5 restaurant leaders to pay attention to in 2022

A few of these executives jumped on our radar after making a splash in 2021, while others are laying the groundwork for intriguing innovations in the years ahead.

What makes a restaurant leader worth watching? Sometimes it's the eye-popping results they've already generated that have us wondering how they'll top them. In other cases, it's a set of intriguing preliminary moves that seem to be laying the groundwork for something innovative and fresh.

With that in mind, here are the five leaders who will have Restaurant Business' attention in 2022.

Damola Adamolekun, P.F. Chang’s

The CEO seems to be pushing all the right buttons since taking over at the Asian casual-dining chain in 2019. Under Adamolekun’s tenure, Chang's has invested heavily in technology to make its restaurants more efficient and is also in the midst of opening smaller, takeout-centric stores in line with an industrywide refocus on to-go. Chang’s is also one of the few non-pizza concepts to try self-delivery—a move that has been a big success. It is rumored to be considering an IPO, though in an interview with RB in October, Adamolekun declined to comment on reports he said had not been substantiated by the chain. 

Scott Boatwright, Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle’s restaurant chief, who joined the chain in 2018 as its first outside executive hire since going public in 2006, deserves a lot of credit for its turnaround. Improved operations and a strong emphasis on digital business made 2021 a massive year for the Mexican fast casual. It posted its highest operating margins—24.5%—since the 2015 food safety crisis, grew digital sales by triple digits and saw its share price more than double on its way to a record high. Some of Boatwright’s innovations, including a second makeline and a renewed focus on training, have undoubtedly played a role in that.

Andrew Cathy, Chick-fil-A

Cathy has officially taken the reins of the chicken chain from his father, Dan, who stepped down as CEO in November. During his 20 years in charge, Dan Cathy helped turn Chick-fil-A into one of the most successful brands in the industry, and observers will be keeping a close eye on whether his son can continue that legacy amid growing fried-chicken competition and changing consumer habits. The chain has done a lot to stay on top, rethinking its drive-thrus and leaning into third-party delivery, and more innovation appears to be in store: It has recently tested robot delivery and its own virtual brands, the results of which could help define the early part of the new chief's tenure.

Jeff Crivello, BBQ Holdings

The CEO of Famous Dave’s parent has been busy over the past couple of years, navigating a series of eyebrow-raising deals that have included the acquisition of Granite City Food & Brewery, Bakers Square, Village Inn and the Tahoe Joe’s steakhouse chain. While the average observer might look at BBQ and see a hodgepodge of unrelated concepts, Crivello sees synergy. For instance, some of its Granite City locations also serve food from Famous Dave’s. BBQ plans to sell Bakers Square pies at Famous Dave’s. And the company is on the lookout for a pizza concept to pair with Dave’s as well. The upshot of all that overlap? More revenue out of the same box.

Morgan Flatley, McDonald’s

As U.S. CMO, Flatley engineered McDonald’s hugely successful “Famous Orders” campaign, which has featured limited-time collaborations with Travis Scott, J Balvin, BTS and other celebrities. It was part of a shift in marketing strategy that began in 2020, when McDonald’s decided to focus more on social media. Sales climbed as a result, and the campaigns also helped drive more users to McDonald’s mobile app. Flatley was rewarded with a promotion: In August, she became the company’s global CMO.

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