For restaurant marketers, the COVID-19 climate has been a tale of two sides. When lockdowns hit, it was arguably the most disconnected environment hospitality has ever managed in. However, as brands adjusted strategy and opened new channels of trade, the two-way conversation erupted across social media in ways companies would have opened the check book for previously. Restaurants reached out through live events, loyalty, and other digital avenues to glean feedback and remind consumers who they were, and begin the path to return. Now, with in-store traffic flooding back and standards higher than ever, marketers have left the broad and mass communication efforts of old in the rear view.
Here are 13 of the full-service industry’s most influential marketing mavens—a group of leaders trailblazing what conversations between restaurants and their consumers look like in the present and future of foodservice.
(Pictured is TGI Fridays' Chief Experience Officer Sara Bittorf).
Chief Brand Officer
Ascent Hospitality Management, parent company of Huddle House and Perkins Restaurant & Bakery
Before her time at Ascent Hospitality Management (parent of Huddle House and Perkins Restaurant & Bakery), Alison Glenn Delaney spent more than 30 years building brands at TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesday, and Church’s Chicken.
Based in Atlanta, Huddle House currently has more than 300 locations open or in development. Both Huddle House and Perkins have begun modernization journeys, developing new restaurant prototypes optimized for off-premises dining experiences, with boosted online ordering platforms and streamlined pickup and delivery.
“We believe the future is incredibly bright, in part due to the many incremental sales channels we’ve added and developed during the last year and a half,” Delaney says.
These channels include online ordering, third-party delivery, and pickup windows in a full-service environment, as well as family meals, bulk purchasing options, and a current pilot of call centers to drive incremental phone-in orders. Altogether, Delaney says, business has recovered to 2019 levels and in core business dayparts, has high-single digit comps versus pre-pandemic.
Ascent has also embarked on a virtual brand discovery, launching home-grown Papa Corazon’s Quesadillas, a second online “storefront” to the existing Perkins bakery business and two additional concepts developed by Virtual Dining Concepts.
Justin Bartek has overseen the marketing strategies of four different concepts, JINYA Ramen Bar, bushi by JINYA, JINYA Ramen Express, and Robata JINYA. But before JINYA, Bartek spent 15 years in marketing for restaurant concepts like The Halal Guys, Veggie Grill, and QDOBA Mexican Grill, helping them expand from regional to international brands. Currently, he’s working to identify technology solutions for loyalty programs and review management across JINYA Holdings.
Over the past year, JINYA Ramen Bar has added more vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options to its menu, including the Tsunami White Pearl and the JINYA Tonkotsu Original. These additions are part of an effort to become more accessible to a wider market segment.
“Restaurant marketing hasn't changed much but people's wants and needs have,” Bartek says. “As always, if you take care of your people they will take care of you. I live by the motto ‘Be open, Do the work, Live limitless.’”
Vice President of Marketing
Wings and Rings
When Diane Matheson thinks about the past year in the restaurant industry, she comes back to a common quote: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
The pandemic brought monumental changes to the business: how restaurants operate, market, overcome financial pressures, and even how they show concern for their workers and the communities, Matheson says.
“The situation was and is scary but also is inspiring to see how people and brands are adapting and the kindness that is being shown by all,” Matheson says. “It truly is a time where in weeks we’ve seen changes that normally take decades. It’s a year that woke the world.”
Matheson’s top lessons from the year:
Appreciate everyone. From front-line workers to CEOs to truck drivers supplying food.
Stay resilient. “It’s important to ‘future proof’ your brand,” Matheson says. “Be prepared for the unexpected, anticipate future scenarios and outcomes, and be ready to adapt and change wisely when needed with scalable and efficient plans to avoid business interruptions. With foresight and preparation, you can ready the brand for the next rippling disruptor – whether it be societal, technological, or economic.”
Stay connected, she says, because nothing replaces human interaction.
And lastly, Matheson says, “Collaboration is key—we stripped away department silos, hierarchies and roles and got to work quickly solving problems without the tension of job titles when the pandemic hit. And it worked, we had a team of problem-solvers coming together tackling the challenges at hand. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and today we’re re-imagining new models of working collaboratively.”
Before running Wings and Rings’ marketing, Matheson served as Brand Director at LPK, a global brand design agency, where she led the restage of some of the world’s most recognizable brands, including Pantene, Oil of Olay and Herbal Essences.
Looking ahead to the next year, Matheson predicts restaurants will engage in a battle for the “to-go customer” beyond just the pickup experience.
“Fast food, casual dining and high-end brands will compete for what was traditionally a fast-food occasion,” Matheson says. “Brands that figure out how to bring the interaction, fun, communal experience of on-premises to off-premises will emerge.”
