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Choosing greatness: How we decided this year’s most powerful leaders

There’s  that saying from “To Kill a Mockingbird” that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.  We’re luckier than most: For this issue of Restaurant Business, we got to choose our families, too.

In this case, the families we chose are the 20 most powerful clans in restaurants today. Turns out, when brainstorming candidates for the RB Power 20 we were spoiled for choice. That’s a great problem to have considering how many family businesses—not to mention restaurants—fizzle out before the next generation is old enough to turn on a stove. The fact that we found no shortage of family-owned concepts defying the odds and standing out from the pack is yet another testament to the moxie and ingenuity of restaurant families. And it’s particularly notable  in an era when restaurant sales remain a challenge for many, and tactics to drive traffic typically are more crapshoot than sure thing.

Paring down that original list proved a difficult and sometimes brutal task.  In the end, we decided that the criteria had to be not only restaurant operators with notable legacies—and not even those with positive sales results. In fact, operational stalls were not a disqualifier as long as the strategy for turnaround, the vision for growth or the potential for profits was one worth watching in the year ahead. Once that criteria was clear, so too were the 20 families who would exemplify that.

Narrowing down our choices for Restaurant Leader of the Year was hardly any easier. As our “Reality Check” columnist Peter Romeo has reflected, “with the possible exception of 2009, I can’t think of a year where leadership and strategy yielded such a difference in the performance of chains.” Again, there was no shortage of options. There’s Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, the subject of a recent Time magazine cover. There’s Kat Cole, whose new appointment to group president of Focus Brands is a reflection of the acumen that brought the company $750 million in sales from Cinnabon-licensed products. There’s Chipotle’s Steve Ells or Yum’s Greg Creed—all valid contenders.

But the more we discussed it, the clearer it became that Danny Meyer—the fine-dining groundbreaker—and his masterful steering of Shake Shack through its mind-blowing IPO was deserving of the recognition. That he did so without compromising his long-standing principle that the employee comes first—always, in all ways—and bringing investors along rather than softening his message is what makes him our pick for Restaurant Leader of the Year.

Of course, there’s no science to any of this. You may agree or not agree with our picks. In fact, we invite the discourse. Please email me at kkillian@cspnet.com, and let me know who would be on your list of the most powerful restaurant families in the business  or who would be your choice for Restaurant Leader of the Year. We may even share the results in a future article.

  • 127: Number of people spotlighted in the Power 20
  • 4: Number of generations represented in the Power 20
  • 3: Number of families in the Power 20 with ties to Wendy's
  • 26: Number of Brennans in the restaurant business

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