and he assembled a formidable leadership team. Lee facilitated 13 location acquisitions and launched a groundbreaking franchise sales program, expanding Flame Broiler into Texas and six states overall.

As Flame Broiler remains family-owned and operated, Lee’s dedication to preserving its legacy and making a substantial industry and community impact is evident. With him at the helm, Flame Broiler is poised to continue its industry-leading trajectory.

“I have an immense amount of privilege to be in the position I am in today as president of Flame Broiler 29 years after its founding and have the opportunity to serve everyone the company comes into contact with,” Lee says. “I’m extremely humbled to lead alongside my family who I have shared values and passion with and dream big about the future together. Looking ahead, I’m excited to extend my dad’s legacy and continue building a multi-generational business that exists to help restore holistic health in the world through Flame Broiler.”

Nick D’Antonio

VP of IT, Salad Collective

Age: 35

Nick D’Antonio’s journey in the restaurant industry began at Coors Field in Denver, where he worked in both front and back-of-house roles. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he transitioned to IT roles at Noodles & Company, witnessing the brand’s rapid expansion from under 200 units to well over 400 during his tenure. Joining MAD Greens, Nick played a crucial role in implementing scalable systems to support growth, leading to nearly tripling store count between 2015 and 2019. He spearheaded technology integration during mergers with Snappy Salads and Tokyo Joe’s, streamlining operations and standardizing systems across brands.

Recognizing the significance of data-driven decisions, D’Antonio invested in advanced business intelligence tools, enhancing the organization’s ability to make informed strategic choices. His recent focus on real estate site selection resources reflects a proactive approach to future growth. As VP of IT for Salad Collective, he oversees technology, information, and data for all brands, contributing to overall business strategy and growth.

D’Antonio is enthusiastic about collaborating with the Tokyo Joe’s team to unlock efficiencies and synergies. He also anticipates leveraging technology to support MAD Greens’ franchising efforts, building upon previous groundwork for scalability.

“Technology and our fast-casual restaurant industry are rapidly evolving and I love approaching it with an open mind as there’s always something new to learn or things we can do better. I’m excited to be along for the ride,” D’Antonio says.


Jack D’Amato

Director, Communications & Corporate Affairs, Inspire Brands

Age: 32


Brigette Buckner

Director of Public Relations, Dunkin’

Age: 34

There are no shortage of stories to tell at 32,600-unit Inspire and ways to connect the company’s messaging with consumers and franchisees. Starting with Jack D’Amato, he’s a brand reputation leader who’s always seeking opportunities for Inspire’s narrative to shine. D’Amato’s responsible for securing coverage across media, industry events, and business outlets, and while the company—perhaps the fastest on record—continues to grow, so do these chances. He’s also spent much of his tenure building a crisis communications team and has served as an adviser to Inspire’s 2,900-plus franchisees, on-call to provide support. Perhaps the best representation of D’Amato’s career arrived amid COVID. He was in daily morning and evening meetings with executive leadership, coordinating communications needs for franchised locations, corporate stores, investors, managers, media, and employees.

Although overwhelming at times, it’s where D’Amato solidified his reputation as somebody able to handle whatever might come next.

Brigette Buckner serves on the team of Inspire’s largest entity in Dunkin’. And it’s been an eventful year, to make a major understatement. The brand’s DunKings’ Super Bowl spot featuring Ben Affleck shattered records. Within the opening week, it was rated the No. 2 ad by more than 160,000 votes submitted to USA Today’s Ad meter. DunKings track suits and hats sold out in 19 minutes and more than 77,000 listeners heard DunKings’ new single. Dunkin’ also reported a high mark for Valentine’s Day shortly after—more doughnuts were sold on February 14 than any other day in brand history.

Buckner joined Dunkin’ shortly after its December 2020 acquisition by Inspire. She walked into a role with bigger and better ad spend, marketing, data, and tech capabilities that she was no stranger at leveraging. Buckner’s biggest achievement wasn’t just one Super Bowl ad and billions of impressions, plus a leading social conversation driver, it’s actually two (the “Dunkin’ Cinematic Universe” first arrived in February 2023 for the big game, also with Affleck as the star working the drive-thru of a Medford, Massachusetts, location).

