May 17, 2022

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Women in the Lead 2022: 13 female execs share experiences| Fast Forward: Women of Fast Casual

FastCasual is celebrating International Women’s Day with our annual Women in the Lead story, featuring the stories of 13 females leading the industry.

Happy International Women’s Day!

March 8 is my favorite day of the year and not only because it’s my birthday, but also because I love that there is one day when the entire planet is encouraged to think about all the ways that women’s contributions keep this crazy world moving. And the fast casual industry is no exception, despite the fact that the odds of a woman reaching the executive leadership level were only one woman to 5.9 men at the end of 2019 and dropped to 5.7 in 2020.

“Change at these levels is slow because they are usually career-capping long-term positions. However, economic drivers including the strain of responding to COVID-19 and demographic drivers, such as a preponderance of Baby Boomer men in these roles, will result in significant turnover in the next few years, according to the Women in Hospitality Industry Leadership, a report published last year by The Castle Project, a non-profit company that strives to enable companies and their female employees to fully benefit from workforce participation. “The challenge for the industry is to fully develop a diverse talent pool so that the best candidate for the company can emerge. The best candidate is sometimes, but not always, male.”

Should there be more females in chef and c-suite roles? Of course, but we are making headway and proving ourselves along the way.

Companies with over 30% of women on their executive teams, for example, are significantly more likely to outperform those with between 10 and 30% women, according to The Castle Project‘s findings, which also revealed that those companies were more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women executives. As a result, there is a substantial performance differential — 48%— between the most and least gender-diverse

FastCasual is honored to feature 13 female leaders who are beating the odds and helping other women make it to the top as well. They include:

  • Adenah Bayoh, CEO of Cornbread and Urban Vegan, IHOP franchisee.
  • Hollie Matthys, CFO, Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream.
  • Brianna Keefe, founder & CEO of Toastique.
  • Michele Maerz,VP of Operations of Salata Salad Kitchen.
  • Deborah Von Kutzleben, CMO of Tropical Smoothie Cafe.
  • Julie Wade, CMO, Taziki’s.
  • Denise Pedini, SVP of Guest Experience at Newk’s Eatery.
  • Leslie Monson, EVP and CMO of Ballard Brands.
  • Shauna Smith, CEO, Savory Restaurant Fund.
  • Sue Petersen, EVP, Inclusion, Diversity and People at Noodles & Co.
  • Stacey Pool, CMO at Noodles & Co.
  • Allison Chavez, founder, Sweet Paris.
  • Renae Scott, CMO, Ike’s Love & Sandwiches.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: My grandmother really helped to shape my entrepreneurial drive. When I was 7, I started working in her restaurant/kitchen in a Liberian village named Foya. I lived there until the Civil War broke out. We fled to our neighboring country, Sierra Leone, West Africa as refugees, and my grandmother continued to cook and serve our neighbors there. When we were in the refugee camp, my cousin and I would cross back into Liberia to get fruits and vegetables and then sell them in the camp in Sierra Leone. I was always hungry for opportunities. Five years later, I came to the United States of America and began my first job at McDonald’s at the age of 13. It was these experiences that made me the entrepreneur and woman I am today.
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: Jennifer Schuler, the CEO of Wetzel Pretzel. I truly admire Jennifer for her kindness. She and I connected last year and she has been so gracious to me. She has opened her network to me and has been very generous with her time and support as I build my brand. I believe that a key to leadership is ‘lifting as you climb’ and Jennifer embodies this concept in how she is paving the way for other women to thrive and achieve success. I admire her for her generosity, time, and advice.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Be bold. Know that you are extremely smart, and you belong in every room where decisions are being made. Hold onto your vision of yourself and don’t let others tell you you’re not capable—that you’re not worthy—because you are. With hard work and tenacity, you can achieve whatever you set out to do. Just hold onto your dreams and don’t let anyone discourage you. Finally, be humble and support other women as you rise. I prioritize promoting exceptional women into leadership positions at my restaurants, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of mentors who passed their experience in leadership on to me.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: When starting my first IHOP franchise in Irvington, I was turned down by seven banks before I was able to secure a loan. I never took no for an answer! I always kept in mind that when one door closes another one opens because on the eighth bank, I was approved. Today, I am living my dream and opening new locations of my personal franchises Cornbread and Urban Vegan.

