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The Power List: The Wild Cards

The Power List: The Wild Cards

NRN presents The Power List 2015, its second annual list of the most powerful people in foodservice. This year’s list focuses on leaders who hold the power to change the industry landscape as we know it.

Martin Berson, Co-founder, Snap Kitchen

Photo: Steph Grant Photography

When foodservice industry veteran Martin Berson co-founded Snap Kitchen in 2010, he wasn’t looking to create a forward-thinking, high-growth, fast-casual concept focused on sophisticated fresh and healthy grab-and-go food. He was just looking for his next great restaurant opportunity.  

But either way, Snap Kitchen was founded and the restaurant industry is on notice that healthy, convenient, quick meals are hitting the consumer sweet spot.

After nearly a decade working 100-hour weeks as managing partner at Benjy’s Restaurant in Houston, Texas, Berson moved to Austin to take some time off and, eventually, find a new foodservice opportunity. He and partner Bradley Radoff capitalized on an emerging consumer trend — a desire for convenience foods that relate to diet, lifestyle, fitness and overall health — and opened the first Snap Kitchen. The innovative concept now boasts 17 locations in Austin, Houston and Dallas.

Among the many believers in the successful future of the concept is Greenwich, Conn.-based private-equity firm Catterton, which provided the brand with an undisclosed capital investment in 2013.

“Snap Kitchen is an on-trend, well-positioned, high-growth retail concept at the intersection of three high growth sectors — healthy foods, weight management and restrictive diets, including food allergies,” Michael Farello, senior partner at Catterton, said in a prepared statement at the time.

Berson’s innovative concept has also been recognized by Nation’s Restaurant News with a 2014 Hot Concepts Award. The awards program recognizes forward-thinking companies at the leading edge of foodservice that also show strong potential for growth.

— Fern Glazer

Chris Gheysens

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Chris Gheysens, President and CEO, Wawa Inc.

Photo: Wawa

To gain an insight into the ways convenience stores are moving to take share of stomach from restaurants, look no further than Wawa.

The chain, based in suburban Philadelphia, has a cultlike following in parts of its home state and has seen food and beverage sales climb steadily in recent years — ending fiscal 2013 with domestic foodservice sales of $1.2 billion from 634 locations in six Eastern states, according to NRN’s most recent Top 100 report.

Leading the growth of this 50-year-old chain is Chris Gheysens, who became Wawa’s president in early 2012, and CEO in 2013, after serving as the company’s chief financial and administrative officer for nearly 15 years. Under his watch, Wawa has evolved its food offerings, introducing specialty beverages, including hot and iced lattes and chocolates, and it has started baking rolls for its signature sandwiches in-house. The convenience store chain stays on top of other food trends, too, offering fresh fruit, snack packs, stuffed soft pretzels and buffalo chicken bites.

The chain also incorporates modern technology, such as touchpad ordering, in its stores, and is a leader in the social media space with more than 65,400 Twitter followers and more than 1.2 million Facebook fans.

The brand also builds brand awareness and engages the consumer in other ways, such as its sponsorship of the Welcome America festival in July, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors and includes Hoagie Day on July 2, when the chain reportedly hands out samples from a 4.5 ton sandwich, and on July 4 Wawa holds what it bills as the largest free concert in the country.

— Bret Thorn

Mary Kay Henry

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Mary Kay Henry, President, SEIU

Photo: SEIU

As the international president of the Service Employees International Union, Mary Kay Henry is spearheading the movement for wage increases in the U.S. service industry.

And she’s not doing it quietly.

Known widely as “The Fight for 15,” SEIU’s push to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour is aggressive. To achieve its aim, it has backed hundreds of strikes at quick-service restaurants over allegedly low wages.
Whether by her influence or natural progression, 21 states will increase minimum wages in 2015.

“The economy and our country are out of balance because so many people are trying to raise families on service-sector paychecks but are getting crushed as corporations use their power to push down the wage floor,” Henry said in a recent statement.

Her stance is generally unpopular with the majority of the restaurant industry. Some industry associations assert that such a steep and sudden increase in the minimum wage would eliminate jobs, increase menu prices and threaten businesses. There are also many restaurant chains that feel they pay employees well, and shudder at the tactics and broad-brush painting of the industry by the SEIU.

In multiple speeches and interviews, Henry has insisted that a strong and long-lasting economic recovery in the U.S. will occur only when low-income workers can afford to spend more. Their increased purchasing power will then lead those producers to hire more people and pay better wages.

“[We] can have an economy that works for everybody in this country, not just the corporations,” she said in an Aug. 7, 2013, appearance on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.

— Steve Coomes

J. Craig Jelinek

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W. Craig Jelinek, CEO Costco Wholesale Corp.

