Shannon Hennessy left her nearly two-decade career as a consultant at McKinsey & Company for the restaurant industry in 2020. At the height of the pandemic, most would shy away from the tumultuous sector, but Hennessy’s decision was driven largely by people. 

Listening to her longtime friend and mentor Chris Turner, Yum! Brands CFO, talk about this heartbeat of the industry captivated Hennessy. Although she wasn’t particularly compelled to leave her position, she kept an open mind as he invited her to chat with the KFC team.

“I had never seen an executive team talk about people the way that they do, and it captured my imagination. I was really excited about the business,” Hennessy says, recalling the moment she decided to formally enter Yum! as KFC Global’s CFO. 

Entering a global business during a worldwide crisis came with its own set of unique challenges, with Hennessy quickly learning the hustle of franchise partners and the intricacies of unit economics. The biggest lesson was consistent with her decision to join the team in the first place— she learned the restaurant industry is, in fact, a people business. 

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“We sell food, but at the end of the day, it’s people who make all the difference. I carried that lesson with me as I came over from KFC to The Habit,” Hennessy shares. “As I make decisions, the central point is always considering what’s best for the team, the customer, and the franchisee.” 

In 2022, Hennessy joined The Habit Burger Grill as its president, swiftly moving up to CEO in 2023. Everything she loved about her role at KFC— shaping growth initiatives and digital transformations—was now more important than ever for The Habit. This energized her and made the transition easy.

“I was eager to take on a role where I could work with the team on a broader set of issues, like marketing and development. These are areas I learned about at KFC, but hadn’t directly overseen,” Hennessy says. “I would say the bigger transition for me was coming from a large global franchise to The Habit, which is fast-growth, but much smaller of a footprint.” 

Founded in 1969 in Santa Barbara, California, The Habit Burger Grill specializes in made-to-order charburgers, signature sandwiches, and salads. At 380 restaurants in 14 states and multiple countries, and 80 percent of units being company-owned, Hennessy spent over a year with the previous CEO understanding the ethos and business operations as a whole. 

The Habit Burger Grill ended Q1 with approximately 380 restaurants.

Now, she intends to break what she calls the “craft-ceiling,” solidifying The Habit as a leader in the better-burger category by scaling its cook-to-order expertise and advancing its digital transformation to revolutionize team and customer experiences. It’s ambitious, and she knows it. 

“With the backing of the world’s largest restaurant company [Yum! Brands], there is a huge opportunity for us to become a global powerhouse in this space,” Hennessy says. “The category we play in has a lot of other players of similar scale and growth, but we have such a powerful combination at our fingertips and we hold on to what’s made us true. I call it ‘the magic of The Habit.’” 

The Habit’s path to category leadership, with Hennessy at the helm, rests on a winning menu, a great customer experience, and a fulfilling place of employment. Hennessy believes being able to scale this model profitably without losing these pillars is paramount to the brand’s success. 

“We don’t accept the trade-offs that others have had as they think about becoming bigger brands,” Hennessy adds. “We like to say we’re an ‘and’ brand, not an ‘or’ one. We can deliver quality food and do it consistently and make the customer feel good at the same time. I think we’re defying a lot of conventions around growth and becoming a category leader.” 

Historically a dine-in business, with over 60 percent of sales occurring in the dining room, the brand had to make a huge pivot during the pandemic after realizing over two-thirds of transactions were now being consumed off-premises. Hennessy is continuing to push the brand’s technological capabilities, recently surpassing 40 percent in digital sales. She says this is notable for a company with a dine-in heritage. 

Yum!’s backing allows The Habit to play with cutting-edge technology, making room for reworking the original touchpoints in the customer journey. For example, when ordering curbside, customers can give The Habit a ten-minute notice through the app or website, allowing for the same high-quality cook-to-order experience. Hennessy believes this is a modern way to think about speed and convenience, the centrifugal force driving today’s customers. 

“We are looking through all of the ways we originally set up the business and asking ourselves how to modernize these systems,” Hennessy says. “We’re finding out there are a lot of fun solutions for us in figuring out how we can continue delivering magic for our customers while scaling the business profitably.” 

Reflecting on her first year as CEO, she confesses she doesn’t view her career as a ladder or climbing up in a straight line—instead, she views the journey as more of a web, where being curious and open to opportunities holds more importance than a title.

“In my late 20s, I was struggling with this choice of doing something a little bit off of my ladder. I was curious about moving in a different direction even if it wasn’t the fastest path to the top. My mentor at the time told me to try it and see where it leads, because it’s really what I wanted to do,” Hennessy says. “It’s been powerful to me because when I think about continual learning and growth, it’s more about skills, creating options, trusting your guts and enjoying the ride. It’ll probably lead to an even better place, even if it’s not a straight line.” 

Story, Web Exclusives, Women in Restaurant Leadership, The Habit Burger