How I got started in the restaurant industry:I was assigned to audit Happy Joe’s on my first job with a public accounting firm after graduating from college. I loved the friendly, caring staff there and especially “Happy” Joe (Whitty, owner) and his overall sincerity of wanting to make a difference in everyone that he encountered, be it a child, guest, team member, franchisee, or individual that was down on his luck. I audited Happy Joe’s for several years and then took an accounting position in a small manufacturing company for 16 years. Happy Joe’s kept in touch all those years and approached me to come work for them in 2003. I knew that I was ready for a change and to work for a company whose core values align with my own was a huge relief. It felt more than right. And so, my history with Happy Joe’s took up where I left off so many years earlier!
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: Julia Stewart, CEO of IHOP and Applebee’s. She led the two chains through years of growth and transformation. Julia’s philosophy was to coach, to make all employees feel a valued part of every team and to show respect to one and all.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Attitude, patience and flexibility. Things in the restaurant industry can change at the drop of a hat. It is always important to keep focused on priorities, be flexible, have patience, and still have a smile on your face at the end of the day.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: Guilt. It’s difficult to be a career woman with a family and not feel the guilt of not being a mom while you’re at work and then overcoming the guilt that you feel when you’re at home of all the things that you should be doing at work. It’s a challenge that we all face.

How I got started in the restaurant industry:I started as a host at one of my favorite restaurants when I was in high school and eventually started serving. I have always been a people-oriented person and I loved that I could talk and meet new people every day. I also loved that the harder I worked, the more tips I would receive. I liked that my reward was solely based on my own work, and no one could put a value to my time, besides myself. That’s what motivated me to own my own restaurant because there was no cap or limit that I could achieve.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Know your worth, stand your ground and kick ass.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: As a recent 23-year-old college grad, I had to convince the developers of the newest, hottest waterfront area in Washington, D.C. that Toastique and I were worthy enough to be a part of their new development. I was a young woman with zero credibility. I worked in restaurants, but I never owned one. Nutrition and cooking are hobbies of mine, but I don’t have professional training. All I had were my passion and commitment to make them take a chance on me. They eventually did, which put Toastique on the map and is the reason I was able to break through this male-dominated industry.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: I had my first experience in the industry as a hostess at Red Lobster in San Antonio during high school, where I worked to save money for college. During that time, I had two amazing supervisors, Mr. Brown and Mr. Poe, who served as early mentors and exposed me to the opportunities within the industry. Later, I joined Brinker International (Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy) and was mentored by Todd Diener, Creed Ford, Norman Brinker and many others during my tenure. My industry education expanded even more under the leadership of Jerry Deitchle and Lon Ledwith giving me a broader foundation on which to grow.
The women I most admire in the restaurant industry and why: The restaurant industry is largely male-dominated and therefore I have worked for and been mentored by many wonderful men in my time. However, there are two women that I have worked with and admired over the course of my career. Jan Barr, former Senior VP of HR of Brinker International, had such an amazing ability to connect with people and always seemed to maintain her sense of humor no matter what challenges she may have been facing at the time. Additionally, Vicki Parker, VP of training and development, taught me to take advantage of opportunities as they come along and be willing to learn and expand your skill set instead of staying in your comfort zone. A great lesson for everyone.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: To me, leadership starts with truly connecting and caring about your people. When trust is established in an organization, it gives everyone the ability to share openly and honestly in an effort to improve the performance of an individual or the organization as a whole.

“Your people really don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.”

Strive to never be too intimidated to ask for help or advice, while also seeking to offer solutions vs excuses. Approach every opportunity with the mindset of a victor and never a victim.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today: There were several experiences and challenges that led me to realize my philosophy toward mentoring my teams and my leadership style, but one in particular stands out to me that actually didn’t occur while at work.

When my daughter was in fifth grade, I was balancing being a single mother while also maintaining a full-time job in the restaurant industry. I was doing my best to help her with her school work and projects, but with my work responsibilities. I wasn’t able to dedicate as much time to her as I would have liked. That year, my daughter was blessed with a teacher who took an interest in her growth and found what made her shine. As a parent, you always hope that when your kids are away from you that someone will be there to inspire and encourage them. I will be forever be grateful to Mrs. Winters for being that someone for my daughter.

