- In the last six months, six chief executives of publicly traded restaurant companies have announced plans to step down.
- Most company leaders have chosen to retire after a tumultuous two years for the industry.
- While many firms have tapped company insiders to take over, others are hunting for their next chief executive.
Restaurant CEOs are the latest wave of workers to join the Great Resignation.
In the last six months, six chief executives of publicly traded restaurant companies have announced plans to step down, either to retire or to move on to a new corporate challenge. Their announcements came after a tumultuous two years for the restaurant industry, which battled for its survival through pandemic lockdowns, worker shortages, supply chain snarls and sky-high food costs.
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Privately held restaurant companies have seen a similar exodus. Chick-fil-A, Torchy's Tacos and Red Lobster have all announced CEO changes in recent months.
"A lot of people, when the pandemic hit, had to spend more time at home with their families. My sense is for a lot of chief executive officers, it was the opposite," said Timothy Hubbard, an assistant management professor at University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. "They might have been at home, but their workload just went through the roof."
While many firms have tapped company insiders to take over, others are hunting for their next chief executive even as their current one exits.
"My general sense is, just from the pandemic, succession plans have been demolished," Hubbard said. "This is across all industries: succession planning throughout the pandemic was not a priority, and the plans that were in place didn't seem to be very effective at all."
In some cases, the outgoing CEO may have started considering stepping down before the pandemic or during it. For example, former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in his retirement announcement that he signaled to the company's board roughly a year earlier that he was looking to depart.
Of course, not all chief executives who retire stay retired. For example, Johnson's temporary successor — and predecessor — Howard Schultz, returned earlier this month to lead Starbucks as interim CEO. After a little rest and relaxation, some of these corporate leaders could return to the game.
Here are the restaurant companies that will see CEO transitions this year:
Darden Restaurants CEO Gene Lee announced in December that he would retire May 29. The board elected Rick Cardenas, its chief operating officer, as his successor. Cardenas also previously served as the Darden's chief financial officer.
"This is the right time for this transition, and I look forward to continuing to serve as Darden's chairman," Lee said on the company's earnings call in December. "Our company is in a clear position of strength, and this is also the right time for me and my family."
Lee, 60, had been at the helm of Olive Garden's parent company since February 2015.
Domino's Pizza said in early March that CEO Ritch Allison will step down, effective May 1. Allison, 55, will serve as an advisor until his official retirement in July.
"I'm at the point in my life now where my wife and I are ready to go back home to North Carolina … and I'll tell you that I feel really good about doing that because the company is in such a fantastic place right now," the Charlotte native said in an interview on CNBC's "Mad Money."
Russell Weiner, the company's chief operating officer, will succeed Allison.
Denny's CEO John Miller will retire later this year after more than a decade leading the restaurant company. The casual-dining sector was particularly hard hit by the pandemic as diners were slow to return to restaurants.
Denny's is currently searching for Miller's replacement.
After 10 years in the top job, Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison resigned in March. But he isn't planning on leaving the restaurant industry. He's now the chief executive of Salad and Go, a much smaller drive-thru salad chain based in Phoenix.
Wingstop tapped COO Michael Skipworth as Morrison's successor. Skipworth has been with restaurant chain since 2014, before its initial public offering the following year.
El Pollo Loco
El Pollo Loco CEO Bernard Acoca resigned in October to pursue other opportunities. Two weeks later, fried chicken chain Zaxby's announced that Acoca would succeed the company's founder as CEO. Zaxby's is privately held but has nearly double the footprint of El Pollo Loco.
El Pollo Loco CFO Larry Roberts was tapped as interim chief executive and the board removed "interim" from his title in March.
In March, Starbucks announced ahead of its annual shareholder meeting that Kevin Johnson, 61, would retire in early April. His retirement came as Starbucks faced a unionization push from its baristas, on top of the rest of the challenges the broader industry faced.
Former CEO Howard Schultz has returned as interim chief while the board searches for a long-term candidate, although Wall Street is split on whether Schultz will stick around longer than six months.