In an industry as diverse as the cuisines it serves, there is no shortage of restaurants worthy of admiration—and the same goes for the people who have fostered those brands and continue to push them forward. Although the daily rigors of restaurant life demand hyper-focus on one’s own operation, industry professionals still take note of their peers and how they are performing, whether the person or brand in question is new to the dining world or a foodservice mainstay.
Rather than handpick a list of restaurants and people, we asked you, our readers, to tell us who you admire the most—something similar in spirit to those old high school yearbook superlatives. Although your nominations didn’t surprise us per se, they did make us rethink how we define success and innovation while also introducing us to some under-the-radar power players.
Divided into 14 categories ranging from favorite legacy chain and best beverage program to most creative brand innovator and fervent industry advocate, these are the restaurants and peers you admire the most.
At the highest level of their brands, these leaders are taking their restaurants to new heights.
Jack Gibbons, CEO
Although Jack Gibbons is newly minted in his role as CEO, he’s an FB Society veteran, having worked alongside founder Randy DeWitt since 2008. His promotion was just one part of several changes set in motion last year, including a rebrand with Front Burner Restaurants becoming FB Society. In his previous role as president and chief creative officer, Gibbons led the development of several brands within the company’s portfolio including Whiskey Cake, Ida Claire, fast casual Velvet Taco, and Legacy Food Hall; FB Society also debuted a new chicken tenders, Buttercup, in February. To maintain that creative spirit, Gibbons cultivates a “blue sky” mentality, where there’s no limit, whether it be new concepts, improvements, or fresh takes on the dining experience.
Chris Tomasso, CEO and President
Chris Tomasso joined First Watch in 2006 as chief marketing officer and has since ascended to the top role, guiding the breakfast chain through its explosive growth, which even a pandemic couldn’t halt. When COVID-19 first struck, Tomasso shut the brand down for two weeks to build and perfect new systems to boost safety and efficiency. First Watch also bolstered its off-premises business by rolling out an online-ordering and third-party delivery app. But beyond the brand’s lucrative success, Tomasso remains steadfast in his devotion to employees. He worked with senior leadership to establish First Watch’s You First Fund, which helps workers facing financial hardships during the pandemic, and the #BeABetterPerson initiative to foster employee growth and more diversity at all levels in the company.
These founders not only planted the seed for a new restaurant, they also nurtured its growth.
Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant
Tim McEnery, Founder and CEO
When he started Cooper’s Hawk in 2005, founder Tim McEnery saw the potential in building a concept whose experience went beyond the restaurant’s four walls, thanks in part to its signature wine club. During the pandemic, McEnery pivoted the brand to a curbside pick-up model in less than a week while maintaining strong community ties through virtual wine club events. Last year, the founder also started an employee meal program that provided furloughed staff with lunch and dinner daily, as well as the Cooper’s Hawk Scholarship for Black American Wine Professionals, which strives to bring new voices and more diversity into the wine world.
Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux
Brandon Landry, Founder and CEO
Brandon Landry may have poked fun at his own college basketball career when naming his restaurant, but Walk-On’s has proved anything but a second-string brand. Since starting the sports grill with former Louisiana State University teammate Jack Warner in 2003, Landry has carved a niche for Walk-On’s in the casual-dining world, taking it across nine Southeastern states with the 50th location opening this spring. In that time, the CEO has been recognized for his leadership on a number of occasions and was most recently named a finalist for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year award.
Kent Taylor, Late founder
Kent Taylor, late founder and CEO of Texas Roadhouse, not only built a highly successful restaurant chain but also gained the admiration of many industry peers. Before starting his own company, Taylor had built a reputation at Bennigan’s and KFC for being innovative in his approach to menu development and operations, but also steadfast in his core values and commitment to quality. These traits shined especially bright during the pandemic. Right away he decided to forgo his salary in the interest of keeping front-line workers on payroll. Texas Roadhouse had a petite off-premises program when the crisis began, but Taylor guided the company through the worst of it, setting it up for a full recovery, even without him at the helm.
Whether early in their careers or New to the industry, these go-getters are already making an impact.
Helena Kehagias-Reed, Director of Human Resources
It’s no small feat to cultivate a strong company culture amid expansion, but Helena Kehagias-Reed has made it her mission to do just that. Eschewing a top-down approach, Kehagias-Reed focuses on building trust across Bad Daddy’s and sister concept Good Times through inclusive, but sometimes tough, conversations. By fostering stronger relationships between the corporate office and front-line operators, the company has improved its communication strategy. Triggered in part by the pandemic, the shift has helped Bad Daddy’s and Good Times navigate the past year and emerge as stronger, more aligned restaurant brands.
Imran Sheikh, Founding Partner and CEO
Even COVID-19 couldn’t slow the momentum Imran Sheikh has built since cofounding Milkshake Concepts in Dallas five years ago. The fast-moving CEO now manages a collection of seven brands, two of which—Dirty Bones and Harpers—opened earlier this year. Sheikh, who previously worked in the fashion industry, is now applying his financing and consulting background to scaling Milkshake Concepts beyond its Texas homebase. A new, yet-to-be-named concept is slated to make its grand debut in Nashville, Tennessee, this summer.
