Così Inc. said Monday it has named restaurant industry veteran Carin L. Stutz its new chief executive and president.
In an interview with Nation's Restaurant News, Stutz discussed where Così is today, especially considering recent investor pressure, and where she sees the brand moving in the future.
Stutz, 55, most recently was president of global business development at Brinker International Inc. and was previously executive vice president of operations for Applebee’s International Inc. She will assume her new role Jan. 1, and will also join the board of directors at Così, which operates or franchises the 138-unit bakery-sandwich chain.
Così has recently been under pressure for leadership changes by investor Blum Growth Fund, which owns a 6.8-percent stake in the company. Fund founder Brad Blum, a former top executive at Burger King, Olive Garden and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, had volunteered to serve as Cosi CEO for a $1 annual salary. Così had been pushing Blum and his proposals off.
“There’s obviously no secret about some of the challenges at Così with all the press lately,” Stutz said in an with Nation's Restaurant News late Monday, as she was traveling to Così’s Deerfield, Ill., headquarters. “The one thing we all agree on is that there is a great foundation with this Così brand, and I see lots of potential.”
Stutz said she and Blum worked together on the same floor at Brinker International when he was running Macaroni Grill.
“Brad is well-known and well-respected,” Stutz said, “and hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to meet in the future. But what I can certainly say in everything I’ve read about his comments about the Così brand is that we both agree on a couple things: that this brand has a lot great attributes and a lot of great things happening and there’s no reason we can’t untap the potential and grow this brand."
Stutz added that in the guest feedback she’s seen, there is a lot of brand loyalty at Così. "There’s some passion around some of the core product and menu items," she said. "And, obviously there are some great locations out there as well.”
The fast-casual segment has also been growing successfully, Stutz said, “and there is no reason that Così shouldn’t be participating in that.”
Stutz said she will be looking at the company’s structure for improvements.
“I believe that with good systems, you set your operators up to be successful,” she said. “From my early observations from an operators’ perspective, there’s an easier way to deliver this brand that is going to be less confusing for the guest and better for the people that work there as well.”
Before Brinker and Applebee’s, Stutz was Pacific division vice president for Wendy’s International, served as regional operations vice president for Sodexo USA and was vice president of corporate operations for NutriSystem Inc. She is currently chair of the Womens’ Foodservice Forum.
“Carin is a proven leader with deep operational, marketing and business development experience,” Michael O’Donnell, a member of Cosi’s board and chief executive of Ruth’s Hospitality Group Inc., said in a statement. “She is a respected leader with a track record of innovative strategic brand building, and an impressive record of accomplishment, having held leadership positions at several of our industry’s leading companies.”
Brinker International said Monday it has already begun a search for Stutz’ replacement at the Dallas-based company.
“I am thrilled at the opportunity to lead this talented management team and help build a great future for the Così brand, our employees, franchise owners, and all who invest in our success,” Stutz said in a statement. “My mission is to energize the Così brand and the guest experience.”
Così also said Monday that board member Stephen F. Edwards would assume the role of executive chair on Jan. 1.
Edwards said, "On behalf of the board, I would like to thank Mark Demilio for his leadership as interim CEO through this transition and look forward to continuing to work with him as a member of the board of directors.”
Così has 80 company-owned and 57 franchise restaurants in 17 states.
This story was updated from its original version to include statements from an interview with Carin Stutz.