Buckner’s leadership and creativity drove Dunkin’s headline-making collaboration with ELF Cosmetics, record-breaking Iced Coffee Days, the brand’s loyalty program relaunch, Gen-Z-friendly Ice Spice partnership, and award season takeovers.

Richard Kwon

Senior Business Development Manager, bb.q Chicken

Age: 26

Richard Kwon has had a desire to share his Korean American heritage—and namely the food—with people since his childhood growing up in New Jersey. He’d educate friends on everything from culture to the art of Korean drinking etiquette to how to eat Korean barbecue. His career with bb.q Chicken, a brand that lives that mission as well, began in 2021 as an operations manager. Kwon traveled across the country spearheading openings and overseeing development. He partnered with franchisees in the kitchen and counters to learn the business, where his ability to speak fluent Korean and English helped new locations appeal to bb.q Chicken loyalists and new guests alike. At the time, there were about 60 stores. Today, there are nearly 250 in North America.

As senior manager in business development, Kwon directs expansion in North America as well as Central and South America, and leads a team that opened the first Panama store. He’s currently working on coast-to-coast development alongside international markets, including the Caribbean. Recently, Kwon was also part of a group that launched a franchise development advertising campaign aimed at attracting new operators, including those who might be unfamiliar with the brand. His ops background enabled him to speak directly to franchisees about what they could expect and the potential payoff.

“In my role, I don’t just help grow the bb.q system—I serve as a figurative bridge between cultures, by introducing new franchisees to bb.q. This in turn brings more guests into bb.q locations, which helps further spread the word about bb.q and Korean food and culture,” Kwon says. “Korean food and culture is a part of my soul, and Korean fried chicken is just too good not to share with the world.”

Neil Hershman

CEO and Owner, 16 Handles

Age: 28

Neil Hershman was the largest franchisee of 16 Handles when he decided to acquire the company in August 2022 with YouTube star Danny Duncan. He had become a big believer in the fro-yo concept’s ability to serve as a community gathering spot and wanted to expand that mission outside of New York City. The addition of Duncan as an investor helped sales and franchise outreach. It’s also tapped a millennial customer base and will lead to collaborative flavor launches in the future, along with unique experiences and social content. Dozens of 16 Handles are currently under construction throughout New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas, South Carolina, and other markets with a fresh design that features a first-in-class modular topping bar that allows for flexibility for operators while maintaining a seemingly endless number of toppings. New soft serve machines were added to save electricity and enable franchisees to offer a more consistent product with less labor. Ambiance wise, it’s refreshed with a new signature slogan, “Choose Wildly.” The brand’s menu features 16 different soft-serve flavors, north of 50 toppings and sauces, as well as a variety of frozen novelties such as cakes, cookie dough, and take-home points.

Still under 30, Hershman’s ability to connect with younger generations is helping 16 Handles separate from the pack of fro-yo chains. That vision and forward-thinking mindset has inspired franchisees to head into new markets and continue aiming at growth.

Richmond Green

Vice President of Operations, gusto!

Age: 35

With a diverse background in sales, team building, and talent management, Richmond Green has played a key role in transforming Atlanta-based gusto! from a single restaurant into a thriving enterprise with 12 locations and annual sales exceeding $20 million. He joined the health food chain as director of operations and strategy back in 2016, when founder and CEO Nate Hybl was looking to open a second unit. Green’s experience as a grand opening supervisor for Chick-fil-A aligned with what the entrepreneur was looking for to help grow the brand.

Fast forward to 2024, and Green now serves as vice president of operations, overseeing the day-to-day functions of the business, managing the company budget, and leading a group comprised of all senior department heads. His blend of servant leadership and business acumen has earned him praise from Hybl, who commends his ability to harness ideas and turn them into action.

“After learning the sturdy foundations of the restaurant business from Chick-fil-A, he’s been able to lead gusto! from the front of a young, high-growth company,” Hybl says. “He’s tough, adaptable, innovative, and most importantly, kind. In a tumultuous industry, he’s a steady leader who is often proactive and very rarely reactive.”

Brian Lehrer

Director of Content, FAT Brands

Age: 35

Brian Lehrer is a jack of all trades when it comes to creating impactful content at FAT Brands. As director of content, he acts as both a lead creative and head of video production for the company’s internal agency. Whether he’s working with marketing heads, C-suite leaders, or external production partners, he’s always game to get hands-on—from director to editor to “cheese-puller”—whatever it takes to bring the creative vision to life.