This experience helped me recognize that in my own work, I wasn’t doing enough to see my team as whole people vs just employees. Each person that I work with is someone’s loved one, someone’s child or sister or brother. Since this experience, I changed my mentality to see each person as more than a number or employee, but as a unique individual that has something special to contribute. It is my responsibility as their mentor and leader to find out where this person can shine within their role and help them improve to contribute their best to the organization or company.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: After more than 22 years working at an advertising agency, I not only made the jump to the corporate side of marketing, but also to the QSR-space. I was fortunate enough to start as a VP at one of the category’s most-established brands and gained invaluable insight on the industry, while also making great use of the fast-paced, service mentality that I gained in my agency experience. And what a time to enter the industry — the amount of growth and change I’ve seen in just under six years is remarkable. Working with Tropical Smoothie Cafe is a marketer’s dream and I look forward to growing with the brand.
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: There are so many incredible women in the restaurant industry right now, but Sonic President Claudia San Pedro immediately comes to mind. I had the pleasure of spending some time with her and I’ve learned she is not just a whip-smart businesswoman but is also someone who cares deeply about her team. At Tropical Smoothie Cafe, we are very focused on our people, so that quality of hers really resonates with me. It’s also inspiring to see the kind of success she’s experienced staying with a brand long-term, being continually recognized and rewarded for her talents.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: I love this quote from Ava DuVernay, the American filmmaker, that really hits home for me. “If your dream is only about you, it’s too small.” I think our superpower as women is to think beyond just ourselves and really care about how to lift the whole team. I believe that when the group succeeds, you succeed. That’s the essence of our culture at Tropical Smoothie Cafe.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: As I have progressed in my career, it was difficult at times to let go of being involved in developing the tactics and executing the strategy as I’ve moved into more leadership roles. But over time I’ve learned, I’m of most value to my team when I define the vision for where we’re headed, provide inspiration and optimism that we’ll get there, and remove the barriers that get in the way of the team’s success.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: I joined start-up Yogurt Mountain in 2011 and helped it more than double in size in seven years. I had roles in product development, marketing, franchise development and operations during that time. My proudest accomplishment was creating a frozen custard flavor based on an old family recipe: “Aunt Ida’s Pound Cake,” which was served in Yogurt Mountain locations from Florida to Maryland to Texas, was a top-seller and continually requested by customers.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Learn everything you can about the business. Even if you are in marketing or HR, learn about supply chain, COGs, and unit-level economics. The more well-rounded you are, the more valuable you become to your organization.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: Early in my career I was given a tremendous amount of responsibility and it was a great challenge for me to navigate the role of manager with very little work experience under my belt. Thankfully, I had strong mentors who helped guide me through the tough times.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: I started working at a local restaurant in college, and then after graduation, I ended up working at an advertising agency. My first client was Pizza Hut, and my love for the industry grew from there!
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: I most admire Tressie Lieberman, VP of Digital and Off-premises at Chipotle. Not only is she a great friend, but she is an amazing leader. Her love for her coworkers and her unbelievable talent in creating extreme brand awareness in the digital and social space inspire me every day.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: My biggest piece of advice is to be intentional in your plan. Vividly outline your career and create a plan to achieve it. This might mean taking jobs based on experience rather than salary, joining a networking group, or finding a mentor who will help guide you in the right direction. Don’t be afraid of change because it has the ability to push you towards your goals. It’s important to invest in yourself.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: I was in the middle of my career when I had my first child. I struggled about whether to stay home with my kids and put a halt on my career or continue working full time with my kids in daycare.

