Smashburger Founder Among The Top 25 American Food Entrepreneurs

February 1, 2012 | Gourmet | By Kate Sekules

Kate Sekules reflects on culinary Americana to recount the greatest success stories for the past two-and-a-half decades

What makes these 25 the premier epicurean entrepreneurs of the past quarter century? While all have founded financially successful empires (whether boutique or giant), more importantly these men and women have made a significant impact on the country’s food culture. Chefs and restaurateurs only qualified if they also established a clear—and, yes, lucrative—brand. For a retailer to make the grade, they must have maintained their integrity and hewed closely to their original vision. But haute cuisine maestro or fast-food purveyor, all 25 share one thing in common: Their businesses have shifted the axis of American taste.

1.Howard Schultz: Starbucks
A quarter century after he bought a small Seattle beanery, the man who replaced our cup of joe with a Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino made a $1.7 billion profit for the 17,000-store, 56-country coffeehouse behemoth last year—its best ever. Yet many believe he is a leader in practicing corporate responsibility: “It’s not just about winning, but the right way to win.”
2.Hyman Golden, Arnold Greenberg, and Leonard Marsh: Snapple
It was in 1987 that Unadulterated Food Products, Inc., a modest fruit juice outfit started by three Jewish boys from Brooklyn (as they called themselves), introduced all-natural iced tea and started a tea party that’s still going strong. The secret to their success? “We made the first ready-to-drink tea that didn’t taste like battery acid,” said Greenberg.

3.George Siemon: Organic Valley
This dairy farmer’s intention in starting a cooperative with a few neighbors in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley was not to generate $700 million revenue (in 2011), but that’s exactly what he did. Still at the helm today—he calls himself the CEIEIO in homage to Old MacDonald—Siemon says one of his favorite axioms is: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

4.Wolfgang Puck
It was in 1989 that the Austro-Californian opened his third restaurant, Postrio, thus graduating from cook to entrepreneur. Now possibly the most recognizable chef on the planet, Puck’s three brands produce everything from fast-food franchises and frozen pizza to TV shows and fancy restaurants. And he’s still a nice guy.
5.Nancy Silverton: La Brea Bakery
Call her the sourdough starter. The baker—and Puck alumna—who sold her La Brea empire in 2001 for $5 million-plus profit unfortunately lost it all to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme seven years later. But La Brea is now the United States’ leading artisan bread brand, and Silverton’s restarted with her (and Mario Batali’s) Mozza Restaurant Group.
6.Annie Withey: Annie’s
Yes, this standby for every health-conscious mom has a real Annie behind the label, and she began by handing out boxes of her organic mac and cheese outside grocery stores, printed with her home phone number for feedback. Now, Withey’s a shareholder in the $100 million-plus brand she founded, while she prefers growing produce to sell at her local farmers’ market.

7.Emeril Lagasse Bam!
The Massachusetts-born Cajun-ish chef burst onto the scene with his first restaurant, Emeril’s, New Orleans, and proceeded to penetrate the pop culture with product lines (now owned by Martha Stewart), TV shows, and more than a dozen restaurants. And he continues to kick it up a notch, with an estimated $150 million annual revenue.

8.Martha Stewart: Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
A couple of decades ago the doyenne of the domestic launched Martha Stewart Living magazine, thus unleashing the power of Omnimedia—the company she took public in 1999. Despite setbacks (canceled talk show; jail), Stewart’s stuff—towels to houses—plus books and TV, still sells to the tune of about $230 million a year. As she puts it: “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” And that, according to her catchphrase, is “a good thing.”

9.Annie Chun: Annie Chun’s
What is it with Annies and food entrepreneurship? Chun, like Withey, leveraged small beginnings—selling bottles of homemade sauces at the Marin County Farmers’ Market—into an all-natural packaged Asian food company that’s been growing exponentially since its 2005 alliance with the South Korea–based CJ Corp. She previously worked all jobs at her family’s Korean restaurant: “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting the experience I would need later on.” So, kids, bussing tables can be fruitful.

10.Nell Newman: Newman’s Own Organics
Everyone knows the creation myth of Nell’s dad Paul’s salad dressing. But it was Newman’s Own daughter who invented the pretzels, cookies, candy, et cetera (even pet food), division, a separate entity since 2001. And it’s as highly successful, socially responsible, and not-taking-itself-too-seriously a company as its parent.
11.Steve Ellis: Chipotle Mexican Grill
While working the line for superchef Jeremiah Tower at San Francisco’s Stars, Ellis wondered how all-natural Mission-style burritos and tacos might go down with the masses. They go down well. Ellis took the brand from one store in Denver to well over 1,000 (owned not franchised) and counting.