Leaders from FAT Brands say his most impactful projects to date are eye-catching commercials, distributed on both broadcast TV and CTV. Lehrer was tasked with learning new brand identities and determining where there was room for growth when it came to storytelling after a flurry of acquisitions from the company. One major opportunity was Round Table Pizza. He helped reignite the brand’s creative direction by reviving its very own knight in shining armor and assembling the costume piece-by-piece. Roundtable’s new commercial and social content featuring the knight continue to perform well, not only in driving attention and sales but also when evaluated against competitors. The ads average an impressive 93 percent view completion rate and a 25 percent boost in consumer interest after viewing.

From writing humorous scripts to sourcing the right props, Lehrer says he approaches every creative task with the same mindset: “How can I be both as effective and efficient as possible?”

Tyler Tombs

Multi-Unit Franchisee, Jersey Mike’s

Age: 28

New Jersey native Tyler Tombs has been eating Jersey Mike’s since he was 5 years old. Now a pillar of strength for the brand’s presence in New England, he operates five franchised units and expects to open three more by the end of 2024. In fact, he’s doubled his footprint every year since becoming a franchisee.

The 28-year-old multi-unit owner credits his operational excellence to investing in his team, giving back to the community, and piloting programs like Best Buddies, which creates opportunities for leadership development and empowerment for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In December, he was presented with the “Making a Difference” award by Jersey Mike’s for his social responsibility efforts.

Additionally, he was named Rookie of the Year in 2023 by the Jersey Mike’s National Conference. Tombs is looking forward to maintaining a pace of three to four new stores per year and continuing to help the brand implement the Best Buddies program to other locations across the country.

Cory Hibbard

President, Graze Craze

Age: 31

At the tail end of 2022, Cory Hibbard was named president of Graze Craze, a fast-growing charcuterie board catering concept focusing on the specialty food category known as “grazing.”

The brand has exploded to over 60 locations in 30 U.S. states, with more than 100 units in its development pipeline. Under Hibbard’s leadership, Graze Craze has nearly doubled its footprint year-over-year and expanded operations internationally into Australia and France. International development will spill over into Canada and the U.K. before the end of 2024.

While this is the 31-year-old’s first venture into food, he’s been an employee of the United Franchise Group since 2014, where he gained valuable experience developing fast-growing franchises.

By aligning Graze Craze with powerhouse partnerships in the wine and beer industry, wedding industry, and more, Hibbard is expanding the brand’s revenue streams and preparing to revolutionize this once-fragmented segment into a proven franchise opportunity for all occasions.

Ahmed Abouelenein

CEO, The Halal Guys

Age: 32

From food cart to franchise fame, Ahmed Abouelenein has grown up alongside The Halal Guys. It started with a single hot dog stand in New York City. He worked there at an early age alongside his father, who founded the business with two other Egyptian immigrants in 1990. The brand quickly cultivated a loyal fan
base and long lines largely via word-of-mouth, tapping into demand for quick and inexpensive halal meals from Muslim  taxi drivers to become one of the city’s best-known and longest-running food carts.

Expansion beyond the Big Apple kicked off when Abouelenein became CEO in 2014. That same year, The Halal Guys took its first step into the world of franchising. Brick-and-mortar locations take a cue from the brand’s roots on the street, with small menus, compact footprints, and stainless steel countertops emanating the feel of a food cart.

That approach is paying off. The brand now spans three continents and has over 110 operational locations throughout the U.S., Canada, South Korea, Indonesia, and the U.K. With plans for further global expansion and more than 200 locations currently in development, the accelerated growth and current momentum are the result of Abouelenein’s drive to propel American halal food into the restaurant mainstream.

“Each new location represents not only a milestone in our journey but also an opportunity to introduce our unique flavors and culture to a broader audience,” he says.

The 32-year-old chief executive wants to bring the brand to more cities around the world so everyone can experience a taste of his father’s legacy. That’s more than just a business objective. It’s a passion. He believes in the founders’ goals of providing high-quality food while embracing their heritage and bringing people from different backgrounds together.

