Leadership Series: Carin Stutz Is Paving the Way For Women In the Restaurant Industry

In May 2016, Carin Stutz joined Red Robin as the brand’s new Executive Vice President and COO, a role that would put her in charge of leading the restaurant management teams of more than 440 company-owned store locations in both the US and Canada. Definitely no easy feat, but certainly a job that this restaurant industry veteran was more than qualified for. 

At 59, Stutz has spent her entire career in the restaurant business — her very first role at just 16 years old, working the window at McDonalds (where women were limited to at the time). "I was 16 years old, watching these guys, area directors, driving in with brand new company cars," Stutz recalled during an interview with Franchising.com. "I knew that if I was going to stay in the restaurant business, my goal was to be an area director so I could have a brand new car."

Since then, Stutz steadily built her credentials in operations, eventually earning a slew of leadership positions including president and CEO of Così Inc.; president of global business development at Brinker International, where she led the worldwide expansion of Chili’s and Magliano’s Little Italy; and president of McCalister’s Deli, where she served two years just before joining Red Robin. 

Now an executive career coach, Stutz notes that most people who hold top leadership positions share two common traits — they’re resilient and gritty. She also stresses the importance of setting clear goals while on a professional path to success. Stutz's advice to women in business: learn financial skills — it’s a differentiator and will get you a seat at the table. 


Q&A with Carin Stutz, COO and Executive Vice President of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

Foodable: What was your first job? How old were you?
CS: My first job was babysitting along with 3 paper routes.  My first restaurant job was McDonald's at age 16 in Aurora, Illinois.

Foodable: Would you say it's been challenging as a woman working your way up in this male-dominated industry?
CS: It's challenging and competitive for anyone to move up in this industry, but I do believe that you have to stand out as a female with outstanding results as well as have the courage to be an advocate for yourself and your career.

Foodable: Do you think there are similar/different challenges for women starting out in the restaurant industry today?
CS: There is a fairly level playing field as one starts in the industry, male or female.  However, the female representation goes down significantly as you look at positions above the restaurant management ranks to the board room. There are two major differences.  One is what happens outside of work where women are still responsible for the majority of the household duties.  Therefore, we see women opt out from applying for opportunities. Secondly, even though times are better, there is still bias and disproportionate opportunities for women to be heard or for someone to carry their name into the board room for promotion.

Foodable: How important do you think mentors are for aspiring executives?
Mentors are important, but sponsors, those that will be a voice for you and represent you in the room when a decision is made on a promotion is even more valuable.  Mentors will help shape you as a leader with honest feedback and support, often encouraging you to aim higher.

Foodable: What are three of the biggest business lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?
CS: You must be an advocate for yourself.  Have the courage to communicate your career goals, welcome and grow from feedback and take on more risk. Getting out of your comfort zone provides tremendous professional growth. Keeping your head down, working hard and delivering solid results, hoping someone will notice, is not the way the game is played. Network and speak up! Financial skills open doors. Challenge yourself to learn what’s expected at the level above you and get ahead of the curve. It is a differentiator. Confidence and courage – you must be resilient and quickly come back from adversity or setbacks. Own it, learn from it and move on. Take the high road – they say your reputation and character enters the room long before you do, so just be kind, honest and respectful.

CS: Looking back at your career thus far, what would you say is the one thing you are most proud of? The amazing people that I have been able to lead and mentor. Seeing so many reach their potential and knowing that I had even the smallest influence in their success brings me joy. I love how our industry attracts the most generous people on this planet.

CS: What is one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you? I love music.  My husband, Rodger, and I go to as many concerts and theaters as we possibly can each year.  From James Taylor, Lady Gaga, Jay Z and Beyonce, Foo Fighters or Chicago’s Lollapalooza, it is always a fun experience.