Sandra Cochran, President and CEO, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc.
In an interview last fall after she won a 2014 NRN Golden Chain award, Sandra Cochran, president and CEO of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc., cited a favorite saying of her father’s: “Everyone wants to point the way when the lights of the village are in sight.”
Cochran, a former U.S. Army captain, has learned to lead not just when easy, but through murky environments. Over the past five years at the helm of Lebanon, Tenn.-based Cracker Barrel, Cochran has guided the family-dining chain through a turnaround strategy and choppy investor waters. She survived challenges to her leadership and turned Cracker Barrel into a frontrunner in its segment.
Cochran joined Cracker Barrel in 2009 as executive vice president and chief financial officer. She advanced up the ranks to chief operating officer before assuming her current role in 2011. Before joining Cracker Barrel, she was CEO of Books-A-Million. She joined the U.S. Army after graduating from Vanderbilt University with a degree in chemical engineering.
When Cochran took over at Cracker Barrel, she implemented a plan to improve the chain’s performance that included the emphasis of made-from-scratch cooking as well as efficient cost cutting. She also was able to deter activist investor Sardar Biglari, who was critical of her turnaround plan and sought a seat on the board.
After reporting first quarter fiscal results in November, which exceeded expectations, Cracker Barrel’s stock price hit an all-time high.
Cracker Barrel has more than 630 locations in 42 states. It posted $2.1 billion in 2013 U.S. foodservice sales, and led the family-dining segment with sales per unit of $3.4 million, according to Nation’s Restaurant News’ 2014 Top 100 report.
— Dina Berta
Tilman Fertitta, Chairman, president and CEO, Landry’s Inc.
Tilman Fertitta is equally at home cutting the ribbon of a new casino with a feather-clad showgirl on his arm as he is prowling for deals to expand his impressive collection of restaurant chains.
And deal he does.
Landry’s Inc., his Houston-based company, has become an industry force by acquiring more than 500 high-end and casual-dining restaurants over the years, including Chart House, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Morton’s Steakhouse, McCormick & Schmick’s and Mastro’s. Add to that the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, amusement parks, lodging properties and affiliated businesses.
Fertitta is ranked at 250 on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America with a net worth of $2.5 billion.
The flashy entrepreneur’s modus operandi is to buy a chain at a low price, cut costs, fix it up, hold on and reap profits.
His recent deal with Ruth’s Hospitality Group to purchase 18 Mitchell’s Fish Market locations and three Cameron’s Steakhouse units is a perfect example. Landry’s is paying $10 million — a fraction of the $92 million Ruth’s shelled out for the eateries in 2008.
Some observers believe Mitchell’s will work better as part of Landry’s, which already owns several seafood chains and is known for disciplined cost management under Fertitta.
The bold billionaire is not a flipper of restaurant chains. He prefers to be a buyer, not a seller.
“I buy things that are good properties that I’m going to have forever,” he said in a 2012 Forbes article.
— James Scarpa
Greg Flynn, Founder, chairman and CEO, Flynn Restaurant Group
Opportune acquisitions and a manager-empowering business philosophy have helped Greg Flynn rise to impressive heights as a franchise restaurant operator.
Now he has the bankroll to go even further.
He heads Flynn Restaurant Group LLC, the nation’s largest franchise company, generating about $1.4 billion in annual sales through its two subsidiaries, Apple American Group LLC, with 470 Applebee’s restaurants, and Bell American Group LLC, with 170 Taco Bell restaurants.
Flynn Restaurant Group, or FRG, has notched a compound annual growth rate of 36 percent since it was founded in 1999. However, its best days are by no means behind it. A $300 million strategic investment by a Canadian teacher’s pension fund last May provides ample resources to grow its Applebee’s and Taco Bell holdings and pursue fast-casual holdings to round out its portfolio.
“Fast casual is the natural place to plant the next flag,” Flynn told NRN last year.
The investment was notable in that it made FRG the first domestic franchisee to be valued at more than $1 billion, Flynn said, as well as the first franchise group to successfully exit from conventional private-equity ownership.
“We are always interested in growth,” Flynn told NRN, “but only under two conditions: We must be running well what we already own, and the opportunity must be accretive to the brand.”