“As we expand into new markets, we carry with us the same commitment to quality, authenticity, and unparalleled customer experience that has defined our brand from the beginning,” Abouelenein says. “Every encounter with our brand is an opportunity to showcase not only our mouthwatering flavors but also the warmth, friendliness, and inclusivity that define our hospitality.”

He’s picked up plenty of lessons on leadership over the years that he believes are crucial for success. At the top of that list is adaptability. It’s a key trait that he says helps the company navigate the ever-evolving landscape of the restaurant industry.

“The Halal Guys is always pursuing innovation, evident in our consistent introduction of new technologies and menu innovations,” Abouelenein says. “By staying at the forefront of emerging trends and consumer preferences, we continue to captivate and excite our loyal fan base. Our commitment to pushing boundaries and redefining the dining experience sets us apart from the competition.”

Doinita Leahu

Director of Training, Vicious Biscuit

Age: 32

A native of Romania, Doinita Leahu was already breaking barriers before she joined the team at Vicious Biscuit. She became the youngest and only female senior leader at Cedacri International, where she successfully challenged the traditional patriarchal norms of Romanian culture, ultimately gaining the respect of her male peers.

A move to New York prompted Leahu’s transition into the world of foodservice and hospitality; she worked at a Chick-fil-A while she earned her Master of Business Administration degree. Her strong work ethic didn’t go unnoticed, and she was quickly promoted to operations director at the location in Charleston, South Carolina. Leahu then decided to take an assistant manager role at Vicious Biscuit’s corporate training store, and soon thereafter took over as general manager of the brand’s store in Neptune Beach, Florida, where she achieved the highest retention rate across the company.

She was elevated to director of training in February, and oversees corporate and franchise training, plus plays a key role in opening new stores alongside her team of corporate trainers. Leahu’s goal is to eventually become the first Vicious Biscuit employee to own a franchise.

Kim Hollis

Director of Brand Marketing, Tropical Smoothie Cafe

Age: 34

Kim Hollis serves as Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s director of brand marketing, which oversees national brand communications, marketing, advertising, and PR efforts. She is a champion of leading consumer communication strategy and execution, playing a key role in building brand awareness, driving sales, and expanding loyalty membership.

“My team touches and impacts every part of the business … I enjoy the impact we have cross-functionally by ensuring every guest touchpoint delivers on a great brand experience,” Hollis says.

With an eye for innovation, Hollis brings a fresh take to her integrated marketing efforts. In 2021, she spearheaded all influencer marketing and PR efforts behind the brand’s 1,000th cafe milestone in Flower Mound, Texas. In 2022, she supported the launch of a new app and loyalty program, which resulted in an increase of loyalty membership by 69 percent.

Notably, Hollis helped secure the first celebrity partnership between Tropical Smoothie Cafe and “SNL’s” Chloe Fineman. While juggling multiple concurrent projects, Hollis drove awareness of the new menu item Tropic Bowls, which launched nationwide in January and exceeded all expectations.

Hollis finds success in driving cafe sales, increasing guest engagement, and supporting the brand with an unwavering commitment to her team through integrity and passion.

“Being able to foster an environment that I wish I had when I first started my career is a huge moment for me to inspire the next generation of leaders,” Hollis adds. “As a young leader, I’m inspired by the opportunity I have in my current role to help my team develop, grow, and thrive.”

Aisha Fletcher

Vice President of Communications, Restaurant Brands International

Age: 34


Preston Nix

Director, Loyalty and CRM, Burger King

Age: 29

A colleague referred to Aisha Fletcher as a “force to be reckoned with.” In a career that spanned PR and communications, she honed her skills on the agency side before moving to the client realm a decade ago at Brinker International. There, Fletcher rose to director of communication and public relations for Chili’s, helping create and execute campaigns in tandem with marketing while building the comms team into an essential function across the casual chain’s business. In 2020, Fletcher joined Restaurant Brands International as director of communications for two of the country’s largest and most-recognizable chains in Burger King and Popeyes. She began as part of a smaller group with no direct reports. But in the past three-and-a-half years, all of that has grown exponentially. As VP of communications today, Fletcher is overseeing the communication plans for RBI’s U.S.-based portfolio of brands, including Burger King, Popeyes, and Firehouse Subs. She currently directs a team of 12 people on outcomes and connectivity through franchisee relationships, internal employees, and external audiences.

