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 Julia Stewart center with the DineEquity team at the MUFSO Industry Awards Gala
<p> Julia Stewart (center) with the DineEquity team at the MUFSO Industry Awards Gala.</p>

Julia Stewart named 2015 Operator of the Year

This is part of Nation&rsquo;s Restaurant News&#39; special coverage of the 2015 MUFSO conference, taking place Sept. 20&ndash;22 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app.

Julia Stewart, chair and CEO of Applebee’s and IHOP parent DineEquity Inc., was named Operator of the Year at the 2015 MUFSO conference on Monday.

A 40-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Stewart started out as a server at IHOP when she was 15. She now helms a franchise operation that includes more than 3,600 restaurants globally under the Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar and IHOP brand banners, representing nearly $8 billion in sales.

Julia Stewart
DineEquity CEO Julia Stewart. Illustration: David Bleek

The Operator of the Year is voted upon by the readers of Nations Restaurant News. Stewart was among five Golden Chain winners this year, including Peggy Cherng, co-founder and co-CEO of Panda Restaurant Group; John Gainor, president and CEO of International Dairy Queen; John Miller, president and CEO of Denny’s. Corp.; and Charlie Morrison, CEO of Wingstop Restaurants Inc.

This is Stewart’s second year receiving a Golden Chain award. She was also a winner in 2004 as president and CEO of IHOP.

Stewart described leadership as an “honor and a privilege,” crediting the “magic” in her career to “being able to do what I love to do and working with these incredible, incredible people.”

Her love affair with the restaurant industry began when she was working for an IHOP franchisee in San Diego at age 15, though she joked, “I’m supposed to say I was 16 because I think 15 was illegal.”

She continued working for restaurants while in college and found she loved the daily feedback, “the good and the bad, and telling us how we could do a better job and guests talking to us every day about what they loved and didn’t love,” she said. “I fell in love. I’ve never wanted to do anything else but be in the restaurant business.”

Julia Stewart when the Operator of the Year Award was announced. Photo by Ron Ruggless

Earlier in her career, Stewart held executive positions with Taco Bell, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Black Angus and Spoons Grill & Bar. In the late 1990s, she served as president of Applebee’s International Inc., growing that brand from 1,000 to nearly 1,400 units, creating the nation’s largest casual-dining chain.

In 2001, she was named president and chief operating officer of IHOP Corp., rising to the role of CEO in 2002.

Five years later, however, she was back at Applebee’s — this time with a $2.1 billion deal to acquire the casual-dining chain. Naming the newly formed company DineEquity Inc., based in Glendale, Calif., Stewart set out to transform Applebee’s into an all-franchised brand with an asset-light model, like IHOP. Applebee’s achieved this goal earlier this year.

Golden Chain Award Julia Stewart wins 2015 Golden Chain Award

Stewart was interviewed by Aylwin Lewis, CEO of Chicago-based Potbelly Corp. and 2014 Golden Chain Award winner.

More from Stewart >>

Listen to the full interview:

Both IHOP and Applebee’s are market leaders in their respective segments. According to NRN’s Top 100 census, Applebee’s was the No. 1 casual-dining chain in fiscal 2014 with $4.6 billion in U.S. sales. IHOP topped the family-dining category in 2014 with U.S. sales of $2.9 billion.

Stewart has led an ongoing revitalization of both brands.

IHOP’s domestic systemwide same-store sales increased 3.9 percent in 2014, the strongest annual results in ten years. For its June 30-ended second quarter this year, IHOP’s domestic same-store sales increased 6.2 percent, the strongest quarterly results in a decade.

Applebee’s second-quarter domestic same-store sales climbed a more modest 1 percent, and the company is working to apply some of the same strategies at Applebee’s that helped build momentum at IHOP, including improving the food and menu, honing the guest experience and marketing.

As Operator of the Year, Stewart joins a distinguished hall of fame dating back to 1971 that includes Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. CEO Sally Smith; Firehouse Subs CEO Don Fox and last year’s winner, W. Kent Taylor, CEO and founder of Texas Roadhouse.

Julia Stewart photo gallery
Stewart, along with other company executives and members of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), commemorate the 10th annual IHOP National Pancake Day by ringing the opening bell on March 3, 2015. Photo courtesy of DineEquity.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company.

Presenting sponsors are: Dinova, Fishbowl, The Beef Checkoff and The Coca Cola Company

Keynotes/general sessions are presented by: Avocados from Mexico, e*Restaurant from Altametrics and the Texas Restaurant Association.

Pillar sponsors include: Heinz Soups, Sweet Street Desserts and Tyson Foodservice (Culinary); Ventura Foods (Entrepreneur); Smithfield Farmland Foodservice Group (Ideas); and Paytronix (Marketing).

The Monday night awards reception and awards presentation are sponsored by: Avocados from Mexico.

Coca Cola presents the Shake, Sparkle & Stir event, and Texas Pete® are sponsoring the MUFSO Kitchen Hero Cook Off, benefiting Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign.

Hot Concept/Best Concepts Celebration is sponsored by e*Restaurant from Altametrics.

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Community Coffee, Ole Mexican Foods and TABASCO®.

MUFSO Room Key is sponsored by Arby’s; Badge Holder Necklace is sponsored by Service Management Group.

Welcome Package is sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!

Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Emmi Roth USA, Royal Cup Coffee, Saputo Cheese USA and Wrigley Foodservice.

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