Mario Batali, Partner, Eataly
Since Eataly debuted four years ago near Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, millions of consumers have strolled the 50,000-square-foot upscale grocery and food hall to sample foods, purchase ingredients and view cooking demonstrations in an atmosphere New York Magazine called “a slow-food-inspired Italian food temple.”
The face behind this revolution in food shopping and dining is celebrity chef and media personality Mario Batali, best known for his Food Network show, “Molto Mario” and appearances on “Iron Chef” and “The Chew.” He partnered with restaurateurs Lidia and Joe Bastianich and Eataly creator Oscar Farinetti, to turn grocery shopping into an educational and entertaining event. Think more foodservice-inspired than retail-based practical.
Eataly includes a fresh pasta counter, authentic Naples pizzeria, vegetable bar, butcher, gelateria, espresso counters and La Birreria, a rooftop microbrewery/restaurant featuring Batali’s creations. There is also a cooking school, which has attracted thousands of students.
“We don’t want you to just come and eat and walk away,” Batali has said. “We want you to come and taste some things and then take them home and cook them.”
Gross revenues the first calendar year were $70 million, and second-year revenues were estimated at $85 million, according to the New York Times. It is a force that has inspired the development of other restaurant-retail hybrid concepts throughout the country, such as Bottega Americano, an 8,000-square-foot food hall that opened last August in San Diego.
Meanwhile, Batali and his partners continue to expand the Eataly empire: A 63,000 square foot Chicago location opened in December 2013 and was an immediate hit, drawing 120,000 customers in the first week. A Los Angeles outpost with extensive outdoor and rooftop seating is planned for 2017.
Batali said that the retail/restaurant powerhouse fulfills a greater mission of increasing consumers’ understanding of and connection with the food they eat: “I think we need a place where food is more sacred than commerce,” he told New York Magazine. “It’s a place to go and be provoked and think about great food.”
— Sharon Goldman
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Kat Cole, President, Cinnabon Inc.
Kat Cole possesses a vision that extends well beyond her current sight lines. The president of Cinnabon Inc. believes capitalism and good works can go hand in hand.
The social-media-savvy executive, who has led Atlanta-based Cinnabon for four years, describes herself as a “Connected-Creative-Conscious-Community building Capitalist, Biz-Advisor, MBA, Humanitarian, Coffee-loving Chronic Learner,” according to her Twitter bio.
Cole and her team have grown Cinnabon to 1,200 units in 55 countries. She also has elevated the brand’s awareness through social media engagement and expansion into multichannel retail products, with the Cinnabon brand now on 70 products in 70,000 points of distribution. In 2013, Cinnabon, a division of Focus Brands Inc., passed $1 billion in annual branded product sales globally.
This year, Cole became chair of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, where she was already an influential member, and helped co-found the Changers of Commerce, “a group of leaders that identify with mixing money and meaning and making as much of a difference in the world as they make a profit.” Cole is also establishing a foundation to fund creative, sustainable approaches to education and self-sufficiency across the globe.
The foundation will support individuals, organizations and movements that include education, training and benefits “to eventually pay it forward,” Cole said in an email. “We fund activities and individuals that fuel a positive cycle that never ends.”
From her restaurant industry roots — she started in the industry as a hostess at Hooters at age 17 — Cole has tapped business innovation with a servant-leader approach. She often cites and practices a quote that she attributes to her mother: “Don’t forget where you came from, but don’t you dare let it solely define you.”
— Ron Ruggless
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Nick Kokonas, Co-owner, Alinea, Next and The Aviary
Inspired by his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, Nick Kokonas is setting a new tone in the restaurant industry — not only through high-profile restaurants and cuisine, but also through innovation in technology and operations.
The 46-year-old co-owner of Chicago hot spots Alinea, Next and The Aviary, Kokonas knows first-hand how grueling it is to manage reservations. In fact, he has paid up to three full-time Alinea employees to exclusively man reservation telephone lines in an effort to keep operations running efficiently — a task that was becoming increasingly difficult.
Tired of facing growing guest complaints of busy signals and lost opportunities to book a reservation due to hold times — or worse, saved tables for no-show guests — Kokonas knew it was time for a change.
Following the lead of arenas and venues that sell tickets to entertainment or sporting events, Kokonas developed reservation software, called Tock, which sells tickets to people eager to dine at his restaurants. Guests pay a deposit, which fluctuates depending on the time of the reservation, that is applied to the guest’s final bill. Those who don’t show for their reservations lose their deposits. Since adding the solution, Kokonas’ brands have reduced no-shows from 14 percent of reservations to less than 2 percent annually, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.
