Back when Nixon was president and “The Brady Bunch” enjoyed its original run on television, a teenage Julia Stewart was handing out pancake-shaped menus at a San Diego IHOP. Being a millionaire restaurant executive seemed fantasy, a product of yesteryear realities that saw few women inhabiting corner-office spots.
“I had no female role models” in c-suite roles, Stewart confirms at the close of an eventful June workday.
Fast-forward four decades, however, and that teenage waitress has turned into one of the restaurant industry’s foremost female trailblazers as the CEO of DineEquity. In 2008, a USA Today feature labeled Stewart “one of the most powerful women in the restaurant world–ever.”
Though Stewart maintains a steady indifference to the media-generated title, the truth holds.
Stewart’s Glendale, California-based DineEquity – the offspring of IHOP’s $2.1 billion acquisition of Applebee’s in 2007 – oversees nearly 3,400 units across the country and captured more than $7 billion in sales last year.
Today, Stewart, who spearheaded that headline-grabbing purchase, highlights an escalating – albeit slowly – number of women filling executive slots in the full-service restaurant world.
Among the 20 highest-grossing full-service restaurant chains, five feature female CEOs: Applebee’s and IHOP with Stewart; Bloomin’ Brands Elizabeth Smith; Buffalo Wild Wings’ Sally Smith; and Cracker Barrel’s Sandra Cochran, who was named to her post last summer.
With such noteworthy ascents to the CEO spot leading the charge, the once-impenetrable glass ceiling in the restaurant industry has been shattered, as female executives dot the management ranks of dozens of full-service restaurant giants as well as up-and-coming players.