Through educational, hands-on events, this publicist cultivates connections among chefs
Emily Nordee-Rogers, Vice President, Food, Agriculture, and Ingredient
When it comes to marketing and communications, Emily Nordee-Rogers goes beyond simply promoting a product or ingredient. Instead she creates educational, hands-on experiences that help restaurant chefs and R&D directors rethink the ingredients in their arsenal. Formerly of Evans Hardy + Young, Nordee-Rogers has become a chef favorite, not only for hosting interactive, immersive events but also for fostering connections among restaurant professionals.
A strong F&B program is at the heart of any restaurant, and these chefs bring their A-game.
Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux
Mike Turner, Senior Vice President of Culinary & Supply Chain
When Mike Turner joined Walk-On’s in 2014, he brought the perfect blend of experience. Nearly two decades at The Cheesecake Factory had taught him how to build vendor relationships while scaling a restaurant. Similarly, his time at Copeland’s of New Orleans allowed him to zero in on classic Cajun cuisine. Under Turner’s direction, Walk-On’s has incorporated authentic Louisiana flavors into its menu—a key differentiator in the sports grill space—and solidified partnerships with large-scale vendors.
Rodman Shields, Director of Culinary
A quickly growing restaurant group requires an ever-innovative R&D guru, and chef Rodman Shields has the vision to provide just that. Shields develops and oversees the F&B programs across Milkshake Concepts, which includes STIRR, Vidorra, Citizen, Serious Pizza, and newly opened Harper’s. In addition to changing the menus seasonally and creating specials for holidays and events like the Super Bowl, Shields also develops playful dishes like Vidorra’s El Jefe—a 4-pound, 18-inch taco, which debuted in March.
Sometimes thinking outside the box moves a brand forward—just ask these innovators.
Justin Bartek, Marketing Director
Justin Bartek joined JINYA at arguably the worst time—in the middle of a pandemic. But he hit the ground running, diving into each concept within the Tokyo-founded group while also familiarizing himself with Japanese culture, which is at the heart of the company. Already he’s helped JINYA think outside the box by utilizing the new Clubhouse app and sharing the brand’s story on podcasts. Through his work at Qdoba, Veggie Grill, and most recently Halal Guys, Bartek has built a reputation around his cutting-edge approach to brand engagement.
Nicole Milnthorpe, Chief Financial Officer
Even before COVID-19, Nicole Milnthorpe recognized the changing restaurant landscape, with more consumers seeking off-premises options. So she and her team focused on building Smokey Bones “Anywhere, Anytime” initiative, which expanded the brand’s third-party delivery partnerships and online ordering platform. And last year she helped launch two new virtual brands, The Wing Experience and The Burger Experience across Smokey Bones’ 61-unit system.
By bringing a brand’s messaging to the public, these marketers foster strong ties with guests.
El Toro Restaurants
Brett Moses Ybarra, Co-owner
Alongside his brother Roland, Brett Moses Ybarra co-owns and runs El Toro Mexican Restaurants. In addition to being a jack-of-all-trades, Ybarra has built up El Toro’s outreach efforts, including its social media presence. When the pandemic struck, he spent five months refreshing El Toro’s patios to help bring back guests.
Kevin Mayer, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer
Previously recognized by AdWeek as part of its Brand Genius Awards, Kevin Mayer long worked in the automotive sector before turning his attention to foodservice. In his six-plus-year tenure at BJ’s, he has led the brand in adapting its marketing efforts to stay in lockstep with emerging digital platforms and strategies. It’s helped the brand move into new markets and engage in its existing communities.
At a time when restaurants are struggling, these champions are fighting for their industry.
Blau + Associates / Honey Salt
Elizabeth Blau, Founder and CEO/Owner
Elizabeth Blau’s dual roles as both restaurant operator-owner and strategic consultant lend her a unique perspective in tackling broader industry issues, and in 2020, she put it to use on both fronts. Last year she cofounded Delivering with Dignity, a new nonprofit that donates meals to those in need; the program helped her keep employees working and on payroll. Beyond her Las Vegas community, Blau has advocated for greater restaurant assistance at both the state and national levels.
Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington
Kathy Hollinger, President and CEO
Over the past decade, Kathy Hollinger has led the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which encompasses not only D.C., but also Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. The dynamic nature of her position proved invaluable when the pandemic hit and shutdowns varied across jurisdictions. Hollinger tirelessly advocated for the foodservice community while also joining the D.C. mayor’s coronavirus taskforce to help guide the city’s regulations as it related to restaurants.
Patios have become a coveted commodity for restaurants, and these two have raised the bar.
HQ: Dallas / Units: 2
Specializing in craft Mexican fare and drinks, the original Vidorra in downtown Dallas boasts an expansive patio on the ground floor, as well as a rooftop with panoramic views of the city. In December, a second location opened in the nearby suburb of Addison. And while the newer spot also features a patio, its outdoor space sports an entirely different vibe, with floral greenery creating an urban oasis.