Flynn credits much of his business’ success to a decentralized business model that divides the country into regions run by a market president or director of operations. These regional chiefs are designed to think like owners and can act with great autonomy, while receiving administrative and financial support from the corporate office.
— James Scarpa
Jimmy John Liautaud
Jimmy John Liautaud, Founder and CEO, Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches
Jimmy John Liautaud sums up his eponymous sandwich chain with a few basic numbers: “six meats, one cheese, two breads and 23 different sandwiches.”
But industry observers who have been tracking the growth of the 30-year-old Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches might cite a few others: $1.5 billion in annual sales, 2,000 locations in 40 states, and more than 200 stores opened in each of the last three years.
Jimmy John’s was the No. 6 fastest-growing chain in the 2014 NRN Top 100 report, recording year-over-year sales and unit growth of 16.1 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively, in fiscal 2013.
Liautaud says the success of the chain, which he founded in 1983 as a teenager, is its simplicity. It adheres to strict operational guidelines and a streamlined menu — no soups, no salads, no toasted sandwiches — to live up to its promise of being “freaky fast.”
“With time being the new currency, it is important that we serve people so they can continue doing what they are doing,” he told NRN in 2012. “What I do is simple, but I work hard to keep it that way.”
Now the company’s strong unit economics and steady growth may help it access new capital. In September, Reuters reported that the chain had hired investment bank North Point Advisors to explore the possible sale of a major stake in the company.
The chain’s path to success has not been without its challenges. As Jimmy John’s franchisee count surged in the chain’s first decade, Liautaud recognized a need for better franchisee recruiting standards and a more careful selection progress. Implementing those changes briefly slowed unit growth, but built a strong foundation for future stores.
“We’re reaping the rewards of a discipline we started almost a decade ago,” Liautaud previously told Entrepreneur.com. “We’re doing things right, and with the right people.”
— Steve Coomes
John Miller CEO, president and director, Denny’s Corp.
John Miller’s revitalization efforts are propelling Denny’s Corp. into the vanguard of an improving family-dining restaurant segment. Not bad for a legacy brand.
Miller, a Taco Bueno and Brinker International veteran who took the helm at Denny’s in 2011, is leading the brand’s strategy, including its remodeling and new marketing efforts, all designed to reinforce the brand’s “America’s Diner” image.
In the past year, Denny’s has stepped ahead with a forward-thinking Latino Facebook page, which speaks to a growing and increasingly important Hispanic customer demographic with original and curated content. It also launched an animated cartoon series this year called “The Grand Slams,” starring the characters Eggs, Bacon, Sausage and Pancakes. The corny-meets-cute characters were designed to appeal to Millennial patrons, another demographic important to the brand.
Value pricing, menu upgrades and innovative new products have all become Denny’s hallmarks under Miller’s watch.
Another hallmark: Philanthropy.
Since 2011, Denny’s has donated $2.3 million to the No Kid Hungry campaign of Share Our Strength, which is helping to feed millions of children nationwide. Miller has been a tireless supporter of Share Our Strength and its goals to end childhood hunger in the United States. Miller believes doing good is simply the price of entry for businesses today.
Financial results are also telling at Denny’s. In the third quarter of 2014, Denny’s reported an 18.7-percent increase in net income and its best quarter of systemwide same-store sales increases in two and a half years. Miller has said Denny’s is positioned to produce its highest annual systemwide sales growth since 2006.
— James Scarpa
Jim Schwartz, Chairman, CEO, president and chief operating officer, NPC International Inc.
Jim Schwartz has never been the kind of franchise operator who sits back and lets the corporate parent do all the heavy lifting.
The chairman, CEO, president and chief operating officer of NPC International Inc., based in Overland Park, Kan., the largest Pizza Hut franchisee and more recently a Wendy’s franchisee, is known for collaborating with Pizza Hut management on initiatives for the good of the brand and devising strategies that have been adopted systemwide. With this active and involved stance, Schwartz has become an influential figure in chain restaurants and a role model for sustained growth in franchising.
For example, NPC has worked alongside Pizza Hut corporate executives on improving the 15,000-unit chain’s digital and marketing presence, as well as its advertising positioning. Schwartz is a vocal supporter of Pizza Hut’s recently launched brand revamp, in which the concept moves away from price-point promotion and toward pies with premium ingredients, reduced-calorie pizzas and customizable menu options.