12.Danny Meyer: Union Square Hospitality Group
Meyer, dubbed “the greatest restaurateur Manhattan has ever seen” by the New York Times, has (through partner Susan Reilly Salgado) spun off his gold-plated Union Square Hospitality Group into a management-skills consultancy, teaching his signature “HQ” (Hospitality Quotient). If this results in more restaurants like Gramercy Tavern (opened in 1994) and the Modern, or fast-food joints as good as Shake Shack, we’ll have even more to thank him for.
13.Steve Smith: Tazo
When Smith sold his previous tea company, Stash, and started Tazo, the country was not exactly starved for dried leaves in little gauze bags. Yet his “Reincarnation of Tea,” with its premium blends, herbs, flowers, and peels, conquered the crowded market, and Smith sold it to Starbucks in 1999 for $8 million. Now, Tazo is huge, and Smith has reincarnated in Portland as “Steven Smith Teamaker.”
14.Nobu Matsuhisa: Nobu
Surely the chef who wields the greatest influence with the fewest syllables, Matsuhisa (only his first-ever place, in L.A., carried his last name) has 25 restaurants on 5 continents—and counting. Starting at Nobu New York and with partner Robert De Niro at his side, Nobu has leveraged celebrity fans and New Style Sashimi into an empire.

15.Steve Hindy and Tom Potter: Brooklyn Brewery
It was a red-letter day for the American microbrew industry when the scrappy but beloved operation started by journalist Hindy and banker Potter in 1987 moved into its own real Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg. Now that their 2011 $8 million brewhouse next door has increased local production capacity 1,000 percent, Hindy and Potter might be the next macro-brewery.

16.Don Feinberg: Brewery Ommegang
The slightly moonstruck idea of brewing Belgian beer just outside Cooperstown, New York, paid off when actual Belgian brewers—the almighty Duvel Moortgat—bought the company in its sixth year. Feinberg is still in charge, bringing Witte and Hennepin to 43 states and ensuring it still “isn’t overhopped or overhyped.”
17.Jean-Georges Vongerichten
You could date the Alsace native’s transition from great chef to great entrepreneurial chef from the opening of his four-star flagship, Jean Georges. After that, fresh JGV inventions started popping up everywhere. He’s passed the dozen restaurant mark, and, in partnership with Starwood hotels, is about to go more global than ever, with 53 new openings reportedly in the offing.
18.Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger: Scharffen Berger Chocolate
A sweet yet bitter tale of the evolution of domestic artisanal chocolate. A cancer diagnosis sent Dr. Steinberg in pursuit of his cocoa dream, and then into business with his former patient, winemaker Scharffenberger, to make then-unheard-of selected-bean, high-cocoa-content American bars. It was so good, Hershey bought them out for about $20 million. After Steinberg died, Hershey closed the original factories with their vintage equipment. Scharffenberger’s making tofu now.

19.Mario Batali
The opening of Babbo was the beginning of brand Mario—and the Italian-American chef, despite media saturation and restaurant proliferation (16), remains popular with everyone from your grandmother to Gwyneth Paltrow. With his shorts, signature orange Crocs and green Vespa—plus his 10 books, TV shows, pepper mills, watches, wines, ovens, world’s biggest Italian food venue (Eataly, co-owned with the Bastianich family) et cetera—he’d inspire jealousy if he weren’t so cuddly.

20.Adam Tihany
In 2001, 20 years after the preeminent designer, who has injected the glamour into more than 300 establishments, completed his first restaurant, the New York Times crowned him one of the greatest interior architects. Period. His settings have enhanced all the great chefs (Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, to name a few)—a process he claims is a two-way street. “You can bring a horse to water,” he says, “but if the chef doesn’t follow suit, you fail.”

21.Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian: Edible Communities, Inc.
Using a VISA card–like franchising business model for hyperlocal, extremely high quality food magazines? Who’d have thought it? And who could have predicted Edible Communities, Inc., would become the world’s largest local-food publisher, with a 5 million combined circulation for its 64 magazines? Ryder and Topalian are evangelists for the locavore movement in the best possible way.

22. Jeff Sinelli: Which Wich?
If you’re Texan you probably subsist on Which Wiches—the funnest lunch in the land, almost infinitely customizable by way of a multiple- choice questionnaire you fill out on the printed brown bag with a special red Sharpie. The 150-franchise point has been passed, and there are no signs of slowing, thanks to free Wi-Fi, low pricing, a satisfaction guarantee, music and newspaper stations, and a community vibe.

23.Michael Kirban and Ira Liran: Vita Coco
True story: Two childhood friends meet a couple of Brazilian women at a bar who say they miss coconut water—so they start selling it. Eight years (and a Brazilian-American wedding) later, Vita Coco generates $100 million in revenue from 17,000 U.S. retail outlets, and boasts Madonna, Demi Moore, and Matthew McConaughey among its investors. “We felt coconut water could be as big a market as orange juice in the United States,” said Kirban.

24.Shelly Hwang and Young Lee: Pinkberry
Poster children for the latest fro-yo boom, restaurateur Hwang and architect Lee, originally (but no longer) partners in life and yogurt, decided simple and tangy with extra millions of live cultures was what the world needs now. Since their high-design, pebble-floored franchised stores now number more than 130 in the U.S. and 15 other countries (and Howard Schultz is betting millions on them), they may have a point.

25.Tom Ryan: Smashburger
Denver-based fast-food veteran Ryan (he led the stuffed-crust-inventing team at Pizza Hut before becoming McDonalds’ CMO) remembers thinking “the hamburger is our favorite food, and still we’re not satisfied.” His solution—quality beef “smashed” to order on a butter-brushed griddle in fun, friendly surroundings—seems to hit that spot: The company has 450 signed franchise agreements on top of their 143 locations, and the title of 2011’s “most promising company in America,” according to Forbes.