The notion is catching on. Eager to reap similar benefits, chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller will be integrating the system at his restaurants, The French Laundry and Per Se next spring. It should be noted that Keller is also an investor in Kokonas’ technology. Nine other restaurants also use Tock, and at least two more in the San Francisco Bay Area reportedly are evaluating the solution.
— Deena Amato-McCoy
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Claes Petersson, Vice president of research, development and packaging innovation, Sonic Drive-In
Riding high on strong financial performances, Sonic Drive-In has cited innovation and new product development as key drivers of its success.
Spearheading the 3,500-unit chain’s commitment to innovation is Claes Petersson, Sonic’s vice president of research, development and packaging innovation, whose team has overseen new products, like lower-calorie Splash Hand-Crafted Sodas, which add to Sonic’s already 1.3 million possible drink combinations and aim to appeal to health-conscious consumers.
To continue its forward-thinking menu offerings and the exploration of user-friendly tech developments, like a personalized service platform at the drive thru, Sonic recently debuted a new research and development kitchen and innovation center at its Oklahoma City headquarters. Parent Sonic Corp. invested more than $1 million in the center.
Overseen by Petersson, who has held research and development positions at Godiva and Campbell Soup Company, the Sonic Culinary Innovation Center includes a flexible test kitchen; a 40-seat room for presentations, meetings, consumer research and dinners; a six-seat bar area; and cameras to broadcast training, food demonstrations and interviews.
The innovation team is already working on new biscuits, as well as testing new ovens for breakfast items, helping Sonic, and Petersson, to stand out as frontrunners of menu and equipment innovation in the quick-service segment. According to Petersson, they are just getting started.
“Our goal is to have a pipeline of products that’s one to two years or more ahead,” he told Nation’s Restaurant News.
— Charlie Duerr
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Shannon Scott, Executive director of marketing communications, Applebee’s International Inc.
In the competitive world of social media marketing, which restaurant brand would risk turning over its Instagram account to strangers for an entire year?
The answer is Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, which has taken user-generated content to new extremes in an effort to break out of the same-old-same-old of casual dining chain marketing. Shannon Scott, executive director of marketing communications at Applebee’s International Inc., is the change agent behind the risky yet successful strategy.
Its #Fantographer campaign, which launched last July, invited Applebee’s diners to opt-in to a microsite to share photos of their meals. Since then, its Instagram feed has been well-populated with #Fantographer reposts.
Adweek reported that the #Fantographer campaign created serious social traction for the Kansas City, Mo.-based chain, with tens of thousands of new Instagram followers, increased engagement, and plenty of fodder for Facebook and Twitter shares.
Scott joined the Applebee’s fold 14 years ago and her role has since evolved from creating simple promotional offers to running a tightly integrated marketing ship at a growing brand. In 2012, under her watch, Applebee’s hired agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, famous for its risk-taking creative work with Burger King, BMW Mini and anti-smoking campaign, “The Truth.”
Crispin Porter developed one of Scott’s favorite Applebee’s campaigns, “Lunch Decoy,” which ran primarily on YouTube and addressed the chain’s push to get butts in seats at lunchtime. It immediately generated buzz by offering inflatable characters to suit any employee who needed to sneak out for lunch but appear as though they were still working.
“We knew we needed an idea that would break through in a unique way,” Scott said in a recent interview with Digital Megaphone. The Lunch Decoys, she added, sold out in just two weeks.
— Sharon Goldman
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Karim Webb, Franchisee, Buffalo Wild Wings
He may own just three Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in Los Angeles, but operator and franchisee Karim Webb embodies the next generation of leadership in the restaurant industry, with a focus on driving diversity and the development of young professionals.
One of Webb’s locations in the heavily minority neighborhood of Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw in South L.A. — an area that reportedly hadn’t seen a full-service chain restaurant open in more than 25 years — saw year-over-year sales jump 35 percent through November 2014. That result followed a 22-percent gain in 2013. Together, those were some of the biggest growth numbers in the Buffalo Wild Wings system.
“Being there, we’re making a difference,” Webb said last summer. “[Team members] make great money, we are hiring the people in the community, we are making a difference. As a result, amazing things are happening.”
Webb, 40, is no stranger to the restaurant industry. His parents were franchise owners of 14 McDonald’s units, and he worked for the burger brand after college. In 2009, Webb opened his first Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant with business partner Edward Barnett under PCF Restaurant Management LLC.
But his real passion is people. He serves on the boards of the Los Angeles Southwest College Foundation and a local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He also mentors young black men who have struggled through the correctional system.
“Something that’s unique in our industry is that we hire entry-level employees and develop them,” he said. “A conversation about diversity is really a conversation about entry level.
“I see the light bulb go off in people, and when that happens, people take pride in their work, they advance, they embrace building a skill set,” he said.
The restaurant industry needs new faces to tell its story, and Webb is ready for prime time.
— Sarah E. Lockyer