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    16 Young Restaurant Leaders to Watch

  • Donnelly Marks

    Poised for success

    What most people dream of accomplishing by the time they retire from the restaurant industry, these 16 leaders have accomplished by the time they were 35. Whether it’s developing international brands, implementing charitable initiatives that make a major impact, or owning a piece of a brand that’s older than they are, these young men and women are showing what millennials in foodservice are truly made of.

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    Donnelly Marks

    Caroline Jones
    Senior Vice President
    Jersey Mike’s Subs
    Manasquan, New Jersey
    Age: 30

    To say Caroline Jones has dedicated her life to Jersey Mike’s would be an understatement. As founder Peter Cancro’s daughter, Jones grew up discussing business around the dinner table, calling executives like Michael Manzo “Uncle Mike,” and working at the original Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, location at the ripe age of 14.

    In the 16 years since, Jones has worked in nearly every department possible on her way to becoming SVP—“Legal was my least favorite,” she jokes—helping bring her father’s vision to life and building upon a family culture at the company. “There are so many different area directors that I grew up looking up to,” she says. “And now I’m here to help them grow and invest in their future.”

    Jones has also been responsible for spearheading grand-opening marketing strategies and today is leading Jersey Mike’s initiative to redesign more than 1,350 locations. But it’s her role in the brand’s charitable giving program that’s her proudest achievement to date. Building a standardized platform for the annual Month of Giving, Jones helped secure more than $5.5 million in donations in 2017 alone. “Yes we’re a franchise,” Jones says, “but our franchisees want to get involved in their communities. They want to make a difference.’”

    As more franchisees join the brand, Jones has been forced to face the fact that she can’t always connect one-on-one with each new operator. “You don’t get to go to every opening and get to know their family like you did when there were only 20 stores. But you do the best you can in terms of keeping in touch and learning about the people that are within your business,” she says. “That’s something that’s going to be important to us as we grow: to keep that heritage and family aspect to our brand.”

    Your Pie

    Drew French
    Founder & President
    Your Pie
    Athens, Georgia
    Age: 34

    While most newlyweds spend their honeymoon relaxing, Drew French spent his dreaming up the idea for a fast-casual pizza concept. Learning how to make brick-oven pizza from his wife Natalie’s family in Naples, Italy, French brought his discoveries back to Athens, Georgia, where he opened the first Your Pie location in 2008. Now the brand has grown to more than 50 stores across the country, with 50 additional units in development. Dedicated to creating a strong sense of community, French—a member of Team USA in the World Pizza Championship—has made it his mission to give back, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to local charities and nonprofits through Your Pie and its guests.

    Josh Telles

    Uli Nasibova
    Founder & Owner
    Gelateria Uli
    Los Angeles
    Age: 34

    An Azerbaijan native who immigrated to the U.S. to attend college, Uli Nasibova spent her first eight post-grad years working in finance before discovering her love for gelato. Leaving her investment banking career to study food science, take master classes, and create her own gelato recipes from scratch, Nasibova opened the first Gelateria Uli in Los Angeles in 2014 (with a second that followed in August 2017). With a focus on local ingredients and unexpected flavors inspired by L.A.’s many immigrant communities, Nasibova is passionate about flavor experimentation, working savory ingredients like beet tarragon and sweet corn into the traditional Italian dessert

    Cheba Hut

    Marc Torres
    CEO
    Cheba Hut Toasted Subs
    Tempe, Arizona
    Age: 33

    Professionally speaking, Cheba Hut is all Marc Torres has ever known. Having joined the sandwich brand in college, Torres rose from hourly employee to general manager to chief operating officer. He now helms the 20-plus-unit chain, leading it to double-digit same-store sales growth and doubling system-wide sales over the last three years. Torres has also helped revive the concept’s new-store expansion by opening additional company stores without the need of outside equity partners. With the brand’s new round of growth underway, his next big goal is to reach 50 units nationwide.

    Melt Shop

    Spencer Rubin
    Founder & CEO
    Melt Shop
    New York City
    Age: 31

    Though many of his peers are still figuring out what they want to be when they grow up, Spencer Rubin has known for more than two decades that he wanted to make a home in the restaurant industry. Graduating from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration with dreams of becoming a fine-dining chef, Rubin quickly switched gears after taking a project management role for restaurant-related construction projects. It was here that he met Andrew Stern and John Rigos of Aurify Brands, who took Rubin under their wing and partnered with him to start his own business.

    At age 24, Rubin launched the grilled-cheese concept Melt Shop in New York City’s Midtown. While he had plenty of experience on the culinary side—“I grew up cooking my family’s dinner three or four times a week,” Rubin says—he faced a steep learning curve when it came to, well, everything else. “It was very challenging managing people, food consistency, profit and loss statements, supply chain, branding, and marketing. But when you kind of jump right into the deep end, it’s sink or swim,” he says. “On a personal level, I’m really happy I had the opportunity to struggle through all the different pieces of the business on my own without having any experience, because I think the learnings are so much greater.”