I made the decision to stay home with my kids and ended up working as a consultant on a part-time basis. Not only was I able to spend more time with my kids, but I was able to work on big projects for several companies that added to my experience. One of these consulting jobs led to my next full-time role as the head of a marketing department. You can be a wonderful mom and still have a successful career, you just may need to get creative and find what works best for you and your family.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and my first job was working as a hostess in a local restaurant. It was there that I discovered my passion for providing people with positive experiences in the restaurant industry. I also spent 12 years in the gaming and hospitality sector, where I marketed many dining establishments on various casino properties. My current role with Ballard Brands allows me the opportunity to work with our family of franchisees to bring the taste and feel of New Orleans to the rest of the world through the many different brand we represent.
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: The story of Ruth Fertel has always stuck with me, and she is a huge role model in my life. A New Orleans native, she was a single mother, pioneer, and fantastic businesswoman who built an empire with Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Her focus on community, service, and her unwavering commitment to excellence are qualities I admire. At Ballard Brands, we also work to put others before us by practicing servant leadership. Our goal is to constantly support the communities we serve.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: I always tell women to “Do what makes you feel uncomfortable and go for it.” If it’s interviewing, go on lots of interviews until you feel more comfortable answering questions. If it’s speaking in front of people, force yourself to make the first step and present a topic to your team, or join an organization like Toastmasters. You will learn skill sets that will help you overcome obstacles and build your confidence in what may not come naturally.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: The biggest challenge I’ve ever faced had to do with my family. Within a three-year timespan in my mid 30’s, my son suffered traumatic hand injuries in a treadmill accident requiring three surgeries, my daughter was born with a VSD and ASD which required open-heart surgery to repair at two months of age, and my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I learned very early in my life and career that family comes first, and you can’t control what is going to happen. You have to take the tough days one day at a time and accept support and help from others when they offer it. I’m happy to say everyone is healthy now, but I am grateful for that experience, as it made me a more empathetic leader. Additionally, it’s given me a bigger reason to reach out to others internally and externally to ensure they have the tools and support they need to be successful both personally and professionally.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: This whole thing began, for me, because I was hungry. We didn’t have great food options in our neighborhood, so I asked myself, “what would I want if I could choose a restaurant in my own neighborhood?” We opened our first restaurant, a bakery and café in 2008. I didn’t know much about being a restaurant operator, but I was committed and willing to do anything it took to run a successful business. I donned my apron, hat and hairnet, and did everything from A to Z in that restaurant.
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: I admire the person who has risen above challenges, who leads with strength, yet humility. The woman who does the right thing and stands behind it. I admire the person who leaves a fingerprint for good on the world, who can be both strong and vulnerable. Someone who I look to as an example of all these things is Flora Tersigni with The Maggiori Group. She is an inspiration as a mother, a wife, a grandmother and a boss businesswoman! Flora is a baller in this industry, and I admire her so much.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Women are amazing at so many things. When I think of how I’ve gotten to where I am today and what advice I could share for women wanting to lead in this industry, I would say to identify opportunities to help solve problems, then jump in with your amazing attention to detail and collaboration skills and do the work. You will quickly find that not only does the team look to you as the leader, but you will be the likely candidate when those leadership roles become real opportunities.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: A%$holes. I am so fortunate to mostly have associations with amazing humans. But there have been times where I’ve encountered humans who are selfish, who wish to inflict pain and want a pound of flesh. They require too much time and energy to manage and most always suck the life out of everyone around them. What an inefficient way to spend my/our time! Which is why I now have a “no a%$hole policy.” It has certainly made my days brighter and more efficient.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: One of my first jobs in high school was working at a local restaurant. I continued to work my way through college in the food service industry. After gaining my BA in Business Management / Human Resources, my first career position was in the restaurant industry working in Operations. I’ve basically been in the industry ever since. It’s in my blood.
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: What first came to mind – My grandmother, Lottie Brunsvold along with my mother, Sharon Sanders. They were both way ahead of their times. Though my grandmother was not in the restaurant industry, she was in the retail space and was a small business owner in the ’60s owning and operating a department store that catered to all household and family needs; she showed me that as a woman you can do anything you set your mind to. My mother followed closely in her footsteps and opened a drive-in restaurant in the ’70s. I was just a young girl at that time (about 6 years old), but I have memories of being in the restaurant, taking customer orders, bussing tables, interacting with the guests, and watching my mom grow a small thriving business. These two women showed to me that the sky was the limit and regardless of who you are, you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to. They both truly inspired me to not settle and to go after my dreams.

If you’d rather have a more traditional example of a woman in the industry who I have been impacted / inspired by, I’d have to say Gretchen Selfridge, previous Restaurant Support Officer at Chipotle. I worked with Gretchen from 1998 to 2005, and during that time she was a female leader working in a man’s world. She was a tough yet empathetic leader, someone I looked up to and admired. She was not afraid or intimidated to go up against any other leaders in the company / industry. As I watched her grow her career, I knew I wanted to follow her path. She didn’t put up with any crap from anyone and had the guts and drive to make things happen.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: MY advice would be 3-fold:

  1. Believe in yourself and have the courage to take control of your career: create a plan – where do you see yourself, and what do you need to learn / experience in order to get there. Write that plan out and present it to your leaders. Ask them for feedback to your plan and to support you in bringing your plan to life.
  2. Take risks and put yourself out there: you don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to know what questions to ask and be inquisitive and have a network (see #3) who will give you opportunities to grow.
  3. Building Relationships / Networking is key: Seek out leaders in your organization or the industry who you admire – make connections with them. Ask for advice and create a network so that you have support in your corner.