Schwartz has also been candid about shortcomings he has seen in the Pizza Hut system. In May, NPC blamed lagging innovation in online ordering and digital efforts for sluggish sales results.
Schwartz has overseen dramatic growth at NPC, which has grown from about 350 restaurants when he became president in 1995 to its current rank as the ninth-largest restaurant operator in the U.S. In addition to its 1,266 Pizza Hut locations, NPC operates 144 Wendy’s
“We believe there will be ample opportunity to grow through acquisition, much like we’ve done in the Pizza Hut system,” Schwartz told stock analysts in June.
— James Scarpa
David Scrivano, President and CEO, Little Caesar Enterprises Inc.
David Scrivano sits atop one of the quietest growth stories in the restaurant business.
Little Caesars, the Detroit-based carryout pizza chain with more than 4,000 locations, has rapidly taken market share from its much larger, and better-known rivals, adding more than 500 locations a year at a time when many chains are stagnant or growing slowly.
Along the way, it has become the third-largest pizza concept in the country, behind Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza, with domestic foodservice sales of $3.1 billion for fiscal 2013, according to the latest NRN Top 100 report.
Little Caesars also outpaced its pizza competitors in sales and unit growth, according to the Top 100 report, increasing 2013 domestic annual sales 6.9 percent and growing its U.S. unit base 6.3 percent.
“It’s been phenomenal growth,” Scrivano said. “From Day One that I got here, we’ve grown.”
Scrivano, a 26-year veteran of the pizza industry, worked for years at Domino’s Pizza before joining Little Caesars in 1998 as the company’s senior vice president of administration. By 2005 he was named company president and now also holds the title of CEO.
Scrivano attributes the company’s current success to a combination of quality, convenience and value. The chain’s Hot-N-Ready strategy, in which customers can walk in and get ready-made large pizzas for as little as $5, has lured numerous customers thanks to its convenience and value. But, he said, the chain hasn’t abandoned quality — it makes its dough daily in each store and uses fresh cheese.
Under Scrivano’s leadership, the chain is also building a foundation for future growth. This spring the company plans to break ground on a new 205,000-square-foot Global Resource Center that will more than double the size of its Detroit headquarters. Scrivano has said the chain is eyeing untapped international markets and working to sustain the rapid franchise growth it experienced in the last decade.
“Customers are very important to us, but we’re also focused on the franchisees,” Scrivano said. “We want to make sure they stay involved in decisions with the company.”
— Jonathan Maze
Ron Shaich, Co-founder, chairman and CEO, Panera Bread Co.
When the bakery chain that would eventually be known as Panera Bread shook up the fast-casual market in the 1980s and 1990s, Ron Shaich — the company’s co-founder, chairman and CEO — was the man behind a concept that shattered typical fast-food norms with handmade, artisan food such as soups, salad and sandwiches, served in warm, welcoming spaces.
Today, with 1,845 bakery-cafes in 45 states and Ontario, Canada, and 80,000 employees, Panera and Shaich are industry-dominating veterans.
But that doesn’t mean the era of innovation is over.
As Shaich told Business Insider in 2014, “Our job as leadership is to protect and enable leaps of faith, making sure the company is there when the future arrives.”
That forward-thinking effort is necessary as Panera seeks to compete successfully with chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. There are new menu policies, such as a move towards additive- and preservative-free ingredients. The company’s Panera 2.0 effort is meant to reduce wait times and cut down on ordering errors by enabling customers to order using a mobile app or Apple iPad kiosk. Panera was among the first retailers to integrate Apple Pay into stores.
Still, Panera’s success isn’t all about the numbers: The company has opened up five non-profit “pay what you want” Panera Cares cafes in cities including St. Louis, Detroit and Boston, which served nearly one million guests in 2013.
And Shaich, who received a bachelor of arts degree from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., encourages young people to follow their passion in business and beyond. Speaking at his alma mater’s commencement last spring, he told the students that he “found creating a business to be the most creative experience of my life. But, he added, “I challenge you to do the work that matters.”
— Sharon Goldman
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Jan. 21, 2015 An earlier version of this article misstated Denny's contribution to No Kid Hungry. The company has donated $2.3 million to the campaign.