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Shake Shack just gained a new CEO: Here's what it could mean.

Why Rob Lynch’s move from Papa Johns to Shake Shack makes sense

Lynch is leaving Papa Johns after leading the company into a new era of prosperity for five years

Papa John’s International, Inc. announced Thursday that CEO Rob Lynch will be leaving the company on May 20 to take on the same role at Shake Shack. Lynch will be replacing retiring outgoing CEO Randy Garutti – making this career move after five years of helming Papa Johns.

While at first this might seem like a surprising announcement — after all, Shake Shack is a fast-casual brand, and it is younger and more regionalized than Papa Johns — it might be a smart move for the New York City-based burger chain. Rob Lynch was CEO of Papa Johns throughout a transitional period for the company, taking over from its embattled founder (and reason the chain dropped the apostrophe from its name): John Schnatter.

Rob_Lynch_Headshot.jpegWhen Lynch, left, joined Papa Johns in 2019, the company was struggling to get out from under the weight of its bruised industry reputation marred by the Schnatter controversies. During the ensuing quarters, as a result of the legal tumult, the company had suffered a significant fiscal downturn. Over the past five years, there have been several notable milestones under Lynch’s executive leadership that helped re-elevate the brand, while simultaneously modernizing Papa Johns and spinning the brand story away from Schnatter as the pizza chain’s parental figure.  

During the pandemic, Papa Johns reported 12 straight quarters of outperformance, and in 2023, we noted that the company just might be winning the pizza wars, with its momentum catching up with, and in some ways, even overtaking, major competitors, Domino’s and Pizza Hut. The pizza chain became known for a consistent pipeline of food innovation like the Papadias and more recently, Papa Bites, and also touted its successful third-party delivery relationships.

While all of these milestones and bullet points might add up to a successful resume for foodservice leadership, why make the move from quick-service pizza to fast-casual burgers? In the company’s most recent earnings call, Garutti unveiled that Shake Shack was indeed leaning into elements of the quick-service category by testing out combo meals and more desserts like sundaes and mini shakes, while still maintaining a more higher-end experience than the typical quick-service chain. As Shake Shack begins to expand the scope of menu possibilities, Lynch’s experience in helping to bring several new menu categories to Papa Johns could come in handy.

Last year, Shake Shack also emphasized that the company is looking to focus on development, specifically of drive-thru locations and licensed stores. While Shake Shack is currently the largest fast-casual burger chain in the U.S., the company would have a lot of work to do to crack the top 10 or even top 15 limited-service burger restaurants in the U.S.

This is also an area of expertise for Lynch, who helped to oversee a development boom for Papa Johns over the past couple of years, including several large domestic and international franchise deals. In his press statement included in the media announcement of the CEO transition, Lynch said he would “lead Shake Shack into the next phase of growth,” with founder Danny Meyer touting, “deep leadership experience with several well-established global brands will serve us well in executing on our long-term strategic priorities.”

Contact Joanna at [email protected]m

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