Smashburger names former Starbucks exec CEO

Denise Nelsen spent more than two decades at Starbucks, most recently leading U.S. operations. Now she's plotting new business ventures and international growth at the fast-casual burger brand.
Smashburger has 235 units across 34 states and seven countries. |Photo courtesy of Smashburger.

Smashburger has a new CEO, and she’s the first woman to lead the fast-casual brand.

Denise Nelsen is a more than 20-year veteran of Starbucks, where over the last five years she led the coffeehouse chain's domestic business as a senior vice president of U.S. operations.

Denise Nelsen

Denise Nelsen. | Photo courtesy of Smashburger.

Nelsen was on the front lines of Starbucks’ efforts to improve relations with workers as union organization was beginning to take root at the chain. She was at the center of a controversy around the abrupt closure of a coffeehouse unit in Ithaca, N.Y.  following a strike by workers there in 2022. Starbucks officials blamed maintenance needs at the unit, but workers said it was retaliation for union activity.

Later that year, Nelsen was also a point person on the decision to close units out of concern for worker safety, as well as offering training for situations like active shooters, and addressing drug use in restrooms, as well as mental health support and other benefits.

She actually took the helm at Smashburger in January. She is tasked with leading teams, integrating streamlined business processes, and delivering an impactful influence on all Smashburger employees, locations and the communities they serve, the company said.

Ernesto Tanmantiong, president and CEO of parent company Jollibee Group, said the move signifies the larger company’s commitment to excellence and diversity.

“We are thrilled to welcome Denise Nelsen as Smashburger’s newest CEO,” said Tanmantiong, in a statement. “With her extensive experience and proven leadership in the food and beverage industry, she is set to propel the brand into a new era of growth.”

Nelsen said Denver-based Smashburger has set the standard across the fast-casual industry and she is looking forward to continuing the brand’s legacy. The chain includes about 235 company-owned and franchised units across 34 states and seven countries.

“As we embark on various new brand ventures in 2024, I’m eager to support our continuous efforts to stay on the forefront of taste innovation in the industry, while collaborating with our international expansion teams to bring the joys of Smashburger to more guests worldwide,” she said in a statement.


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