After 25 years at Starbucks, Denise Nelsen was looking for an opportunity that met three buckets—the chance to grow a brand, be creative, and work with a high-powered team. The role of Smashburger CEO hit all of those targets.

It wasn’t too much of a surprise for the quick-service veteran. She’s lived in Colorado—the home base of Smashburger—off and on for almost 13 years, so she had familiarity with the menu and food quality. She also appreciated the reputation of Jollibee Foods Corporation, the fast casual’s parent company, which brings “really inspiring growth aspirations across the next five years.”

“It all came together to really feel like the thing that I was looking for,” Nelsen says. “I believe that fate intervenes and in some ways that’s what this felt like.”

Smashburger finished 2023 with 210 U.S. restaurants, consisting of 133 company-owned or managed outlets and 78 franchised units. The brand’s store count has remained fairly steady in recent years, with a net loss of three domestic restaurants since the start of 2021. It owns a handful of locations in about a half-dozen other countries as well.

Nelsen has spent her first few months listening to feedback from various stakeholders, including team members, franchisees, and customers. The new CEO wants to strengthen the chain’s identity, particularly through menu optimization and a renewed emphasis on core offerings, like its classic smash-style burgers and milkshakes. This has garnered approval from Jollibee, which identified Smashburger as one of its four key global growth brands. In terms of unit count, the fast casual intends to pursue growth opportunities both domestically and internationally. Additionally, Nelsen emphasizes the importance of enhancing support for franchisees to foster a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship.

“I think it can’t be said enough—our commitment to the taste and quality of food, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Nelsen says. “And the more I’ve been here, the more I really see that commitment coming through. That’s an incredible strength that we have. There is such a commitment from our team and from the team members I’ve met in our restaurants across both company-owned and franchise. There’s such a commitment to the guest experience and a deep care for the communities that they’re a part of. Just to hit opportunities again, we have a real opportunity to strongly position the brand and to own the smash. Smashburger, through our founder Tom Ryan, really introduced this concept. We have an opportunity to really own the smash and the quality of that and then really focus on our growth for the future.”

Jollibee Foods Corporation CFO Richard Shin told analysts in March that Smashburger’s losses have “definitely reduced.” He noted that more work is left, but not much; in fact, he said the fast casual will soon report net operating income profits. Leadership accomplished this momentum by making the chain less promotional, including fewer BOGO deals and discounts for online orders. While this resulted in better profit, it also caused a 1.3 percent decrease in Q4 same-store sales year-over-year. But Smashburger is willing to stomach that decrease so it doesn’t “build a business on promos,” Shin said.

More than 80 percent of growth in Jollibee Foods Corporation’s North America business will be through franchising. Smashburger doesn’t plan to open any company-owned stores in 2024. Although the fast casual lost restaurants in 2023, Shin said the brand is making sure “we know what we’re doing 100 percent.”

After spending time with Nelsen in Denver, he said, “She’s an incredible executive, and I think we’re in good hands there.”

She’s one of the best examples of climbing the quick-service ladder. She started as a barista at Starbucks and spent the next two decades–plus working her way up to senior vice president of U.S. operations. When she began, the coffee giant was at about 500 locations around the world, and when she left, the brand had well over 35,000 shops. She remembers experiences where the brand was opening markets and customers didn’t recognize the company. During her tenure, Nelsen navigated through business downturns and spearheaded initiatives to reignite growth, fostering collaboration across teams and markets. She worked with company-owned and licensed stores, giving her knowledge of how to collectively expand a business with other operators and best understand their priorities. Her background included leadership in global operations services, where she prioritized operational efficiency and strategic planning to drive objectives. Her most recent role as head of the U.S. business provided her with a holistic perspective of ownership models and various markets.

Now at Smashburger, Nelsen will leverage her expertise to brainstorm with the team and define a robust growth strategy.

“[Franchisees are] incredibly proud of their businesses and they’re very excited about Smashburger and the quality and the things that brought them to the brand in the first place,” Nelsen says. “What they’re giving me feedback on, I think as a team we collectively agree with is there’s more opportunity for growth. There’s more opportunity to take a stronger position with the brand and to frankly drive the business by creating brand awareness and consistency. And one of the things that I would say I feel excited about and frankly pleasantly surprised by is they’ve all asked for more support, more follow-up, and to feel comfortable pushing them to excel and really represent the brand. When I think about the things we’ve been talking about, I feel like we’re really well-aligned in terms of we want to grow. We all want to represent the brand. We know that there’s an opportunity to do more. And so together, I think we’ll definitely continue to plot the course to do that.”

Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Story, Web Exclusives, Smashburger