She also believes this shifted focus on off-premises will include a downsizing of dine-in and smaller footprints. Nutrition will take a greater role on the menu stage as consumers look for health and wellness, and restaurants will look toward menu changes and automation to address the ongoing labor shortage.
As far as Wings and Rings, Matheson says the brand is focused on delivering its own VIP to-go experience.
“From the ordering to the pickup to eating to sharing a meal with your friends or family members, we’re looking at how we use technology and the layout of our restaurants to deliver a better experience while solving labor challenges,” Matheson says.
Some of these methods include testing robots, adding a valet pickup lane, testing tableside ordering, and improving the online ordering experience. Wings and Rings is also looking at how to drive greater profitability with alternative ingredients and new procedures while improving culture and benefits to help staff restaurants.
VP of Marketing
While Smokey Bones suffered the uncertainty of the past two years like other restaurants, Nichole Robillard says the brand took it as an opportunity to embrace its core positioning: “Meat is What We Do.”
“While others were consolidating menus for operational efficiency, we kept ours intact, so we could ensure guests could enjoy the meals they craved when they visited us,” Robillard says. “In so doing, Smokey Bones created a place of comfort or even escape for our guests. It has enabled us to create deeper connections with those guests, leading to greater engagement and frequency.”
Before her time at Smokey Bones, Robillard held leadership positions at TEAM Enterprises and Zimmerman Advertising.
But for restaurant marketers of late, pivoting was the name of the game. Smokey Bones knows this well as a brand that pioneered virtual restaurants, launched two ghost kitchens, and rapidly expanded a digital footprint during the early days of COVID-19 to allow guests easier access to food. Moving ahead, Robillard says Smokey Bones is in expansion mode. It plans to open two new brick-and-mortar restaurants in the first half of 2022 and leverage a fresh prototype built with shifting consumer needs in mind.
In the new year, Robillard predicts convenience will be key as many restaurants introduce apps and streamlined e-commerce experiences alongside testing new physical channels like drive thrus and enhanced curbside programs. Labor will also likely continue to be a challenge that will inspire novel solutions.
“We’ve been able to improve retention dramatically at Smokey Bones by being transparent with our staff, treating them as partners and truly living our values,” Robillard says. “I believe we will see a continued focus on digitization to help reduce labor strain and guest friction, and there’s a lot of talk about automation that will be intriguing to follow, but there’s a human element to dining that I don’t believe can ever be fully replaced by a robot or digital experience.”
Senior VP of Marketing
Brinker International/Chili’s Grill & Bar
Breed credits the beginning of his appreciation for the restaurant business to his childhood, when he’d spend time at Red Rooster, his grandparents’ restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska. To this day, the original menu is framed in his office.
Breed’s time at Brinker began in 2004 when he came onboard as a senior manager of consumer insights. Promoted to senior marketing director of Maggiano’s in 2008, Breed helped transform the brand’s value perception and drive positive traffic. In 2015, Breed joined Chili’s as senior director of digital innovation, helping to double online revenue through web and mobile app features like digital curbside, one-tap favorites, and third-party delivery. He also led the development of digital and direct media channels along with the expansion of Chili’s loyalty program, My Chili’s Rewards, all before being promoted to his current role in 2021.
Over the past year, Brinker International has renewed focus on the guest experience, Breed says.
“The biggest lesson our team has learned is that our job as marketers should be enhancing the guest experience—truly making our guests’ experiences with the brand more valuable,” Breed says. “If you truly have your eye on the guest, and you are making tangible investments in their experience—making it more convenient, or higher quality, or more affordable, or more relevant—the guest will reward you.”
Moving forward, Breed hopes to grow the Chili’s and Maggiano’s business alongside the two virtual brands It’s Just Wings and Maggiano’s Italian Classics.
Breed’s favorite Chili’s dish is the legendary Oldtimer burger.
Chief Marketing Officer
On The Border
Before she began leading On The Border’s marketing team, Edithann Ramey had acquired years of experience at brands like Topgolf, Pizza Hut, and Brinker International, where she served as VP of Marketing for Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy.
Looking ahead, Ramey says the post-pandemic restaurant future will be different, but for marketers in the full-service restaurant world, it’s like any other day.
“We will have to adjust, pivot, optimize our offerings and service to satisfy our guest expectations and drive as much sales as possible,” Ramey says. “There is no play book, but it’s only important to know the game is a same-store share-battle and competition is fierce.”
On The Border is fast approaching another year of growth. Earlier in 2021, On The Border announced a 60-store Master Franchise Agreement with JRW Inc., making the Korea-based franchisee its master franchisor across South Korea, one of the brand’s international markets.
