Taco Bell Corp. builds more than just burritos.
The Irvine-based fast-food chain is a proving ground for restaurant industry executives, turning out senior leaders of several Orange County-based chains, ranging from a publicly traded chicken specialist to a fast-growing purveyor of build-your-own pizzas.
• Steve Sather, president and chief executive of Costa Mesa-based El Pollo Loco Holdings Inc.;
• Stephanie Lambrecht, vice president of operations at Rancho Santa Margarita-based Pieology Pizzeria; and
• Dave Barrows, president of Anaheim-based Bruxie Gourmet Waffle Sandwiches LLC.
They cut their corporate teeth at Taco Bell, and some also did stints at its parent company, Yum Brands Inc. in Louisville, Ky. Others were alums of Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo Inc. before it spun off the restaurant chains Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC—all of which now make up publicly traded Yum.
“PepsiCo always emphasized giving people big opportunities to grow and develop,” said Frank Tucker, Taco Bell’s global chief people officer. “We have continued that tradition.”
“People earned their stripes at a Pepsi company—they were willing to let you take risks as long as the performance was there,” said El Pollo Loco’s Sather, who was named a Businessperson of the Year by the Business Journal in January based on his own success at El Pollo Loco.
Taco Bell’s $8.2 billion in sales and 6,200 locations make it the biggest OC-based restaurant chain. Professional and executive development extends Taco Bell’s influence to operators here and in other parts of Southern California (see sidebar, page 74).
Sather held several roles over six years at Taco Bell before he left the chain in 1992.
He and colleagues viewed it as a sort of executive prep school.
“We were going to be there for a few years and move on, [often] to a bigger title at a smaller company,” he said.
Sather went on to Irvine-based La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill and a Krispy Kreme franchisee before joining El Pollo Loco as senior vice president of operations in 2006. He became chief executive in 2010.
He cited his years at Yum as time spent with “sharp and forward-thinking people” developing now-common industry practices that include the “value menu” and locating sites in nontraditional venues such as airports.
“You knew you were getting great training at Taco Bell,” Sather said.
He said the work was demanding—“they didn’t keep nonperformers around; you either flourished or you didn’t”—and the rewards matched the effort.
“Taco Bell and Pepsi executives were always in high demand,” he said.
Sather has brought former Yum and Taco Bell alumni to El Pollo Loco:
• Chief Operating Officer Kay Bogeajis worked at Taco Bell and for PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division.
• Chief Financial Officer Laurance Roberts held similar roles at KFC and a Pizza Hut joint venture in the U.K.
• Vice President of Development Jeff Little found sites and built restaurants with Taco Bell and Yum for 12 years before joining El Pollo Loco.
“I wasn’t an expert in [those areas], but I knew the type of training they had,” Sather said.
Pieology’s Lambrecht worked for Taco Bell for six years—she considers Bogeajis a mentor from their time there. She arrived there after 20 years with sister chain Pizza Hut, which had been her first job out of high school.
Yum “had a structured development plan,” she said. “People [move] among the brands for what they need.”
Much of her work at Taco Bell was in operations, but for one three-year period she moved over to a slot helping franchisees. The corporate post called for her to serve as a liaison to 100 franchises. She also oversaw 30 company-owned stores, all “test restaurants” where new concepts get tryouts.
The experience has helped at Pieology, which she joined in September as vice president of operations after a three-year tour in a similar role with Santa Monica-based the Veggie Grill Inc.
“When I got [to Pieology], we had 23 restaurants; now we have 57,” with 80% of locations franchised, she said.
Chicago-based restaurant industry researcher Technomic Inc. estimated Pieology’s 2014 sales at $44 million.
“We have to build infrastructure,” to support that, and, “I have to support franchisees, their training and operations, and do it for our company stores, as well.”
Helen Lao Baxter, owner of Irvine-based restaurant executive search firm ClearPath Solutions Inc., helped bring Lambrecht to Pieology. The Taco Bell experience helped make the match.
“Taco Bell … is recognized as a brand that produces strong leaders,” Baxter said. “Their talent is coveted, [and] their executives are known for building and sustaining a strong culture across brands.”
Baxter said Taco Bell’s marketing is a particular strength, including newer areas like mobile, digital and social media.
Dave Barrows was named Bruxie’s first president in January.
He worked in strategic, regional and national marketing for Taco Bell in the early 1990s.
“I got the full circle of what goes into making a brand move,” he said. “They created a strong culture of strategy, recruited a lot of very strong, strategic marketing people into it, [and trained those] people exceptionally well.”
Much of the marketing emphasis stems from Taco Bell’s time as a unit of PepsiCo, which also owns Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay.
Barrows and Bogeajis each said a “packaged goods” mentality brought over from selling soda and salty snacks was starting to be applied to fast-food marketing.
Karen Eadon, a former vice president of marketing for Taco Bell who is president and chief operating officer of Riverside-based Farmer Boys Food Inc., agreed.
“The discipline you get in consumer packaged goods is incredibly good,” Eadon said.
The marketing focus applies internally, too: top Taco Bell and Yum executives first marketed the food they sell.
• Yum Chief Executive Greg Creed, who held the same role at Taco Bell, was the chain’s chief marketing officer—“Think Outside the Bun”—and then led its overall brand strategy worldwide.
• Taco Bell Chief Executive Brian Niccol came from Pizza Hut to be chief marketing officer before being promoted to president, and then to chief executive in January.
• Taco Bell Foundation Director Hamilton Brown, named to the post in January, began by heading up Taco Bell’s beverage marketing efforts.
“We give people a chance to do big work,” said Tucker, the chain’s human resources chief.
Taco Bell has about 650 workers at its headquarters, and “about 25%” of them received a promotion in the last year or so, according to the company.
The trend was reflected in the field, according to a spokesperson, with 750 workers moving to “salaried management” slots at company-owned restaurants over the same period.
Headquarters has had an “employee involvement team” for about a dozen years, made up of employees across departments, to “be the employee-sounding board for issues … helping boost morale in the building when needed,” the spokesperson said.
Barrows said the human resources department at Taco Bell played a bigger role there than any company he’d ever been at.
“It was pretty well-orchestrated, and it wasn’t taken for granted you were able to do all these things,” he said.
Now he and other Taco Bell graduates recruit executives who have gotten similar training.
Sather built his team from ex-Taco Bell employees and fondly calls the extended links among the chain’s former executives “a great [group] to be in, where people still talk to each other years later.”
Bogeajis—Sather’s chief operating officer at El Pollo Loco—said she seeks applicants from PepsiCo or Yum.
“I look at those resumes,” she said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
So do newcomers with big ambitions.
Irvine-based American Restaurant Holdings Inc. owns three chains—Fresca’s Mexican Grill in Costa Mesa; JoJo’s Pizza Kitchen in Chino Hills; and Muscle Maker Grill in Colonia, N.J.—with a combined 70 units and about $40 million in systemwide sales.
American Restaurant Chief Executive Tim Betts has said he wants to “grow the brands” by building an internal structure and franchising programs.
Last month he hired Joe Jaeger—a distribution, marketing and franchising veteran of Taco Bell and PepsiCo—to lead West Coast franchising for Muscle Maker Grill, which has about two-thirds of its locations in New York and New Jersey.