    Since the first 300-square-foot kiosk opened in 2011, Melt Shop has grown by every definition, bringing its corporate store count to eight, as well as launching its domestic and international franchise program last fall. To date, the brand has signed two franchise agreements to develop 28 locations across the Eastern Seaboard and the Middle East, with the first international locations opening in Kuwait this past January.

    Rubin’s ultimate goal is to open 100 stores in the next five years—a plan that explains why one of Melt Shop’s core values is to “Love the Hustle.”
    “Hard work wins every time in this business,” he says. “We’re just very fortunate that we have a team of like-minded people who are willing to put in the work when necessary

    Pincho Factory

    Otto Othman
    Cofounder & CMO
    Pincho Factory
    Miami
    Age: 33

    When Otto Othman and his cousins dreamed up the idea for Pincho Factory at a family barbecue in 2010, they wasted no time in getting the Latin street-food concept on its feet, launching the authentic pinchos (better known as kebabs) and burger brand within two days. While building the company from the ground up, Othman stuck with his nine-to-five job as a creative director until the team could fully support itself financially, and brought his 15-plus years of interactive design knowledge into crafting every aspect of the customer experience. His creative mind and focus on the guest has helped the brand grow to 10 stores in eight years, with plans to expand beyond Florida and ultimately gain international recognition.

    Dorothee Brand

    Ryan Suddendorf
    Cofounder & Vice President
    Evergreens
    Seattle
    Age: 31

    Earning his chops at San Francisco’s Pier 39 and full-service Mexican concept Copita, Ryan Suddendorf made the transition to limited service when he opened Evergreens in 2013 with a pair of college and childhood friends. Suddendorf’s expertise in operations and finance allowed him to not only build the salad concept’s menu from scratch, but also design systems and a financial model that would lead to scalable growth. In less than five years, he’s helped Evergreens expand to eight locations and hire more than 150 employees, and he’ll be leading the charge on new-unit expansion as the brand branches into a second market this year.

    Spinfish Poke House

    Katrina Vargas

    Cofounder
    Spinfish Poke House
    Los Angeles
    Age: 33

    Working more than a decade for a major wireless corporation, Katrina Fargas jumped feet-first into fast-casual waters when she and her best friend, Andy Saedan, opened Spinfish Poke House in 2015. Just three years later, the brand boasts four additional stores in the greater Los Angeles area, with plans for continued expansion in 2018 and beyond. Fargas credits Spinfish’s success thus far to its house-made sauces—which the pair spent two years testing to create “the most delicious, handcrafted sauces outside of Hawaii”—along with a five-star customer service approach she learned from her time in the wireless industry.

    Bryce Anne Tiefer

    Larissa Pepe
    Director of Operations
    Burton Holdings
    Tampa, Florida
    Age: 25

    When Larissa Pepe answered an ad on Craigslist for a server position at a Burton Holdings restaurant, she never could have imagined that it would lead to the role she’s in today. “The day I met Dave [Burton], I knew that we were going to be friends,” Pepe says of the president of Burton Holdings, a restaurant group with fast-casual and full-service concepts across the Tampa market. “He just kept handing me responsibility and would see if I could rise to the challenge. It turned into me taking over his pizza restaurant downtown as a general manager.”

    From there, she began to design menus, oversee staffing and training, learn about all aspects of the restaurant operation, and eventually run Burton’s many restaurants for him. “Because I’m younger and I went to school for something different than he did, I kind of bring a different way of looking at the business for him,” says Pepe, who graduated with a degree in psychology and sociology and is now taking classes for a finance certificate from Cornell.

    Last year, Pepe helped create two new Burton restaurants from scratch—Heights Melts and Heights Fish Camp—which opened in Tampa on the same day. “I did everything with our partner from the ground up: manuals, recipes, all training, all design, kitchen layout, everything,” she says. This year, she’s developing two additional concepts, Gen X (an ’80s- and ’90s-themed bar) and Flock and Stock, a fast-casual burger and chicken joint.

    At each of these restaurants, it’s Pepe’s personal passion to develop new leaders and make sure her employees have the chance to be heard. “We try to choose people who are young and have a different way of looking at things,” she says, mirroring her own experience with the restaurant group. “I want to give them the opportunity to come up with an idea and feel like they’re part of something bigger, instead of just coming to work to do their job.”

    Penn Station East Coast Subs

    Lance Vaught
    Vice President of Operations
    Penn Station East Coast Subs
    Milford, Ohio
    Age: 35

    It’s every intern’s dream: Working your way up from the bottom to become the youngest vice president in company history. And at Penn Station, that was Lance Vaught’s reality. Joining the corporate office after graduating from college in 2006, Vaught has seen the brand grow from 130 units to more than 315, supporting nearly 5,000 unit-level employees for the concept’s 80-plus franchisees. He’s spearheaded a new training process for the brand, launching a career path program designed to move entry-level employees up the chain. The new training program also features interactive videos that have reduced training time by half and resulted in significantly higher training scores.