“Despite the challenges, playing restaurant energizes me, because the wins are big: the ability to grow a brand, making people feel special every day, driving bottom-line profits,” Ramey says. “The future may be different, but restaurants are at the foundation of every-day life, and I’m excited to help lead the industry forward.”
President of Concepts
Josh Kern oversees a wide array of areas: marketing, culinary, beverage, supply chain, and information technology. But long before his leadership for SPB, Kern started his restaurant career working on White Castle with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. He then held leadership positions at Quiznos, American Blue-Ribbon Holdings, Smashburger, and Cerca Trova Restaurant Concepts.
Kern says over the past 20 months, the landscape of full-service restaurants has been permanently changed.
“From a marketing perspective, at SPB we have prioritized taking bolder steps and have not shied away from taking chances to help our brands continue to be successful during these uncertain times,” Kern says.
One way to do that has been through ghost kitchens, which led to an increase in revenue while connecting the company with a new 21–34 year old demographic.
Additionally, SPB Hospitality acquired upscale restaurant company J. Alexander’s Holdings in September. SPB Hospitality is currently the parent company of brands like Logan’s Roadhouse and Old Chicago Pizza + Taproom.
“When it comes to restaurant marketing, creativity is still the key,” Kern says. “I personally draw inspiration from pop culture, current events and restaurants across the globe translating that inspiration into actionable initiatives that help our brands thrive. My ultimate goal: drive innovation that excites and inspires both our team members and our guests.”
In his spare time, Kern is a soccer enthusiast, playing in indoor and outdoor leagues as well as cheering on Manchester United.
Senior Vice President of Brand Strategy and Innovation
Before his time at First Watch, Matt Eisenacher cut his teeth as the Chief Concept Office for Piada Italian Street Food in Columbus, Ohio. There, he was responsible for the marketing, branding, IT, and business development efforts as the company expanded nationally. He joined First Watch in his current role in 2019.
First Watch, which is based in Bradenton, Florida, had a busy 2021. The brand went public, raising about $170 million.
“For 38 years, First Watch has largely been a word-of-mouth concept built from the advocacy of our team members and long-time customers. Only recently have we begun to focus on telling the First Watch story beyond our four walls and introducing more people to the best kept secret in the restaurant industry,” says Eisenacher.
He adds the brand is zeroed in on knowing who its customer is.
“We have built a passionate team of storytellers and digital experts to share our unique culinary story and service-oriented culture. We continue to stay intensely focused on understanding who our customer is, what motivates them, and what they love about First Watch. I’m proud of our continued progress and look forward to sharing our differentiated story with the rest of the country.”
Chief Experience Officer
Sara Bittorf has more than 30 years of marketing experience working for brands like Burger King, Diageo, Bloomin’ Brands, and Carnival. At TGI Fridays, she helps develop experiences that moves the brand, business, and consumer.
Bittorf started her position shortly prior to the country locking down for the first time due to the pandemic, which she says was a blessing in disguise.
“I started with TGI Fridays one month before the country locked down,” she says. “While some might call that bad timing, it afforded me the opportunity to look at the business with fresh eyes to identify where to focus. It was critical for us to be responsive to the crisis while also using it proactively to shape the way we emerged. It was a deep test of leadership skills to manage a team I mostly knew remotely. The work we did to focus on activities that would yield maximum value all lead to industry-leading growth and new streams of revenue.”
Bittorf has seen the brand grow considerably during her time. TGI Fridays announced a partnership with REEF that will see it launch 300 ghost kitchens over the next five years across the U.S., Canada, and other international markets. The brand also teamed with C3 (Creating Culinary Communities) to open digital kitchens in 170 company owned stores in the U.S. The deal expands kitchen capacity and could generate up to an additional $1 million per outlet.
“Looking ahead, my team is continuing to develop innovative products, promotions and unique digital experiences, so that guests can enjoy memorable moments with friends and family at Fridays,” she says.
Another Broken Egg Café
Chief Marketing Officer
Jan Barnett’s 40-plus years in the marketing world include stops at McDonalds and Taco Bell, where she helped launch several recognizable campaigns, such as the late night and 24-hour initiatives at the latter brand.
Having spent more than a decade in the brunch market in particular, Barnett says she has found the slice of the business she is truly passionate about.
“With over 12 years of experience in the full-serve breakfast/brunch/lunch category, I can now officially say I have hollandaise running through my veins,” she says. “I’ve come to learn that brunch is by far the most fun and exciting category to market. At Another Broken Egg Cafe, I’m blessed to work with a very talented team of operators and culinary experts.”
Barnett helped Another Broken Egg Café rebrand itself into its current model, which focuses on off-premises dining, catering, and a re-engineered menu.
