2012: The five fast casual executives to watch

For restaurant operators throughout the industry, 2011 had its fair share of highs and lows. While the industry rebounded slightly from the challenges present throughout the past three years, operational and financial difficulties still loomed for many.

For our top five executives to watch in 2012, last year set the foundation for their potential success this year. They are all industry veterans, but some are new to the fast casual segment, the concept's they represent, or both. While Starbucks can be arguably viewed as a fast casual chain, it does promote a certain lifestyle that fast casual promotes, which is why our No. 5 made the list.

Here is our list of the top five executives to watch in 2012.

1. Monty Moran, Chipotle co-CEO


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Although Chipotle founder Steve Ells has long-held the company limelight, it was the chain's illegal workforce issue this past year that put co-CEO Monty Moran there as well. In 2011, Chipotle was the target of a major federal crackdown on illegal employees, causing the company to lose more than half of its 900 workers in Minnesota and hundreds more in the Washington, D.C., and Virginia markets. Moran has become an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and has met this year with senators across party lines. He has expressed to lawmakers that he needs access to a strong, legal workforce as the company is expected to hire more than 100,000 employees over the next three years. Additionally, about half of the chains 30,000 employees are Hispanics. So far, the investigation into Chipotle's hiring practices has cost the company more than $1 million in legal fees. In 2012, we expect Moran will continue to help shape a solution to the immigration debate. So far, the investigation into Chipotle's hiring practices has cost the company more than $1 million in legal fees.

2. Carin Stutz, Cosi CEO

Carin Stutz has well-positioned herself to take the helm of struggling Cosi. Stutz previously served as president, global business development, for Brinker International, where she oversaw all operations-related projects for Chili's Grill & Bar and Maggiano's Little Italy. Additionally, she serves as chair of the Women's Foodservice Forum. While it may take more than a year to turn around the Deerfield, Ill.-based sandwich chain, the groundwork Stutz will lay in 2012 will play a crucial role. In 2011, Cosi traded below $1 on the Nasdaq and was even threatened with a delisting. The company has had only one profitable quarter since its public offering in 2002 and for its most recent quarter, reported a net loss of $1.5 million. The chain's challenges, while daunting, are not unmanageable. Stutz's enthusiasm for her new position was well documented in news article highlighting her January 1 arrival at the chain. As she told the Chicago Tribune in a Dec. 13 article, " … this is a brand where I feel I can step in, add value and make a difference."

3. Phil Friedman, Salsarita's Fresh Cantina CEO

Former McAlister's CEO Phil Friedman purchased Salsarita's Fresh Cantina earlier this year, bringing on board Larry Reinstein, the former Fresh City president and CEO, as his operating partner. Salsarita's has 80 stores open across 19 states and Friedman hopes to make the same mark there he did at McAlister's – growing the sandwich chain from 27 units to 300 before his 2010 departure. He was in search of something new at the time and found his calling in the form of the fresh-Mex chain that specializes in made-to-order burritos, tacos, enchiladas and salads. Friedman has spent the last six months on the road visiting the chain's large franchisee base. In 2012, we expect Friedman will continue his quest to make Salsarita's a success.

4. Kevin Miles, Zoe's Kitchen CEO

At the start of 2011, Kevin Miles was named chief operating officer of Birmingham, Ala.-based Zoe's Kitchen. Three months later, Miles was named president so former CEO Greg Dollarhyde could return to his position as executive chairman. Miles joined the Zoe's team as vice president of operations in 2009 when the concept had only 26 units. Between 2009 and 2010, he played a key role in expanding the Zoe's concept from 26 to 44 units, and spent the better half of 2011 carrying out the chain's aggressive expansion plan of doubling in size every 18 months. To date, the company has 56 locations open in 13 states. Miles was able to grow the chain at a 40-percent-pace despite the down economy. As the restaurant-industry looks to rebound in sales and unit growth in 2012, we're betting that number continues to grow.

5. Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO

It's not every day that a retired CEO returns to his alma mater to reverse the trend of a downward spiral. But that's exactly what Howard Schultz did in 2008 when he told Forbes the coffee giant had become the "posterchild for excess." Since then, Schultz has worked through mass firings and store closures to get the chain back on track. In 2011, he led the company to a partnership with its largest competitor, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. He also led Starbucks through the acquisition of Evolution Fresh, the producer of a no-heat juice product sold on the West Coast. What has contributed to Starbucks success is Schultz's ability to introduce new beverage offerings (such as Via) to keep customers engaged. He has now turned his focus toward the health and wellness sector of beverage innovation and is looking to launch a retail concept intended to redefine the juice category. He also used 2011 to form the Create Jobs for USA program, which sparked rumors of a possible presidential bid. 2012 will shape up to be an interesting year for Schultz as his initiatives, new and old, continue to unfold.

Have an opinion about who's on the list and/or who isn't? Feel free to express it below.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • ram wasan
    72253549
    Interesting to note Howard Schultz plans to to launch a retail concept intended to redefine the juice category. I personally feel that this is one area that could lead to the next revolution in the F&B industry. Cheers for a great 2012 to all . Ram Wasan
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