Recognized as a Quick Thinker and Innovator, Kelly Cooke Inspires
A stepladder won’t suffice. An extension ladder is what’s most appropriate to follow 30-year-old Kelly Cooke’s ascent to recently being named Chief Marketing Officer of Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill, the fast-casual chain with more than 80 locations in 18 states.
Named one of the most influential restaurant executives in the country according to Nation’s Restaurant News earlier this year, Cooke has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments for Salsarita’s CEO and owner Phil Friedman since she joined the chain in the 2015 as a marketing coordinator.
“Kelly is a young, emerging marketing leader in the restaurant industry,” said Friedman. “She is responsible for spearheading all of Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill’s marketing efforts and got our whole system through the pandemic. Nicely I might add.”
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a serious blow to the restaurant industry – which proved devastating for many chains and some operators while others are still overcoming obstacles and are trying to bounce back.
Salsarita’s, on the other hand, adapted quickly to the pandemic-caused issue of not being able to have dine-in guests by quickly bolstering programs to increase customer awareness of curbside pickup, takeout and third-party delivery options.
As Director of Marketing during that period, Cooke had little time to formulate a plan to react to the devastating business impact of the pandemic. Salsarita’s was not spared as same-store sales from March-May 2020 were down 37 percent over the same period in 2019.
But Cooke reacted quickly and decisively as Salsarita’s launched several new initiatives. The result has been extremely strong sales growth throughout the system, which makes Salsarita’s an attractive brand for multi-concept / multi-unit operators seeking a concept that has consistently been outperforming the fast-casual industry year-over-year. Among Cooke’s marketing initiatives and accomplishments during the pandemic:
- After the initial decline in sales early in the pandemic, same-store sales during the second half of 2020 were down only seven percent over 2019. Excluding catering sales, Salsarita’s has seen double-digit same-store sales growth each month since June 2020, with average sales growth each month of approximately 18 percent.
- Marketing promotions with third-party delivery partners led to a 40 percent increase in sales, with third-party orders still making up an average of 14 percent of total sales each month.
- Orders via the Salsarita’s App and online increased 300 percent compared to pre-pandemic figures.
- Cinco de Mayo sales in 2020 increased 36 percent over 2019, with online orders making up 63 percent of all orders and third-party deliveries up 250 percent compared to the daily average.
- Stores donated thousands of boxed lunches to local hospitals, urgent-care centers and other medical offices.
While Cooke excelled during the pandemic, she has been a whirlwind ever since she joined Friedman and Salsarita’s. In 2017 she helped collaborate on creating the name and branding change from Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina to Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill and she also helped develop the chain’s drive-thru concept that year. And in 2019 Cooke helped launch the Salsarita’s App and new online ordering system.
“Kelly launched the Salsarita’s App and new online ordering platform in collaboration with the technology department, which has led to a triple-digit increase in online orders since launch and she has implemented national campaigns that continue to lead to double-digit same-store sales growth for the Salsarita’s system,” Friedman said. “She developed amazing relationships with our franchisees and our vendors, making many things possible that just would not have been without her.”
Prior to working for Salsarita’s, Cooke was a marketing and business development manager for an engineering firm in the Raleigh, N.C. market. Originally from upstate New York, Cooke earned a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communications and a master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from St. Bonaventure University.