For Jay Barnes, the secret to the success of the restaurant company he co-owns with his brother John is simple. “I don’t think there’s anything magical about this business,  we just strive to execute better than the competition and give our customers value,” says Barnes, co-founder and president of Houston-based Willie’s Restaurants. The company operates 14 restaurants in two different concepts: Willie’s Grill & Icehouse and Fajita Willie’s Cafe & Cantina.  Both Fajita Willie’s restaurants and nine of the 12 Willie’s Grill & Icehouse locations are located in Houston. The remaining 3 Willie’s Grill & Icehouse sites are in San Antonio.

Dennis Slack has been in the quick-service food industry since he was in high school. He worked hard and saved his money, and by the time he was 22, he had $28,000 in the bank. With those savings and a home equity loan from his parents – as well as all of the knowledge he had acquired about the business – he opened Slack’s Hoagie Shack in 1988 in Philadelphia. The 2,000-square-foot shop had an extensive menu, and it didn’t take long for customers to realize that Slack’s Hoagie Shack wasn’t just another sandwich shop.

Seasons Pizza – the name itself leads customers to believe that any time is a good time to eat pizza. The company backs up that conclusion by offering more food choices in more places every year, making Seasons an attractive option wherever it sets up shop.

One of the most memorable scenes in “Animal House” is the food fight in the college’s cafeteria, which is started by Bluto, played by John Belushi. Before the fight starts, however, the movie shows the state of university dining services as they used to be. Bluto walks into a poorly lit cafeteria and piles his tray with donuts, plates of Jell-O and dishes of meat covered in plastic. This unappetizing offering is no longer an archtype of the college experience, and San Diego State University (SDSU) is a prime example of how much the dining experience can improve.

Pizza, more than most other forms of takeout, is a communal experience. First, everyone comes together to agree upon the toppings, then everyone gathers around and shares the pie. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that New York-based chain Mark’s Pizzeria takes such an active interest in the community. Founder and owner Mark Crane says serving the community has been just as important to the company as serving quality food, and the company demonstrates this commitment time and time again. 

At Bertucci’s Italian Restaurants, guests can watch their meals being prepared in an open kitchen, where the brick oven is the focal point. “Bertucci’s is a fun, lively environment that lends itself to families and groups of friends,” says Jeff Tenner, vice president and executive chef.

Even with more than 50 years of experience as a fishmonger, Aiden Coburn says he still learns something new about the industry every day. In fact, the director of quality control for The Fish Market – a California-based casual seafood dining chain – says he has to stay abreast of countless changes in the seafood business, ranging from government regulation to ever-shifting consumer trends to pricing in a recession.  “I began my apprenticeship 51 years ago, and I am still learning,” says Coburn, who moved to California from Dublin, Ireland, and joined The Fish Market in 1983. 

With the worst of the recession behind it, Shake’s Frozen Custard is ready to mark its 20th anniversary with new locations and tasty new frozen treats. The company, founded in 1991 in Joplin, Mo., will open a new franchise location in Auburn, Ala., in the fall, its second store there following an opening in late 2010. The Auburn locations represent new growth for the company. 

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