    Chicken & Rice Guys

    Ian So
    CEO
    Chicken & Rice Guys
    Boston
    Age: 30

    What Ian So lacked in industry experience before launching Chicken & Rice Guys (cnr), he made up for in foresight, noticing a niche in the Boston street-food market and filling it with his instantly popular halal food truck. “Right from the opening day, we were really lucky in choosing a product that people liked,” So says. “We sold out our first two days, and served 200 customers in just a few hours.”

    Since that successful day in 2012, So has launched three additional trucks, opened as many brick-and-mortar stores, created a commissary kitchen, and developed a booming catering business. And while there were natural growing pains along the way, it was the challenge So faced in 2017 that made him the leader he is today. After an E. coli outbreak was traced back to CNR last spring, the brand was forced to shut down operations for nine days, as well as furlough its food trucks and crew for an entire six months.

    But with the support of his network and a renewed vigor for creating more formalized policies meant to prevent similar issues in the future, So brought the brand back into the black and has his sights set on the future. His short-term goals include becoming the country’s first national food-truck chain, as well as launching a truck franchising system that allows employees to buy into the business. “With food trucks, we figured [franchising] is a very good fit, because they’re so unpredictable and they have so many issues,” So says. “Sometimes you just need an ownership touch to make it work.”

    Wing Zone

    Jessica & Andrea Perez
    Franchisees
    Wing Zone
    San Antonio, Texas
    Ages: 24 (Jessica) & 22 (Andrea)

    One way to describe Jessica and Andrea Perez’s business M.O.? It’s all in the family. Though the sisters became the official owners of a Wing Zone franchise last May, they did so with the support of their mom, aunt, and Andrea’s husband, all of whom work in the store alongside the Perez siblings. Having been born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. in their early teens, the pair has entrepreneurship in their blood, with family members owning everything from laundromats and hair salons to restaurants and marketing firms in Mexico. Though new to foodservice, the Perez sisters aren’t ready to stop at one unit, with hopes to open a second location in the very near future.

    Dos Toros

    Marcus Byrd
    Marketing Manager
    Dos Toros
    New York City
    Age: 25

    Growing up in the age of social media, it’s no surprise that Marcus Byrd has a knack for digital marketing. Creating campaigns for the NBA’s All Star and Draft games while still attending Georgetown University, Byrd went on to craft a Shorty Award–nominated Instagram campaign for Dos Toros, with @pintotheburrito amassing more than 134,000 followers. In his nearly three years with the taqueria chain, he’s increased the brand’s Instagram following from 1,300 followers to nearly 35,000, with similar success stories for Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. As head of the Dos Toros marketing team, Byrd oversees everything from corporate social responsibility campaigns and customer relationship management to media relations and in-store marketing.

    Cream

    Gus Shamieh
    Cofounder & President
    CREAM
    Los Angeles
    Age: 28

    Inspired by his mother’s homemade cookies and ice cream, Gus Shamieh and his father, Jimmy, set out to create a Bay Area ice cream sandwich brand in 2010. Today, CREAM (which stands for Cookies Rule Everything Around Me) has nearly 30 locations throughout California, Nevada, Colorado, and Florida, with 40 additional units under development. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Shamieh built and franchised the brand while attending Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. That education developed a deep knowledge of franchise law, helping the brand negotiate partnerships with everyone from the San Francisco Giants to the Care Bears.

    Coolgreens

    Cassidi Brown
    Franchisee
    Coolgreens
    Dallas
    Age: 26

    Cassidi Brown’s approach to becoming the first Coolgreens franchisee boiled down to the three P’s: persistence, patience, and positivity. The Texas native fell in love with the salad concept during her college days in Oklahoma—when she and her now-husband would visit Coolgreens three or four times each week—and after graduating, she knew she wanted to bring the brand back to Dallas as a unit owner. But like all good love stories, it didn’t play out so smoothly.


    “There were a lot of dead ends I kept running into,” Brown says, noting that after weeks of conversations about becoming a franchisee, the brand told her to wait another six months before they would be ready to launch their franchise program. “So I marked it on my calendar, I waited six months, and I reached back out.”


    Still, talks stalled—so much so that Brown was ready to open her own health foods store in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But on the same day she was submitting her Entity Formation paperwork, she discovered that Coolgreens was launching its franchise program at last. “I immediately reached out that day. I gave them my résumé, I gave them my dreams, my hopes—everything I could pack into one email, I did,” she says. “I wanted a big flag to come up and say, ‘Don’t look past me. I want this.’”


    Fortunately, Coolgreens took notice, bringing Brown on board as its first-ever franchisee. And though her adventure in ownership has just begun, Brown’s goal is to open at least six additional units over the next five years. “To me, it comes down to how many people I can reach,” she says. “I want to make a positive impact on every one of my employees and customers. I want to be the one who plants that seed in their mind and their heart of joy, care, peace, and love.”