What Drives Sharky’s CEO Steven Paperno

Steven Paperno, the founder and CEO Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, started Sharky’s in 1992.
Steven Paperno, the founder and CEO Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, started Sharky’s in 1992.
Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill

My parents started a little Jewish delicatessen in Southern California. By the age of 6, I could stand on a milk crate behind the counter, and I learned how to help people. Hospitality is just part of who I am. It’s literally part of my DNA.

At 18, I went off on my own and started a food manufacturing company. I always loved chocolate-dipped bananas, so I decided I was going to be the chocolate-banana king. I created all different flavors—it was called Top Banana. As an entrepreneur, it’s truly the drive and the vision you have. Nothing stops you. When people say it’s not going to work, which is a million times a day, you don’t listen. You just keep going because you’re kind of wired that way.

I was always into health and fitness; that was just who I was. I had an affinity for Mexican food and wanted to create a very healthy, fitness-style Mexican grill. I started Sharky’s in 1992. I wasn’t trying to be the biggest and the best and all that; I was following my vision. We started off on a shoestring and one thing led to the next. We started building stores, and people really loved the product.

I look back today at what we’ve done. It’s evolved so much and I think that is what’s allowed Sharky’s to be successful. I’ve watched other people grow their businesses much faster; I’ve also watched those businesses unfortunately falter. Our team is very passionate about what we do, and it’s also allowing us to grow much faster in the last year and moving forward.

We call ourselves premium fast casual, and we’ve been in the organic and natural scene way before it was cool. When the recession happened, everybody else was creating a value proposition based on discount; we did the opposite. We knew the people who come to us, the people who live that lifestyle, were never going to sacrifice it for dollars. They want to come in and have the experience. Our guest is not the one that’s going to say, “I want a $5 product.” They’re the one who says, “I want better ingredients, I want to be served better, I want to feel better.”


What’s your favorite menu item at Sharky’s?

My normal go-to is our Power Plates; I love to have fresh salmon or chicken breast and then choose the sides.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

Besides my children and my family, I like adventure—from snowboarding to mountain biking to working on mechanical things, like building an airplane.

Who has inspired you as a leader?

I’m not inspired by someone who we as a society might call successful. I’m inspired by people like my COO David Goldstein, who are so passionate about what they do that they don’t deviate and they find success in that.

What is the best piece of advice you think quick-service executives should hear?

Do not deviate from your vision just because somebody else is being successful doing something different. Stay true to yourself and stay true to your beliefs—just do it better.