The Power List: The Wild Cards

The Power List: The Wild Cards

Part of the annual NRN 50 special report, The Power List profiles the 50 most powerful people who are leading and shaping change in the restaurant industry, as chosen by Nation’s Restaurant News.

Nation’s Restaurant News ranked only the top 10 most powerful people in foodservice [2] out of the 50 influential people who make up The Power List. The remaining 40 people on the list have been divided into groups highlighting the type of influence they have on the industry. Here, we feature The Wild Cards: people who are transforming the business landscape of the restaurant industry.

Leah “Leah C.” Conde, Elite Squad member, Yelp



Restaurateurs in and around California’s Bay Area may not necessarily recognize the name Leah C., but what she writes about them could indeed have a material impact on their businesses.

Leah “Leah C.” Conde is a regular contributor to Yelp, the online guide that enables average consumers to review and rate restaurants or other local businesses via the Internet. In fact, Yelp, which claimed to have an average of about 117 million unique monthly visitors during the third quarter of 2013, can make or break a struggling business. The service — like other social media platforms — puts word-of-mouth on steroids by magnifying the reach of those with both favorable and unfavorable opinions.

While Yelp says it doesn’t know exactly how many people may be rating restaurants at any given time, its citizen critics have so far penned more than 47 million reviews. Conde has been a Yelp reviewer since 2011 and, in fact, ranks as a member of Yelp’s Elite Squad. Members of the Elite Squad are awarded special badges that accompany their account profiles, based on well-written reviews and other designated qualities. Conde is quite active on Yelp, and estimates she wrote at least 100 reviews in the past year and more than 215 since she began reviewing two years ago.

With a double degree in English and the culinary arts, Conde is a self-professed foodie and loves restaurants. She says she keeps her eye out for new openings — attempting to scoop other reviewers — and even tries to speak with the owners “to understand the restaurant’s back story.” Nevertheless, like most professional critics, she reviews a restaurant incognito, saying she wants to be treated like a regular diner. If she does give a restaurant a negative review, however, she says she tries to go back and give them a second chance.

— Paul Frumkin

Sarah Hoidahl

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Sarah Hoidahl; server and bartender; Ruby Tuesday; Henniker, N.H.



Sarah Hoidahl, a server and bartender at the Ruby Tuesday in Henniker, N.H., was only doing what comes naturally to her: taking care of customers. Yet, in one empathetic gesture, the single mother demonstrated to the world how important it is for restaurants to hire employees with an attitude that reflects positively on their brand — and just how fast and far that reflection can travel.

During the federal government shutdown last October, two uniformed National Guardswomen came in to Ruby Tuesday for lunch and were seated at Hoidahl’s table. They told the then-21-year-old waitress they could not spend much, as they were not getting paid during the shutdown. They opted for the salad bar.

Hoidahl treated the two soldiers to lunch, picking up their $27.75 tab. She slipped a note in the leather check holder: “Thanks to the gov. [sic] shutdown, the people like you that protect this country are not getting paid. However, I still am. Lunch is on me! Thank you for serving, ladies! Have a good day.”

Ruby Tuesday manager Brian Hinckley told his mother-in-law, a National Guard member, and she posted a message chronicling Hoidahl’s generosity on the National Guard’s Facebook page.

News of Hoidahl’s gesture went viral, generating comments from people in Switzerland, Taiwan, Malta and Australia. It also won the attention of television personality Ellen DeGeneres, who invited Hoidahl to Los Angeles to be on her talk show. On air, she reimbursed Hoidahl the $27.75 and then presented her with a tip: a check for $10,000 and a flat-screen TV. She later gave Hoidahl a car.

Hoidahl, a part-time student at New England College, has said she will donate about $1,000 of DeGeneres’ gift to a charity that assists military families.

— Dina Berta

Saru Jayaraman

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Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United



Saru Jayaraman would like the public to be just as concerned about the welfare of restaurant employees as it is about animal welfare and sustainable food practices.

Jayaraman is the co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization originally founded to support the Windows on the World restaurant workers displaced after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. ROC now has about 10,000 members in 19 cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Miami.

The organization has assisted employees in filing lawsuits against restaurants over issues of pay, discrimination and working conditions, including lawsuits against high-end celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud in New York. It also has sponsored protests and demonstrations for restaurant employees seeking minimum wage increases, better pay in the quick-service segment and health care coverage.

