3 Chains Name New CEOs

The new leaders bring experience from Starbucks, Wetzel's Pretzels and Auntie Anne's, among other brands.

Smashburger Denise Nelsen Headshot
Denise Nelsen (pictured) is Smashburger’s first female CEO.

As varied as their menus may be, Taco John’s, Smashburger and Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream have at least one commonality: They’ve just appointed a female CEO.

Here’s a bit more on the newest leaders of each brand:

  • Denise Nelsen: Nelsen, who joined Smashburger in January as its incoming CEO, is now officially the CEO—becoming the first female to hold the role at the 235-unit burger chain. Smashburger says she will cultivate and lead teams, integrate streamlined business processes and aim to deliver an impactful influence on all the chain’s employees, locations and communities. Nelsen has over 30 years of industry experience, serving as the SVP of U.S. operations at Starbucks prior to joining Smashburger.

    TacoJohns HeatherNeary

    Heather Neary

  • Heather Neary: Neary, who has over two decades of restaurant, brand and franchise leadership experience, is now the president and CEO of Taco John’s. She most recently served as the brand president at QSR franchisee KBP Brands, where gross sales surpassed $550 million during her five-year tenure. Initially, Neary began her restaurant career with Auntie Anne’s. Her time at Auntie Anne’s culminated in the role of brand president at a time when it was the largest brand in Focus Brands’ portfolio (now GoTo Foods). She also has been an active member of the International Franchise Association, and has served on the board of directors for the National Restaurant Association and the Women’s Foodservice Forum. Neary assumes the CEO position from Jim Creel, who retired at the end of last year after more than two decades in the role.

    Handels Jennifer Schuler

    Jennifer Schuler

  • Jennifer Schuler: At Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream, Schuler joins the c-“sweet.” Schuler brings marketing and franchise experience to her role. She spent nine years at Wetzel’s Pretzels, where she first served as chief marketing officer, then president, and, in the last five years of her tenure, as CEO. While she was CEO, Wetzel’s grew its store count from 200 to 350 units and average unit volume grew by 24%, just under $1 million. Schuler and her husband also became Wetzel’s franchisees in Minneapolis, which gave her firsthand experience running a franchise and understanding the tools and support needed. She also spent five years as the marketing manager at General Mills, among other roles. Handel’s has 129 stores in 13 states, recently expanding into South Carolina. In recent years, the chain’s system sales rose from $29 million in 2019 to over $130 million expected in 2024.

For more appointment news, including recent announcements from Starbucks and RBI, click here.

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