The past year was likely a bonanza for outplacement firms, or at least ones that specialized in the restaurant industry. The big offices on the “C” levels of many chains proved to be sweatboxes more than comfy safe harbors. Even companies with relatively stable management saw personnel changes at the top (think Starbucks). And new chiefs assumed the helm from at least five chain founders.
Here’s a review of the executive changes in 2015 that hold the most profound implications for the business in the years beyond.
Steve Easterbrook succeeds Don Thompson as CEO
A new CEO is appointed to lead the industry’s largest company about as often as a new pope is named. This year’s switch was particularly unusual because a CEO was replaced despite being in good health and below the conventional retirement age. Easterbrook inherited what is likely the toughest turnaround challenge his charge has ever faced. His strategy parallels what he did in turning around McDonald’s U.K. operations several years ago, just on a far, far larger stage.
Julia Stewart succeeds Steve Layt as president
The ailing casual giant attributed the change to a relocation of headquarters, a move Layt reportedly was unwilling to make. Now Stewart is point person on a turnaround that has eluded the brand for years. And she has a day job as CEO of Applebee’s parent, DineEquity. Can she find the magic in her second go-round as president?
4. Darden Restaurants
Gene Lee, permanent CEO, succeeds Gene Lee, interim CEO
He was one of the few executives left standing after an investment group wrested control of the board, ousting literally every sitting director. The newcomers gave him the title of interim CEO and the task of finding his permanent replacement, an assignment akin to digging your own grave. But the powers were smart enough to realize what a star they had, and halted the search. The decision, and Lee’s leadership, are already showing positive effects. One analyst has dubbed his style “Lee-dership.”
5. Ignite Restaurant Group
Bob Merritt succeeds Ray Blanchette as CEO
The change was more of a passing of a torch than a mere replacement of the nameplate outside the corner office. Blanchette founded Ignite with intentions of building a multi-unit company in part through acquisitions. Yet an early deal, the purchase of Romano’s Macaroni Grill, proved disastrous. It not only siphoned off revenues and profits, but diverted management’s attention from Joe’s Crab Shack and Brick House, both of which slipped into negative comp territory. The change marks Merritt’s first shot as a restaurant CEO, though the former Outback CFO logged time in the big office of the Benjamen Moore paint company before taking the post.
6. Panera Bread Co.
Drew Madsen becomes president
A former president and COO of Darden Restaurants, Madsen brings a big-company sensibility to Panera, where the entrepreneurial spirit seems to burn eternally in the heart and mind of CEO Ron Shaich. More studious and reserved in manner, Madsen has the ops chops to steady the fast casual chain’s transition to Panera 2.0, one of the industry’s more ambitious efforts to embrace technology.
Phil Keiser succeeds Craig Culver as CEO
After 19 years at the burger and custard chain, Keiser was probably as close to a Culver as the family-run company could come in naming a successor to its founder. Don’t look for radical changes—in part because Culver still has an advisory role. The planned change in command came exactly on Culver’s 65th birthday.
Keith Kinsey succeeds Dick Portillo as CEO
In case you’ve been frozen in a glacier for the last 18 months: A Boston private-equity firm bought the family-run Portillo’s hotdog chain for what was conjectured to be $1 billion. And that’s not a typo, and, yes, Portillo’s had 38 restaurants at the time. Kinsey is the new owners’ pick to grow the chain and generate a return on that investment. In case he’s not sweating already, the former Noodles & Company president is only the second CEO Portillo’s has ever known. As Kinsey himself has acknowledged in interviews, his main challenge is not to screw up the cult favorite.
9. Taco Bell
Brian Niccol succeeds Greg Creed as CEO
Sustaining Taco Bell’s outstanding success is challenging enough. Niccol has to maintain that momentum while the strategist for the stellar run keeps watch on the effort (Creed moved up to CEO of Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands). Niccol came out of marketing, which seems to have as much to do with Taco Bell’s standout performance as of late as does its hyperactive R&D kitchen. Meanwhile, since Taco Bell is Yum’s least-developed brand overseas, he’ll likely be wracking up some serious frequent-flyer miles.
10. Bonefish Grill
Gregg Scarlett succeeds Stephen Judge as president
A push upstream didn’t work for Bonefish, the seafood version of sister concept Outback Steakhouse. Price-sensitive customers were turned off, the higher culinary requirements complicated ticket operations, and sales dropped accordingly. Scarlett was called in to assume the helm from Judge, now the CEO of Tony Roma’s. In announcing Scarlett’s promotion, executives of parent company Bloomin’ Brands noted that he’d been involved with the concept since it was netted by the company. His task is to take Bonefish back to where it was—while leaving open the opportunity to broaden the concept’s appeal.
Kevin Johnson succeeds Howard Schultz as president
The coffee chain’s commitment to technology was underscored by Schultz’s surrender of his president’s title to Johnson (who also assumed the role of COO, succeeding Troy Alstead, who took a permanent “personal leave” that was never explained.) Johnson had worked for Microsoft, IBM and, most recently, a tech firm called Juniper Enterprises. He’d been on Starbucks’ board since 2009. Not surprisingly, Starbucks accelerated its rollout of new tech after Johnson booted up. And among Johnson’s hires: The chain’s first chief technology officer.