In addition, ROC helped restaurant workers establish Colors, a cooperative restaurant with units in New York and Detroit that provides free training to help workers develop skills to pursue restaurant careers.

A daughter of immigrants from southern India, Jayaraman is a graduate of Yale Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She grew up in a Mexican-American neighborhood in southeast Los Angeles. Fluent in Spanish, she has long been an advocate for immigrants and the underprivileged.

Her latest book, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” explores the political, economic and moral implications of dining out. In it, Jayaraman examines poor working conditions and discriminatory labor practices by chronicling the lives of restaurant employees in major urban cities.

— Dina Berta

John Mackey

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John Mackey, co-founder and co-chief executive, Whole Foods Market Inc.



John Mackey, a college dropout who opened the original Whole Foods Market store in Austin, Texas, in 1980, now sits at the helm of a $13 billion company with nearly 400 stores and ambitions to reach as many 1,200.

As the head of the largest retailer of organic and natural foods in the world, Mackey represents one of the most visible members of the growing class of retail brands threatening to steal share from restaurants. The chain’s innovation around prepared food, store design and community events have made it a force to be reckoned with.

Under his leadership, Whole Foods Market Inc. stores have expanded their offerings far beyond packaged goods to include a wide variety of restaurant-quality items, which can include salads, baked goods, hearth-baked pizzas, hand-shucked oysters, barbecue, sushi and even draft beer. Many stores also aim to keep customers in the stores with seating areas, Wi-Fi, shoe-shine stations, and interactive events, including cooking classes, wine tastings and trivia nights.

Furthermore, Whole Foods has fundamentally changed the way consumers think about food, bringing once-fringe concepts like organic farming, sustainability and local sourcing to the fore. All of that is helping the brand attract consumers willing to pay a premium for organic goods.  

Whole Foods — often cited as one of the country’s most admired employers for its strong culture and good employee wages and benefits — also recruits from many restaurant talent pools, employing a variety of chefs and food specialists.

— James Scarpa

Michelle Obama

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Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States



Four years ago, first lady Michelle Obama stood on the White House lawn and announced her ambitious goal to reverse the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. Since then, she has been using her powerful position and charismatic personality to draw national attention to food and nutrition issues.

To achieve her goal, Obama helped ensure passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, legislation credited with improving the content of school lunches served across the nation. Also in 2010, she launched Let’s Move!, a nationwide campaign that has brought healthful eating, nutrition and exercise to the forefront of American consumers’ minds.

Obama has also used her platform to urge the foodservice industry to step up and join her in the fight against obesity — and many companies have done that. Most notable are the 2010 pledge by school meal providers Sodexo, Aramark Corp. and the Chartwells division of Compass Group North America to meet recommendations for fat, sugar and whole grains within five years and increase nutrition education for students and parents, and Darden Restaurants Inc.’s 2011 promise to improve the quality of its kids’ menus [7] and reduce total calories and sodium on its menu by 20 percent over the next decade.

“This is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry,” Obama said at a Darden press conference. “I believe the changes that Darden will make will impact the health and well-being of an entire generation of young people.”

While it’s too soon to measure the impact of Obama’s efforts on obesity rates, few can argue that she continues to be a powerful player in inciting healthful changes in the foodservice industry.

— Fern Glazer

Michael Pollan

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Michael Pollan, writer and food activist



Writer and food activist Michael Pollan has been instrumental in changing the national conversation about how we view food at home, in the supply chain and at restaurants.

A prolific writer, Pollan has accomplished this chiefly by penning such best-selling books as “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” and “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.”

In 2010, when he was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine, Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., wrote that Pollan “thinks about the ethical bonds that connect our bodies, farms and food.”

A critic of big agribusiness and a champion of small farmers and sustainability, he once famously compressed his philosophy about how people should eat into just seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

More recently, he published a brief but much-debated set of guidelines for restaurant-goers, stating:

• Don’t feel compelled to eat everything on your plate; restaurants often serve super-sized portions.
• Eat with the seasons.
• Patronize restaurants that use small suppliers; they tend to serve better food.
• Look for the names of specific farms on the menu.
• Order the daily specials; they tend to be special.
• Don’t order steak well-done; chefs save the worst pieces for those patrons.
• Ask where the meat comes from.

While not a particular fan of chains, Pollan cited Chipotle Mexican Grill’s work in sustainability as “a step in the right direction,” although he added that the fast-casual brand serves “very high-calorie food.” He once confessed to enjoying a lobster roll at a McDonald’s in New England, however.

— Paul Frumkin