Where trendsetting leaders get their ideas


What’s one of the most-named sources of inspiration for restaurateurs outside of the industry? Hands down, it’s Apple. 

Trendsetting operators look to the tech company for a variety of reasons, all tying back to the customer. Whether it’s the sleek look of Apple’s stores or the frenzy surrounding its product launches, consumers have to have the next iPhone. It’s that must-have feeling that restaurants want when consumers think of their brands.

It is a reminder that the best ideas for culture, creativity, consumer engagement and more often don’t come from within the restaurant industry. Inspiration is everywhere—and anywhere—and big thinkers mine it from a range of sources.

With that in mind, Restaurant Business asked executives atop some of the most innovative restaurant brands to name the people and companies they turn to to spark ideas. Their answers range from the Nikes of the world to individual authors; from a community-minded outdoor adventure brand to disruptive e-commerce companies. 

What these other industries offer restaurant leaders is a chance to step back and see a problem or opportunity from a new angle. Or put in Apple’s terms, to “Think different.”

wow bao interior

Must-have look

Geoff Alexander, President, Wow Bao

The kiosk-driven steamed bun chain has made some big moves in the past few months. Following an investment from a tech-focused equity group, which led to a shift in controlling interest, Wow Bao became the first concept to implement automat-style concept Eatsa’s technology. The president of the chain isn’t staying insulated in restaurants to get his ideas. 

“I spend lots of time reading my Twitter feed—which consists of [my reading list] as well as bloggers, reporters and breaking news,” says Alexander. And the companies he watches? Amazon, AT&T, Nike, Verizon, Target, Whole Foods and Costco. At the top of his list for companies to follow: Apple. “Everything they create becomes a must-have. And the items and stores look slick and create a feeling of FOMO—fear of missing out.” 

Reading list

  • Entrepreneur
  • Inc.
  • Fast Company
  • Wired 
  • Time Out
  • New York Magazine
  • The Wall Street Journal
zappos box

Employee-driven culture

Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen, co-founders, Mendocino Farms

Del Pero explains what his fast casual learned from hotels, online retailers and more:


For its tenets of “selling happy” and creating a feeling of care, the co-founders looked to Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and the relationship engagement (aka customer service) of Nordstrom. “Many of the systems we built to scale Mendo Culture are from the inspiration we garnered from those two brands.”


Zappos defines its culture with 10 core values, including embracing change and creating fun. Everything from job descriptions to the work environment reinforce them. The company conducts cultural-fit interviews, and managers are expected to create career paths and hold team-building activities—all ideas Del Posto looked at when creating the culture at Mendocino.


“For help in trying to figure out how to scale our sourcing practices, we really did not have any restaurant group to be inspired by. … We reached out to the one company that could help us scale our supply chain in a way that would align with our values. It was Whole Foods Market.” Whole Foods has since become an investor in Mendocino Farms, and founder John Mackey a mentor.  


“The biggest lesson we learned early: Innovation rarely comes from divine inspiration. We continue to credit more of our innovation success to Apple. While we continue to have a very creative culinary team, our team has evolved, morphed and changed over the last decade. What has remained the same is how we innovate our menu. This process was inspired by many of Apple’s practices.”

Brian Niccol

Values behind the brand

Brian Niccol, CEO, Taco Bell

Looking to promote Taco Bell as more than just a brand selling Mexican fast food, Niccol pays attention to the models set by companies known for giving back. “Brands like REI, Patagonia and Toms are examples of companies synonymous with caring and doing more.” Niccol says he wants consumers to know about more than just the Doritos Locos Tacos when it opens a new store. “Every time we open a restaurant, we’re giving people more than just tacos and burritos—we’re giving communities job opportunities and those employees the opportunity to go to school.”

Inspiration from REI

REI—which is set up as a cooperative, with more than 6 million profit-sharing customer members—has been on Fortune’s list of The 100 Best Companies to Work For nearly 20 years in a row. “Every decision we make at the co-op is purpose-driven and it impacts our culture every single day,” said REI CEO Jerry Stritzke to Fortune, when it ranked 28th.

The brand boosts employee morale with steep discounts, paid days off called Yay Days and grants for outdoor adventures—reinforcing the culture committed to like-minded outdoorsmen, both internally and to customers.

Ideas from Toms

In addition to its well-known social mission to help impoverished communities, Toms CEO Blake Mycoskie implemented policies and programs to improve employees’ daily lives, including offering flexible work schedules, eight weeks of paid paternity leave and no-meeting Mondays. The ideas were submitted by employees through an online platform called Toms Idea Room. 

The company’s interview guide includes four sets of questions to identify its key values in potential employees, reports Inc. magazine. 

eric martino

Listening for leadership inspiration

Eric Martino, Chief Operating Officer, ThinkFoodGroup’s FastGood branch

The man behind the branch of Jose Andres’ restaurant group that runs veggie-forward chain Beefsteak and incubator ThinkFoodLab credits much of his inspiration to his wife—who he dubs the CEO of his household—for being a dedicated advocate as well as challenging him. Aside from listening to his wife, Martino tunes into podcasts for ideas and inspiration. He subscribes to TED Talks, Andy Stanley, Innovation Ecosystem and Lewis Howes. “In those podcasts, they tend to have guests on that are leaders in a particular field or industry that deal with similar challenges and focuses that I face in our industry. There are great discussions, from how to unlock inner greatness through different strategies and exercises like meditation and diet, to staying ahead and pushing forward to inspire innovation.”

amazon boxes

Upgrading the product while saving profits

Jim Mizes, CEO and President, Blaze Pizza

A leader in growing a brand at the forefront of a trend, Jim Mizes has led fast-casual chain Blaze Pizza from an emerging concept to the No. 191 on Technomic’s list of top-grossing chain restaurants. There are a number of authors Mizes reads on the topic of conscious leadership, and several companies with business models he admires.

Both Apple andTeslaare focused on disruption through many approaches, he says, but always through design, technology and the value of the experience. He also looks to Amazonfor inspiration. “How do you take a product and service and make it cheaper, faster and more profitable?”

Nike run club app

Using digital to ease the customer experience

Brooks Goldade, Digital Experience and Innovation: Mobile & .Com, Buffalo Wild Wings 

An early adopter of many technologies available to the restaurant industry, Goldade has his eye on other digital players, especially when it comes to the trends that are still emerging, such as payment and personalization.

“Making personal payments is like eating; it is something our guests do every day. So Apple and Venmohave been focusing on driving great convenience with compelling interfaces. This, in turn, drives greater adoption and engagement,” he says. “I believe we will see similar drivers in the restaurant industry as digital ordering continues to grow.”

“I am watching what Nike is doing with its digital experience and commerce ecosystem and think they are setting a high standard for any big traditional brand that wants to cross over into the digital space. Especially in the area of personalized experiences based on users’ actual behavior and preferences. They have connected their workout apps and hardware to their e-commerce platforms to deliver products that are much more relevant to your needs.” 

Users of the Venmo payment app made $8 billion in transactions in the second quarter of 2017 and $9 billion in Q3, nearly doubling year-over-year growth. “Venmo is much less a peer-to-peer platform than it is a social experience,” said Dan Schulman, CEO of parent PayPal. Users check Venmo multiple times a week to see who friends are paying, he said.

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