In 2022, Fletcher guided the comms strategy for the launch of Burger King’s “Reclaim the Flame” plan, which included a historic investment of $400 million from RBI with a financial match from operators. These goals were revealed during last year’s franchisee convention, where Fletcher and her team led the content and creation. Afterward, they took the message to internal employees and the media. Fletcher also guided the approach for Popeyes’ “Easy to Love” multi-year strategy intended to increase average four-wall profitably to $300,000 by the end of 2025 and helped Firehouse last year spearhead transformation within its comms department.

“Not only does Aisha have a proven reputation for effectively executing communications for massive multi-year growth plans on behalf of some of quick-service’s biggest names, she is also someone who loves to challenge the status quo by constantly seeking new, better ways of doing things,” her nomination read. “Aisha is a dedicated mentor who leads with empathy and inspires the best out of her team.”

Preston Nix’s career began with RBI in 2016 as part of its Leadership Development Program. After two years, he moved to Burger King’s CRM function and has continued to grow and showcase his digital skills, working alongside colleagues on major national campaigns. He’s helped Burger King revamp its digital presence with a “rare superpower to meld analytical prowess with innovative creativity,” a colleague said. Nix has been a part of the launch of more than 150 campaigns. Some include the groundbreaking “Whopper Detour” that used geo-location to set a new standard in digital engagement and acquisition. In 2021, he led “BK with a side of Crypto” in partnership with RobinHood, and, most recently, the brand’s “Million Dollar Whopper Contest” that deployed AI to offer customers a digital experience where they could not just build the next Whopper, but also be able to see a preview and generate their own Whopper ad (jingle included), all powered by generative AI.

Under Nix’s stewardship, Burger King introduced its loyalty program in 2021 and has witnessed year-over-year growth. “Preston’s visionary contributions have not only elevated Burger King’s digital strategy but have also laid down new paradigms for customer interaction and engagement in the digital age,” his nomination added.

Austin Titus

President, Cannoli Kitchen Pizza

Age: 30

An entrepreneurial spirit was ingrained in Austin Titus from a young age. His grandfather, Roy Titus, founded Minuteman Press, while his father Ray Titus launched Signarama and later established United Franchise Group (UFG). But Austin Titus doesn’t rely on his family heritage to get by; since officially joining the business in 2012, he’s developed a passion for growing upstart brands and has successfully launched more than 500 franchises between UFG’s different brands. He has also worked in a variety of roles, including director of franchise development, president of the emerging brands division, president of Network Lead Exchange, and president of FranVestCo before being appointed as president of Cannoli Kitchen Pizza. The quick-service Italian-style franchise is known for premium ingredients and friendly service, and has a 20-year history in South Florida and seven locations. Titus’ goal is to sign 30 new franchise deals and open 10 locations by 2024. He already has deals in the works in the Midwest and Southeast regions. To reach that goal, he’s working closely with his team to carry on the brand’s family-owned feel, plus implementing positive changes to expand the concept while staying true to its brand DNA. Additionally, Titus emphasizes mentorship and building strong relationships with franchisees, prioritizing company culture, and having a positive impact by taking care of the team and communities that the chain serves.

Nick “Baby Nick” Tsigaris

Cofounder and CMO, Nick the Greek

Age: 33

Coming from an extensive line of restaurateurs before him, Nick “Baby Nick” Tsigaris has always dove head-first into entrepreneurial pursuits. On an annual trip to their ancestral home of Kyparissi, Greece,
Tsigaris and his two cousins “Big Nick” and “Little Nick” decided to bring authentic Greek street food to the U.S. Soon after, their concept Nick the Greek was born.

Identifying a hole in the Mediterranean food market, Tsigris and his cousins successfully carved out a niche for themselves in the Bay Area. He took over as chief marketing officer, highlighting his ability to drive brand visibility and develop a diverse, devoted fan base.

He cofounded Nick the Greek at the age of 23, expanded it to a franchise program at the age of 30, and now at 33 he has taken the fast casual Mediterranean concept nationwide with a quality-driven menu, sleek interior design, and an authentic, irreplicable flavor.

