Sonic's Claudia San Pedro named 2022 Restaurant Leader of the Year

The one-time Oklahoma state official was honored by Restaurant Business for leading the 69-year-old drive-in brand to new heights, before and during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Sonic. Image by Restaurant Business.

Claudia San Pedro, the one-time Oklahoma state official who’s led a rejuvenation of the 69-year-old Sonic drive-in chain as president, has been selected as the 2022 Restaurant Leader of the Year by the editors of Restaurant Business.

She was selected for the honor from a group of finalists consisting of Peter Cancro, founder and CEO of Jersey Mike’s; Lisa Ingram, CEO of White Castle; David Overton, co-founder and CEO of The Cheesecake Factory; and Wyman Roberts, CEO of Chili’s parent Brinker International.

“The competition for this year’s award was obviously intense, with every finalist having a legitimate claim on the industry’s top honor,” said Jonathan Maze, Editor-in-Chief of Restaurant Business. “What made the difference was the daunting batch of challenges San Pedro had to address after moving up to president. Almost simultaneously, she upgraded the chain’s technology, eased the operational issues that were taxing franchisees, reversed a sales decline and spearheaded the sale of the brand for $2.3 billion.

“And then the pandemic hit.”

Despite that crisis, Sonic’s systemwide sales soared 20.1% in 2020, in no small part because of changes San Pedro had shepherded into place. The fast-food burger segment as a whole increased its collective intake by just 1.7% that year, according to Technomic figures.

“It was up to us to step up and deliver on our brand promise in a new and different way in that context,” she told RB.

As this year’s Restaurant Leader of the Year, San Pedro joins an exclusive set of operators that includes Jose Cil, CEO of Burger King and Popeyes parent Restaurant Brands International (the 2021 winner); Brian Niccol, CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill (2020); Greg Creed, then-CEO of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut parent Yum Brands (2019); Ron Shaich, founder and a longtime CEO of Panera Bread (2018); Paul Brown, CEO then of Arby’s and now of its parent, Inspire Brands (2017); Greg Flynn, CEO of Applebee’s and Panera franchisee Flynn Restaurant Group (2016); and Danny Meyer, chairman of Shake Shack and Union Square Hospitality Group (2015).

The selection is a two-staged process. Initially, editors suggest worthy candidates from their respective beats. That typically long list is narrowed through discussion to five finalists, who are then interviewed and profiled on Restaurant Business Online. Considerable outside research is also undertaken to deliver a rich, comprehensive picture of each nominee.

Armed with that information, the editors debate who is most deserving among the five finalists. Each is evaluated against a set of written criteria that includes financial acumen; how clearly the organization’s goals are articulated and communicated; relations with field-level operators, particularly if the candidate’s brand is franchised; commitment to diversity; commitment to developing the next generation of leadership; innovation; and the individual’s impact on the industry, beyond their charge.

As this year’s honoree, San Pedro will be recognized during a session of the Restaurant Leadership Conference, Restaurant Business’ conference for c-suite restaurant executives. This year’s event is scheduled for April 10-13 at the J.W. Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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