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Your picks of the year’s top chain CEOs

Last week we used this space to air our picks of the year’s outstanding chain-restaurant CEOs, inviting readers to float alternatives if they found our choices to be head-scratchers.  Sure enough, a number of you suggested substitutions for the names on our Top 6 list, a few with startling vehemence and conviction.

Here are the chain CEOs you see as deserving of being called 2014’s best, along with three who missed making our list by a whisker.

Julia Stewart, IHOP and Applebee’s parent DineEquity

If the decision were based solely on the performance of IHOP, this would have been a no-brainer. Like Denny’s, whose CEO made our ranking, IHOP competes in a segment that’s been softer than marshmallow for years. Yet the chain’s comps for the first nine months of 2014 were running 3.2 percent above the same period of the prior year. It’s Applebee’s that’s the yellow light here. What Stewart calls a brand reset is underway, but the results aren’t there yet.

Patrick Doyle, Domino’s Pizza

There’s some shame here for us. In a year when quickservice chains scrambled to embrace new technology, Domino’s enjoyed a comfortable lead over the pack. Once a delivery-only concept, the brand unveiled what amounts to a display-kitchen design with seating and several fast-casual touches. New products have kept the concept current without pushing it far from the chain’s roots. All in all, bold and thoughtful decisions were made for the brand under Doyle’s direction. But not all the results are evident yet. Vegas bookmakers would give Doyle strong odds for making our list for 2015.

Paul Brown, Arby’s

The former hotel executive has overseen the Roark Capital-owned brand for a mere 18 months. Granted, he’s made some big moves to revitalize the brand in that time, including the development of a new look and brought back the Smokehouse Brisket sandwich, one of the industry’s most successful LTOs ever. But there wasn’t enough proven success in 2014 to merit his inclusion.

Hazem Ouf, American Blue Ribbon Holdings (O’Charley’s, Village Inn, Max & Erma’s, Ninety Nine, Bakers Square)

Here, too, there’s not been enough of a track record. But the sheer breadth of the family restaurant veteran’s charge—640 restaurants operated or franchised, many under brands that were decidedly distressed—anoints Ouf as someone to watch.

Danny Meyer, Union Square Hospitality Group (Shake Shack, Blue Smoke)

Why would the Derek Jeter of fine dining be considered for a list of outstanding chain executives? There’s no doubt at this point that Shake Shack is a chain that has the industry’s (and certainly the public’s) attention, and if the reports and speculation are correct, Meyer is leading the retro-burger concept to a $1 billion initial stock offering. That’s a valuation you seldom see outside of the tech and energy sectors. And Meyer built it from a hotdog cart that he opened as a favor to his neighborhood.

Lenny Comma, Jack in the Box

Many of the CEOs on our list were there because of the long-shot turnarounds they engineered. Comma, though little known in the industry at large, has proven himself an adept turnaround artist as well—not with his company’s namesake brand, but its ancillary business, the Qdoba burrito chain. It finished fiscal 2014 with a 6 percent rise in comp sales, and that’s despite competing head-to-head with such powerhouses as Chipotle and Taco Bell. Not long ago, the conventional wisdom held that Jack in the Box would try to dump the brand. That’s not to say the company’s namesake chain performed poorly; comps rose 3.1 percent during its fourth quarter. But many of the biggest changes coordinated by Comma have just been completed. Still, if we expanded our list, he would have been on it.

Emil Brolick, Wendy’s

The quick-service veteran was an almost irresistible argument to extend our list to at least eight people. After the chain went through the most miserable time in its history, including two wrenching changes in ownership, Brolick gave it a laser-like focus—serve food that’s a notch above what’s typical in its segment—and the leadership to make jaw-dropping decisions, like halting a year-long test of breakfast. Just seeing his name makes you want to hum the theme from “Rocky.” But his turnaround year was 2013, not this year, and that’s why the stewards of more recent resurrections are among our top six.

Still don’t see a favorite on the list? Let us know by emailing me, promeo@cspnet.com.

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