His growth-focused leadership has helped double the brand’s unit count in three years, proving himself as a powerhouse in this segment. With 70 restaurants in operation and a robust development pipeline that covers over eight states, the brand is expected to surpass 90 units before the end of 2024.

Jordan Clegg

Senior Manager of International Brand Marketing, Wingstop

Age: 29

Jordan Clegg is described as a shining example and driver behind Wingstop’s recent momentum as the chicken wing chain has surpassed more than 2,200 restaurants across 12 different markets. With over six years of international marketing experience, she’s driving brand marketing across key markets such as Canada, South Korea, and Puerto Rico. Clegg has also spearheaded initiatives like the limited-time flavor Maple Sriracha, and played a key hand in organizing Wingstop’s inaugural International Summit in London in 2023. She ensures consistency across diverse regions the brand operates in, while pushing for breakthrough creative concepts that will resonate with different parts of the world. Clegg focuses on marketing for new and existing markets alike, including the rollout of on-brand, trend-forward campaigns, packaging, and new distinctive flavors—all of which are backed by data and consumer analytics. Her leadership demonstrates humility and intelligence while challenging conventions to elevate the brand. She’s recognized as a transformative figure in the industry, driving Wingstop’s global presence and fostering a culture of innovation and growth.

Reilly Berk

CEO, Berk Enterprises

Age: 26

Reilly Berk, the third-generation CEO of Berk Enterprises, a company founded in 1946 by her grandparents, Harold and Suzanne Berk, is heading up a nine-figure business in her mid-20s. The company has undergone a significant transformation over the years from its origins in janitorial suppliers to emerge as a national supplier. Berk Enterprises today maintains a catalog of more than 4,000 foodservice disposables such as plastic cutlery, straws, cups, to-go containers, and more as it services over 3,000 different customers, including some of the largest restaurant chains, as well as schools, entertainment venues, theaters, stadiums, and fairs, in addition to supplying the nation’s largest foodservice distributors with multiple distribution centers across the country. Joining the family business in 2013, Berk, who oversees more than 115 employees, has played a pivotal role in this evolution.

She’s active in various professional groups and industry organizations, including The National Restaurant Association, OABA, NICA, IFMA and IFDA. Berk was also listed on Forbes’ 30 under 30 for the Greater Cleveland Area and headed up QSR’s first Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit as its founding member. Berk’s goal is to quadruple revenue over the next 10 years or so.

Jacob Baxter

Senior Manager of Equipment and Operations Innovation, Chipotle

Age: 29

Jacob Baxter’s journey at Chipotle began amid a pivotal moment for the company—the relocation of its corporate headquarters to Newport Beach, California, and the establishment of its Operations Excellence team in 2018. He joined as an equipment innovation analyst during this formation and quickly rose to become the senior manager of equipment and operations innovation.

Baxter and his team oversee the comprehensive stage-gate process for all equipment initiatives impacting operators and crew members, from discovery and identification to design, optimization, and field testing. They serve as a crucial link between the company’s executive leadership, support center, corporate-owned stores, and third-party equipment vendors.

His success is evident in numerous equipment upgrades over the past five-plus years. He led the rollout of rice cookers that optimize labor costs, dish machines that elevate food safety standards, and impingement ovens that marked the fast casual’s first new menu item in over 25 years, to name a few. Currently, he’s exploring opportunities to reduce chicken and steak cook time, streamline produce preparation, and improve oil efficiency. Those initiatives, along with over a dozen other projects spearheaded by Baxter and his team, are all geared toward simplifying Chipotle’s operations and enhancing the daily lives of crew members.

Micana Gallaway

Director of Operations, Vision Food Group

Age: 35

Micana Gallaway’s leadership journey started at Chick-fil-A. After earning accolades for her performance as a general manager at a store in Florida, she further honed her expertise through the company’s Leadership Development Program, successfully opening 10 locations across the country and providing invaluable support during the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recognizing her talents, Vision Food Group founders Daniel Scott and Josh Christensen tapped her to help them bring Crumbl to Atlanta four years ago. She came on board as director of operations for the growing quick-service franchisee in 2020. Since then, she’s opened seven stores in the area with three more in the pipeline. Gallaway and her wife also opened their own Crumbl location in East Point, Georgia, last fall. Thanks to the success with the dessert brand, along with her 15 years of experience at Chick-fil-A, Gallaway and Vision Food Group have been approved to bring eight Dave’s Hot Chicken locations to the Atlanta market.

