Where top restaurants are finding CEOs

puzzle drawing

Peter Romeo

Director of Digital Content

View more articles by Peter Romeo

A restaurant chain can cite plenty of reasons for finishing in the clouds instead of the cellar on Technomic’s Top 500 sales ranking. An addictive menu. A staff that’s more attentive than a mother tending a newborn. Technology a 14-year-old would drop the game controller to try.

Not one would have been a factor if some human hadn’t set those points of differentiation as priorities and then mustered the resources to make them a reality. It all came down to having an effective leader.

The industry has cycled through periods where greybeards with operational chops were hands-down favorites for the corner office. Marketing vets similarly had their days of preference. At other times, the route from CFO to CEO was a well-worn path.

So what backgrounds are propelling managers to the top job at today’s Top 500 chains? Finance and marketing departments still are popular finishing schools. Emil Brolick’s successor as CEO of Wendy’s, for instance, is Todd Penegor, formerly its CFO. Taco Bell’s chief for roughly 18 months, Brian Niccol, is a forty-something marketing specialist, though one with more social media expertise than predecessors could boast.

But the ranking suggests some new paths are being blazed to such jobs.

Supply chain management

Working in procurement was once like having been an Eagle Scout. It was nice to have on the resume, but in no way a clincher. But boards are ascribing far more importance to logging experience in that realm, reflecting the need to keep costs in check when industry sales are growing at a moderate rate.

The incoming president and CFO of Yum Brands, David Gibbs, once oversaw supply chain operations for Pizza Hut’s international operations. The new CEO of Jamba Juice, David Pace, once was chief resources officer for Bloomin’ Brands. BJ’s Restaurants recently lost its head of supply chain operations, John Allegretto, to 22-unit Rock Wood Fired Kitchen, where he took the CEO’s job.


The importance of digital to a chain’s present-day success was the reason Sonic stated for promoting Todd Smith to president. He was CMO, but with a digital bent, and will continue to oversee social media, customer relations management and digital advertising, while adding responsibilities for the operational tech used by stores and headquarters.

Starbucks’ president and COO for roughly the last year, Kevin Johnson, is a former divisional president of Microsoft and one-time CEO of a network security firm. The coffee chain is counting on him to help it continue to outpace the industry in the use of bits and bytes.

Operating franchises

Chains are putting a finer point on operational experience by hiring execs who were in the field. Ned Lidvall’s job before taking the president’s post at O’Charley’s a year ago was running Five Guys franchises, plus several full-service concepts he helped to develop. Operating units of Dunkin’ Donuts and Sonic was a responsibility of John Cywinski before joining Chili’s parent company as EVP of strategic innovation.

But the poster child for making the move from franchisee to CEO has to be R.J. Dourney of Cosi. Dourney had the distinction before taking the job of operating profitable Cosi units, which had become a rarity. He not only brought that know-how to the home office, but also specific processes that now are being rolled out across the system. 

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