HQ: Dallas / Units: 300
When dining rooms were shuttered, TGI Fridays quickly set up tents in its parking lots. But it also took this new outdoor space a step further by hosting special events that would engage guests and take the dine-in experience to a new level. The al fresco programming has included live music, DJ performances, karaoke nights, outdoor movies, corn hole tournaments, trivia, and other special activities.
When it comes to bringing the dine-in experience home, these concepts have the right stuff.
Bushi by JINYA
HQ: Burbank, CA / Units: 2
When bushi by JINYA made its grand debut in early 2020, it was on track to be a traditional, sit-down restaurant like others in parent group JINYA Holdings. The pandemic may have derailed that path, but it also presented an opportunity for bushi to reimagine its operations and consumer relevancy. Now the young brand is repositioning itself with an emphasis on takeout and delivery and plans to expand via franchising.
HQ: Calabasas, CA / Units: 25
North Italia prides itself on elevated Italian fare and an upscale dine-in atmosphere, and when dine-in bans swept the country, it endeavored to bring the “North Experience” home. In addition to offering its staple menu items for takeout and delivery, the brand also built DIY kits like the Lasagna Bolognese Pack and the Aperol Spritz Kit.
At these restaurants, the food menu is only half the equation.
BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse
HQ: Huntington Beach, CA / Units: 210
Each year, BJ’s tests more than 150 new beers, but only the best find their way onto the restaurant menus—and the strategy is paying off, with its beers regularly taking home top honors from the American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. With six breweries across five states, BJ’s 200-plus restaurants keep about a dozen signature beers and ciders on tap while rotating through seasonal selections.
HQ: Downers Grove, IL / Units: 45
The Cooper’s Hawk winery produces 700,000 cases of wine each year, which, in addition to being served at its restaurants, is also shared through Cooper’s Hawk Wine Club. The direct-to-consumer program boasts nearly half a million members across its 45-unit system. Going beyond the typical wine subscription model, member perks include private events with chefs and winemakers, as well as guided tours to wine regions.
Craveable flavors and high-quality dishes reign supreme at these restaurants.
HQ: Dallas / Units: 4
Even though Sixty Vines prides itself on a vast selection of eco-friendly wines on-tap from across the globe, the restaurant puts as much care into its food menu, which features shareable small plates, charcuterie, cheese boards, pizza, and elevated mains. It also offers a brunch program that was touted by none other than Condé Nast Traveler. In addition to offering multi-course to-go packs, Sixty Vines also created The Collegiate and The Undergrad Pack specials to help recent graduates host off-site celebrations without compromising on quality.
HQ: Bradenton, FL / Units: 417
First Watch may embrace breakfast and brunch staples, but it also pushes the boundaries for what can be served in early dayparts. Protein-packed quinoa bowls and smoked salmon frittatas are served alongside eggs benedict and french toast while seasonal menus spotlight limited-time dishes and local ingredients. The First Watch menu received a major boost last fall when it debuted its first-ever alcohol program. Signature cocktails like Million Dollar Bloody Mary and Cinnamon Toast Cereal Milk serve as the ideal complements to existing fare.
In an ever-shifting landscape, these restaurants have stood the test of time.
Black Bear Diner
Redding, CA / Units: 143
Despite last year’s challenges, 2020 did hold a silver lining for Black Bear Diner, which celebrated its 25th anniversary. The first restaurant opened in the heart of the California Cascades, and the brand has held firmly to its warm atmosphere and bear-themed decór ever since. Specializing in comfort foods across all dayparts, Black Bear Diner has developed a loyal following, and continued to serve guests with off-premises options throughout the pandemic.
HQ: Annapolis, MD / Units: 106
Family-owned Ledo Pizza has adapted to the times over three generations without compromising its core values. The iconic square slices remain a menu cornerstone, but it’s also welcomed fresh flavors, including last year’s Old Bay seasoning specials. And while the pizza category is rife with delivery-centric brands, Ledo Pizza has always emphasized the dine-in experience, and it’s something that will remain unchanged as the restaurant pivots to more to-go friendly stores.
These international brands may not have been founded stateside, but they’re becoming American favorites.
HQ: Dallas / Units: 109 (U.S.), 373 (total)
South Korean chain Bonchon first entered the U.S. in 2006 and has been aggressively growing its stateside footprint ever since. This year promises to be especially busy with an anticipated 20-plus new openings, which will be facilitated by its newly relocated corporate offices. Best known for its Korean fried chicken, Bonchon has traditionally been a full-service concept but is now wading into fast casual; its first limited-service store debuted earlier this year.
Fogo de Chão
HQ: Plano, Texas Units: 44 (U.S.), 56 (total)
Although Fogo de Chão specializes in Brazilian-style, fire-roasted meats that are cooked on-site, the brand quickly adjusted to COVID-era restrictions; it even erected outdoor tents with blankets and heaters in the colder months. New stores are in the works, many of which will feature special on-site components, including a special Butchery space for charcuterie and wine, as well as a Next-Level Lounge for craft cocktails and hand-rolled cigars.