Photo: Costco

Costco Wholesale, the second-largest U.S. retailer behind Walmart, has not only made competitor retailers sit up and take notice, but also has given the restaurant industry a run for its money.

The Issaquah, Washington-based chain’s no-frills food options have given its more than 74 million members affordable alternatives to restaurants, whether through its groceries, prepared foods or its signature $1.50 hot dogs sold in the stores.
W. Craig Jelinek, who took the helm as Costco CEO in January 2012 after the retirement of co-founder Jim Sinegal, is charged with continuing to nurture Costco’s success, which so far has included 39 percent growth in sales and a doubling of its stock price since 2009. The company announced a 13 percent increase in net profit in its most recent fourth-quarter, ended Aug. 31.
Jelinek spent 28 years at Costco before taking over as CEO. He has recently gained attention for his support of a minimum wage hike — which potentially pits this retailer against some restaurants when it comes to employee recruitment and retention.

While Costco customers can take advantage of a variety of products and services at Costco’s 657 locations — from getting an eye exam to booking a cruise to buying life insurance or stocking up on bulk paper goods — these days much of the company’s growth is centered around food. Prepared foods such as rotisserie chicken, as well as organic produce and fresh baked goods, have all grown in popularity, while Costco’s bulk discounts ensure that it can offer competitive prices.

As for that famous hot dog, of which more than 112 million were sold last year, Jelinek told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2013 that he has one for lunch each day when he’s traveling. But he is a “purist.” “No mustard. No ketchup. I eat ’em plain,” he said.

— Sharon Goldman

Josh Martin

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Josh Martin, Director of digital and social media, Arby’s

Photo: Arby’s

To take Arby’s social media presence to new heights, all Josh Martin needed was a seriously tall hat.

During the 2014 Grammy Awards, the director of digital and social media for the 50-year-old sandwich chain sent a tweet to musician Pharrell that tweaked him about the oversize brown head-topper he sported that evening. It quickly went viral, garnering nearly 80,000 retweets.

The tweet, which noted a resemblance between Pharrell’s hat and Arby’s own logo —  “Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs” — got a big boost from the “Happy” artist’s own reply of “Y’all tryna start a roast beef?”
It also put the spotlight on Martin, who joined Arby’s in 2010 from digital marketing firm Engauge. When he came on board, the Atlanta-based Arby’s had no social media department and a paltry number of fans and followers compared to its competitors. Today, it has over 2.5 million Facebook fans and more than 329,000 Twitter followers, as well as a growing presence on Instagram, Pinterest and other social networks.

“We don’t try to force it,” Martin, who holds a master’s degree in psychology, told Adweek about the chain’s social content strategy. Responsible for writing Arby’s tweets during big media events, Martin has said the Grammy tweet came to him “organically” and was a “great real-time moment.”

The value of social media is no longer questionable. And the practitioners that run marketing programs for restaurant brands are becoming powerful brand advocates — and yes, sales drivers — that can make or break brand performance.

Martin’s efforts are a key part of Arby’s broader efforts to build brand awareness that have included traditional media and even lots of attention on morning and late-night talk shows.

“The main thing is that we’re in the conversation,” CEO Paul Brown told NRN recently. “People are talking about Arby’s a lot more than they were a year ago, which is great.”

— Sharon Goldman

René Redzepi

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René Redzepi, Chef/owner, Noma

Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

René Redzepi is best known for the “New Nordic” dishes he turns out at his celebrated restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, which regularly tops lists of the world’s best restaurants. But his influence spans far beyond the four walls of that restaurant.

Redzepi’s innovative thinking and commitment to seasonal, local ingredients, and sustainable techniques, have drawn hoards of disciples to his kitchen — he regularly takes on unpaid interns — and ultimately shaped modern culinary strategy for chefs throughout the world. His influence has been growing steadily and is evident in restaurants far outside Denmark, including many in the United States.

Redzepi, who has done stints at world-class restaurants like Spain’s elBulli and Denmark’s Kong Hans Kælder and worked under highly respected chefs like The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, is known for his avant-garde rethinking of Nordic cuisine, using techniques like cooking with ash and using obscure vegetables, such as celeriac.

More recently, Redzepi has continued to focus his attention on sustainability and the future of food innovation. In a piece he penned for Time magazine last fall, Redzepi addressed his concern about the world’s staggering amount of food waste and what he thinks can be done to ensure people will have delicious, sustainable food for generations to come, citing underused plants, insects and getting creative with fermentation as opportunities.

Whether dishing up modern fine-dining dishes in Copenhagen, training the next generation of chefs or contemplating the future of food, Redzepi continues to be a vocal and active force in the evolution of modern eating habits.

— Charlie Duerr

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