Want the CEO's job at a restaurant chain? Get a job in tech

At FSTEC, speakers suggested that technology is the new route to the corner office.
From left: RB's Jonathan Maze, Brix Holding's Carissa De Santis and Sherif Mityas. | Photo by W. Scott Mitchell Photography.

The restaurant industry’s growing reliance on technology is turning the CIO’s job into the training ground of choice for the next generation of chain CEOs.

Or at least that’s what Sherif Mityas has surmised after taking that path himself, rising from the chief information officer of TGI Fridays to the chief executive’s post at Brix Holdings, the parent company of Friendly’s, Souper Salad and six other restaurant brands.

“I don’t think there’s a better position for a person to move up to the CEO rank than the CIO position,” he asserted during the opening general session of the FSTEC conference on Wednesday.

Fittingly, he spoke during an unusual presentation where a restaurant chain CEO and a C-suite-level subordinate shared how they work together differently today than earlier holders of their post likely did. It was entitled “CEO vs. CIO/CTO.”

His partner on stage was Brix’s chief technology officer, Carissa De Santis. They were preceded by John Peyton, CEO of Applebee’s and IHOP parent Dine Brands, and the company’s chief information officer, Justin Skelton.

Both sets of executives were interviewed about their interactions by Restaurant Business Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze.

Despite the session’s fight-card-like billing, the participants stressed that collaboration across the C-suite has replaced a tendency to wall off technology as a cost center that executes other department’s decisions. Technology has become too integral to a brand’s strategy and growth for that old model to persist, the pairs agreed.

“If that’s your setup today, immediately change it,” said Mityas.

Peyton recalled his surprise when he joined Dine Brands about 18 months ago and discovered tech operations were still in a silo.

“Justin, representing tech, did not have a seat at the table,” he said of CIO Skelton. “We could not develop our tech strategy without Justin at the table.”

Skelton, for his part, recalled how Peyton immediately signaled his intention to raise the stature and strategic role of the technology department.  

In their first meeting, “he basically said, ‘Listen, I don’t think we’re investing enough in technology. What do you think?’” recounted Skelton. “When your boss comes to you and says, ‘We’re going to invest more in technology,’ it’s a game changer.”

The pair shared how the de-siloing led to such innovations as the adoption within the last 60 days of an artificial-intelligence function for IHOP, a capability they called “a recommendation engine.” When a customer places a remote order digitally, the system analyzes what’s requested, compares it with what other guests have added to their meals, and then recommends what else the customer might like.

In about half the instances, the customer accepts the recommendation and adds to their order, Skelton said.

He added that the capability will likely be rolled over to Applebee’s, but did not provide a timeline.

Mityas noted that today’s chain CIOs often don’t rise to that post through a series of subordinate technology posts. Because inter-departmental integration is the new mandate—“how do you operate marketing without technology?” he observed—the top tech job is often going to executives who cross over from other fields.

Brix’s De Santis, for instance, spent most of her career in operations.

The move to de-silo all departments on tech matters is also a boon to the technology department, attested De Santis.

She noted how her life has been made easier by her CEO’s tech background.

“It gets rid of half of my battle,” De Santis said. “The understanding itself takes half the work away.”

FSTEC is hosted by Restaurant Business’ parent company, Winsight Media.

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