Kat Cole, 34, got an unlikely start in the food industry. While in high school in Jacksonville, Fla., she worked part-time as a Hooters girl, serving beer and chicken wings in those tiny orange shorts. At age 19, she got a once-in-lifetime opportunity to help the restaurant chain expand internationally. She hung up her plans to become an engineer and lawyer, opting instead to take the executive path in food retail. In the decade she spent at Hooters, Cole says it went from approximately 100 locations and $300 million in revenue to 500 locations in 33 countries and $1 billion in revenue.
Now Cole hopes to work her magic again. This time as president of shopping-mall cinnamon roll brand Cinnabon, an Atlanta, Ga.-based unit of the FOCUS Brands portfolio, which also includes Carvel, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Moe’s Southwestern Grill. Beyond its 1000 franchise locations in 50 countries, Cinnabon has expanded into grocery-store products by partnering with packaged-food kings Pillsbury and Kellogg. It’s also ramping up its presence in other restaurant chains by teaming up with fast-food leaders Burger King and Taco Bell. Cole says it’s about to hit $1 billion in retail sales and will soon be considered one of the “world’s greatest food brands.”