They made the boldest headlines in what was indisputably an up-and-down year. The ups were rocket shots to nosebleed heights, and the downs were just as extreme—catastrophic, yet wellsprings of outrage and surprise.
Here are six individuals who contributed to the rollercoaster ride.
Steve Easterbrook, CEO, McDonald’s Corp.
And you thought your business had problems. The Brit was given the helm of the listing Queen Mary after its propellers had seized. Customers were abandoning it, new challengers were eating its lunch (and dinner), franchisees were checking their ammo supplies, and shareholders were likening the Golden Arches to Howard Johnson’s orange roofs. Into the mess parachuted Easterbrook, who’d cleaned up McDonald’s mess in the United Kingdom a few years earlier. He acted boldly to cut costs, trimming management layers and shutting stores by the hundreds. Sacred menu items were jettisoned as longtimers listened for any rolling sounds from Ray Kroc’s grave.
But Easterbrook’s most ambitious undertaking, hands down, was attempting to change a culture that moved at a gait an arthritic snail could eclipse. A rollout of all-day breakfast was announced a mere seven weeks before it appeared in stores, even though new equipment was needed. Innovations like delivery and self-ordering kiosks were embraced without the usual deliberate testing and decision-by-committee.
Will it work? Either way, look for Easterbrook to be a newsmaker in 2016 as well.
Danny Meyer, CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group Chairman, Shake Shack
A quirky concept you started as a community give-back sells to the public for nearly $2 billion, anointing you as the closest thing the industry has to a Midas, Dairy Queen owner Warren Buffett not withstanding.
But the initial public offering for Shake Shack, a business that started as an in-park hot dog stand, was just a warm up for Meyer. Half a year later, he stunned the industry by announcing he would discontinue tipping at all his full-service restaurants, a move akin to Steve Jobs summoning Apple’s engineers because he had an idea for a new music player. Meyer wasn’t the first to try the notion, but he was arguably the most influential person to give a no-tipping scheme a try.
If he’s nailed a new model, the full-service sector of the business may never be the same.
Did we mention that had RB picked him as the Restaurant Leader of the Year six months beforehand? And, yes, we are bragging.
Richard Griffin, General counsel, National Labor Relations Board
The longtime union attorney was virtually unknown to the restaurant industry for the first year of his tenure as the NLRB’s counsel. Then he decided to upend restaurant franchising by holding McDonald’s responsible for the employment practices of its franchisees.
But that re-designation of some franchisors as “joint employers” is ancient history, coming at the tail end of 2014. Griffin solidified his position as the Darth Vader of the industry this year by making every sort of restaurant its partners’ keeper. The NLRB decided in August that a company could be liable for the labor infractions of any contracted partner, be it a franchisee, a cleaning service or a third-party valet parking business.
Sorting out the implications will likely cost restaurants considerable time and money. But the nuclear danger is the impact on unionization. Griffin’s role in convincing the board to broaden the definition of joint employer was hailed by labor as a breakthrough in its efforts to organize service industries like the restaurant business.
Andrew Cuomo, Governor, New York
Last time we checked, the Empire State was still a democracy. Yet Cuomo wasn’t hung up this year on technicalities like letting the people’s representatives pass and enforce laws. If he didn’t get what he wanted, like a stepped increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he’d make it happen through other machinations.
And that essentially was what he did. Using a peculiarity in the law, his administration decreed that the pay of fast-food workers will climb to $15 an hour—even though the legislature rejected an increase to $11.50, never mind $15.
He also asked union officials to join him on stage for his pledge to raise the pay floor for all hourly workers to the $15 level. If he succeeds—one way or the other—he’d make New York the first state to adopt a so-called living wage. The first, but, if he succeeds, undoubtedly not the last.
Jared Fogle, Pending inmate, Federal Correctional Institute, Littleton, Colo., Former spokesman, Subway
Who would have suspected an everyday sort of schlub like The Subway Guy would have a secret life as a sexual predator? A police raid of his Indianapolis-area home was a shock. Then, weeks later, came the explanation as to why: The fan of six-inch turkey subs had a predilection for young girls, and paid to indulge it. Subway scrambled to distance itself from the onetime spokesman, but acknowledged right before Fogle’s sentencing that there were warning signs that it hadn’t noticed.
Ahmit Mehta, U.S. District Court Judge
His name might not be familiar, but Mehta left his mark on a development that generated considerable apprehension and subsequent celebration within the restaurant business. The longtime jurist presided over the Federal Trade Commission’s legal challenge of a plan to combine Sysco and US Foods into one mega-distributor. The FTC argued that trade would be too restrained, particularly in 38 specific markets. Mehta agreed, reasoning in a 128-page decision that the result would be higher charges to restaurants and ultimately steeper menu prices. He blocked the deal, and Sysco and US Foods decided to discontinue the courtship.