“While the past 12 to 18 months have been incredibly challenging to say the least, we’ve come through it together and are now actually generating greater sales and traffic than before,” she says. “It took a total team effort to launch off-premises, move into catering, re-engineer our menu, and transition to a full bar positioning. But once launched, we marketed aggressively and have seen double-digit comp sales growth starting in Q4 2020—and we haven’t looked back since.”
Another Broken Egg Café also introduced a new café design. The “New South” model is indicative of the reimagined brunch experience. New cafes will feature the look, which is light, bright, and modern. The new design highlights the brand’s full bar and offers more visibility of what goes into the brand’s signature hand-crafted cocktails.
Chief Marketing Officer
Jennifer Tate is responsible for restaurant and retail marketing, culinary innovation, and operations, menu strategy, communications, guest relations, and research and insights. Before Joining Cracker Barrel, Tate worked for Darden in various roles including Executive Vice President of Marketing for Olive Garden. She has also clocked time as brand manager for Pizza Hut and Frito-Lay.
Since joining Cracker Barrel in September 2020, Tate has helped expand the brand’s presence across new formats. This includes venturing full force into digital. She says building on the brand’s legacy is a focus moving forward.
“Cracker Barrel is a brand with a rich history of providing high-quality, homestyle food prepared and served with care for more than 50 years,” she says. “I am proud to be leading a team committed to building on that incredible legacy with customer-focused innovation including data-driven media activations, fresh brand storytelling approaches, and new, convenient commerce opportunities.”
In 2021, Cracker Barrel beefed up its digital presence with investments in virtual brands and ghost kitchens, which are exactly the kind of new and convenient commerce opportunities Tate talks about.
The chain’s first digital concept, Chicken ‘n Biscuits by Cracker Barrel, expanded to 500 locations, or 75 percent of the company’s footprint. Another digital concept, The Pancake Kitchen by Cracker Barrel, launched in the final week of Q1 and can be found in roughly 100 stores. Cracker Barrel also launched its first ghost kitchen, Cracker Barrel Kitchen, which offers delivery from a streamlined version of the brand’s menu.
Vice President of Marketing
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
Stephen Loftis, an eight-year Firebirds vet, has deployed his more than 20 years of marketing experience to help guide Firebirds Wood Fired Grill through a pandemic-ridden year.
"We had the foresight to have off-premise assets already in place, so when the pandemic hit in March 2020, we were able to pivot in a number of ways and successfully navigate an unprecedented time in our industry,” he says. "From a technology standpoint, we optimized various channels. Operationally, we adjusted our predominantly in-restaurant dining concept to a 100 percent curbside and delivery model. Packaging was quickly redesigned to ensure that the quality of our entrees and sides were not compromised, and Firebirds facilitated contactless delivery options that exceeded local, state and CDC guidelines."
Loftis says adapting to the “new normal” meant reassessing Firebirds pricing and using new channels to reach customers, which included opening an in-house butcher shop.
"To better meet our guests' needs, new menus were designed to offer affordable and convenient family meal deals. All of our beef is butchered on-site, so we capitalized on that and opened an in-house Butcher Shoppe for guests to order hand-cut beef, chicken and ribs online, specially packaged for curbside delivery and home preparation."
Before arriving at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, Loftis served in several roles at various companies including serving as Vice President of Marketing for Café Enterprises Inc., which operates Fatz Café, Tavern 24, and Tablefield concepts.
Having also worked for brands such as Marriott Hotels, W Hotels, Dunkin’, and Baskin-Robbins, he knows how important it is to stay ahead of the curve.
“We are already looking five years into the future to determine what our guests, and our future guests will crave, and this will guide our food and beverage development toward that future."
Vice President of Brand Marketing
Monica Fleury was promoted to her current role in mid-December. She originally joined the company in 2013 and oversaw the collective brand execution across all channels in an effort to guide consistent and effective brand communication and collaboration.
In her new position, Fleury will lead the growth of the HOA Brands marketing team and continue to play an important role in generating brand awareness and loyalty for the Hooters classic brand and Hoots Wings, a new fast-casual concept, through media and advertising, in-store design, partnerships, franchise marketing support and more.
“In my role, I develop key marketing strategies and lead integrated marketing programs to strengthen and increase awareness for and drive traffic to our world-famous Hooters brand and Hoots Wings, our exciting new fast-casual concept,” Fleury says. “Our concepts have thrived during the pandemic, thanks to our deeply loyal customer base and our ability to quickly adapt to changing conditions and attract new customers through Hooters, Hoots, our virtual brands, delivery and takeout options. With last year’s foot traffic and sales above 2020 levels, and new audiences discovering our quality food and best-in-class hospitality through our marketing initiatives, we are well positioned for strong sales and growth in 2022 and for years to come.”