Emilee Straziuso

Project Manager, Balance Pan-Asian Grille

Age: 30

Emilee Straziuso is a stellar example of an employee who rose through the ranks because of her passion for Balance Pan-Asian Grille and her commitment to ongoing learning. Starting out in customer service in 2014, Straziuso quickly moved into a training lead position, and assisted with opening multiple locations. When the brand revamped its digital learning management system, she took a leading role in the project and moved into an administrative role for the first time before being elevated to her current role as project manager.

“It gave me the opportunity to learn the absolute most that I could,” she says about her career journey. “Not just about the brand and the fast-casual food industry, but rather, how to connect with my teams and motivate them. It served and continues to serve as a base where I am able to proficiently support larger administrative efforts as I am aware of their effects operationally.”

Kanan Pandya, development coordinator at Balance Grille, notes how Straziuso’s prior experience as an employee “brings great leverage to the position, as her deep knowledge of menu and employee culture helps lead our transparent approach to communications with our customers.”

Straziuso’s cross-functional background also plays a pivotal role in providing support for the brand’s franchise community and store employees. “Understanding how to connect with individuals and make them feel seen is more important now than ever,” she says. “All of our brand level efforts boil down to our operational teams and frontline team members. Their contentment and wellbeing is a vital component to ensuring our customers’ satisfaction. If our teams aren’t taken care of, how can we expect our customers to feel taken care of?”

One of Straziuso’s own personal challenges in her career was asking for support, as she admits she used to take on more than she could handle and attempt to do everything herself until she learned to delegate. “I lean on my team often now, as they do the same with me,” she says.

“At Balance Grille, we work to establish autonomy in our workplaces. Allowing our employees a bit more freedom to accomplish tasks in ways that are better suited for them served as challenging as I find myself to be attentive to detail and craving perfection,” Straziuso adds. “Loosening my expectations in an effort to meet people where they are at was a huge challenge for myself. There is a happy medium to be found that lives in between micromanagement and the absence of management. Creating that balance took me some time.”

As for the future, Straziuso is gaining a foothold to become a marketing director for the emerging brand as it grows to new markets. “Balance Grille has big plans in the making,” she says. “I’ve always said that we move slow to go fast; making sure that we do our due diligence and position ourselves into a space where we can put pedal to the metal and make big waves. I am excited and enthralled for what’s to come.”

Pandya adds, “Emilee is a dedicated and hardworking talent on our team. She embodies the Balance brand and ethos, and constantly strives to push the boundaries of her comfort zone with confidence. Her passions outside of Balance include being an advanced yoga instructor, and being a dedicated cat mom to her two furbabies. These passions of hers bring a calming and well-rounded demeanor into the restaurants, which is unique in the food industry.”

Andrew Regalado

Marketing Director, The Buona Companies (Buona & The Original Rainbow Cone)

Age: 35

Leveraging his background in creative direction and marketing, Andrew Regalado is spearheading a total digital transformation at The Buona Companies, highlighting its unique franchise model and diverse menu offerings. With Buona’s 43-year history and The Original Rainbow Cone’s 98-year legacy, Regalado plans to position these established brands as fresh and innovative. The digital transformation will include launching a new mobile app and new online ordering platform, revamping its loyalty program, and implementing new content strategies for better brand storytelling and increased engagement. Regalado’s collaboration with third-generation Buonavolanto family members ensures these marketing strategies honor brand legacies while embracing innovation. A recent success story that highlights Regalado’s impact—plus the brands’ ability to meet modern consumer demands—is the dual-branded openings in Wisconsin and Indiana, which exceeded average daily revenues during their initial weeks in operation. Overall sales have also increased from 8 to 15 percent with the integration of The Original Rainbow Cone at the brand’s eight dual-branded locations in the Chicago area. Regalado’s holistic and collaborative approach involves internal teams, local creatives, and strategic partnerships to introduce the brands to new audiences through events and festivals. This strategic approach underscores the potential for growth of these storied brands in today’s competitive market while also showcasing the company’s commitment to engaging with communities in meaningful and dynamic ways.

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