The sky’s the limit: don’t ever second guess your ability to be a leader and have impact on the broader business.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: Creating my own personal brand. Early on in my career I was very focused on pleasing others, not making waves or sharing my voice if it was not aligned with the majority. I tended to lack the confidence to speak up and also was at times labeled an emotional leader. It took a lot of self-reflection, stepping outside of my comfort zone, and having mentors who believed in me to help me bring my voice to the table and be heard.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: I fell in love with the restaurant industry as a server early in life. I spent many years in other industries, but my focus has always been on the guest. So, it was a natural fit for me personally when I was able to join Noodles & Company in early 2020. I am so grateful that I have been given this opportunity because it allows me to pursue my passion for creating exceptional guest experiences. I feel very blessed to work for a company that cares so deeply about understanding what motivates the guest and creating uncommonly good experiences that drive brand loyalty.
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: There are many inspirational women across the restaurant industry so it is hard to mention just one. The women that have inspired me the most over the past two years are the women on my team. The last few years have been very challenging for everyone, but watching the young mothers on my team try and balance work while also having young children at home was truly inspirational. These women are passionate and ambitious, and they have the desire to grow in their careers, but the last few years brought unprecedented challenges that tested their patience and their confidence. They persevered and have grown more than I could have ever imagined. I am inspired by their love for their families and their endless commitment to Noodles.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Be courageous. Your voice matters. Find the courage to speak up, challenge the status quo, and put your point of view out there. Be a positive, vocal leader in every opportunity you find throughout the day. We have the opportunity to truly transform the industry, and the only way this will happen is if we use our voices.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: I learned that it is OK to ask for help. Early on in my career, I didn’t believe it was OK to be vulnerable. I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know something or that I didn’t have the answer. I think women feel they need to prove themselves to progress in their career so rather than asking for help they put their head down and work harder. I began to really progress in my career when I was comfortable enough to say “I don’t know” or “I need help”. I am extremely grateful for the women in my life that showed me how to do this and the ones that responded with “I am here to support you”.

How I got started in the restaurant industry: If I had been asked at 22 if I would ever be in the restaurant industry, I think the response would have been an incredulous “I doubt it”. Only several years later, I would change my tune. My background was in finance and real estate; and as it turns out, those skills were very appliable to the hospitality industry. My husband and I truly came up with the concept of Sweet Paris as consumers and millennials who knew what we wanted to eat, in the ambiance we desired, and at the price point we sought. The other details came together with the support and expertise of long-term restaurant operators who we brought onto our team. But the vision really came from discovering a missing niche in our own Houston market.
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: While there are many women doing very impressive things in the restaurant industry, especially in a post-Covid world, it is the women that are often the backbone of this business who I admire the most. Restaurant operations are not for the faint of heart. The hours are long, the work is exhausting, and the expectations from customers are high. There is also much opportunity in the restaurant business. I am constantly in amazement of the work of our female prep gals, crepe crafters, food runners, cashiers and managers, who create a sisterhood at every store to promote and support each other.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Trust your instinct about what your customer desires. At Sweet Paris, our customer base is about 75% female, and perhaps that is no coincidence. We created a family friendly environment (literally marine-grade banquette fabric to prevent fork holes!), comfortable, airy interiors with natural light, and beautiful food at an accessible price point. Secondly, learn to delegate early. A common pitfall is micromanaging to the point of losing the bigger picture. Carefully selecting teammates you can trust to execute your vision on a daily basis will free you to adjust as your macro concept evolves.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: Speaking to my second point of advice, overcoming micromanagement was an early challenge. It was tempting to continue to make myself the ultimate decider of every decision, but ultimately that led to a big bottleneck that slowed everyone down. Time is indeed money, and there are many other external challenges that can delay restaurant openings. Empowering the right team of leaders in their respective areas — kitchen design, construction, staff training — saves time in the moment and avoids redoes in the future.

How I got started in the restaurant industry
: After working my way through college as a waitress, I was hired as a Field Marketing Manager at Carl’s Jr where I spent 10 years working my way up to VP of Marketing and Media. Carl’s Jr. offered a fantastic intro to the restaurant world with all the structure and process in place to enable success. After that I moved on to be CMO at some great brands: Round Table Pizza, Togo’s, Abuelo’s and now Ike’s!
The woman I most admire in the restaurant industry is and why: While at Carl’s Jr. was partnered with Linda Shreve. She was a strong and driven operations lead who showed me how true collaboration across functions can produce results beyond what we could have ever done staying in our silos. Partnering with operations has been one of the keys to my success across many brands and she instilled that in me.
Advice for other women hoping to be a leader in the industry: Don’t wait to be asked to participate -take the lead! There are projects, meetings, and decisions being made every day that need your unique perspective and input. When you see a project that could use your perspective – insert yourself there. Lean into opportunities to to share your expertise and to learn and grow.
One challenge I overcame to make it to where I am today was: Being the only woman in the room or at the executive table can be a challenge. I have been told I am being bossy (thank you!) and pushy (really?). Don’t let these things slide. Address them head-on with your colleagues and then move on. Each day should be a new day!