The Da Vinci of Fast-Food: The One Guy Behind a Huge Number of Staple Fast-Food Items Everyone Loves

If you’ve ever found yourself eating a “special” brownie or two and not long after have an insatiable urge to partake in a stuffed crust meat lover’s pizza, followed by a couple McDonald’s McGriddles, a Quiznos Steakhouse Beef Dip Sub, and then finish it all off with a McFlurry or a Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait, well, it turns out you have one man to thank for these and many other staples of the fast food industry- a guy by the name of Tom Ryan. Beyond being something of Da Vinci of the fast food world, Ryan also more recently decided to stop working for the man, and start a couple restaurant chains which, no surprise, one of them has been one of the fastest growing in the world since, and the other quite successful as well. As to all this, he states many established fast food chains have “grown into… adulthood… gotten complacent… [The industry is] dynamic, not static. If you’re satisfied, you’re going to look old fast.”

So how did Ryan come to have such an influence on the world of quick eats? As a student at Michigan State University, Ryan started his rather unique career path by studying Food Science, then followed this up by earning a Masters in Lipid Toxicology, and finally got his PhD in Flavor and Fragrance Chemistry, which apparently are all totally a thing.

As to why he focused on food related subjects in his academic career, he actually started out pre-med, intending to become a doctor, but notes, “I was dating a girl who was interested in food science and she said, ‘You should check this out.’ Spring of sophomore year I took my first food science class. I just loved it. I fell in love with the fact there was a science behind what… most people took for granted, from making ketchup to ice cream.”

So, yes, this girl turned out to be something of a Yinsen to Ryan’s Tony Stark. Without her, pizza lovers of the world may still be feeling obligated to toss their crusts in the trash, rather than bite into cheese-filled or highly seasoned goodness.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After graduating with a PhD in Flavor, Ryan went to work on things like coffee, cocoa, and peanut roasting for entities like Duncan Hines, Folgers, and Jif. Perhaps most significantly in all of this, he worked on perfecting Pillsbury’s frozen pizza dough.

This all saw him ultimately hired by Pizza Hut in 1988 to take the job as their Director of New Products. Not an easy task, the then COO of Pizza Hut actually told Ryan- the guy who literally had “New Products” in his job title- “Tom you’re in trouble… Everything that can be done in pizza has been done.”

Ryan took a different stance, stating that thought process “really pissed me off to the point where I can remember how I was sitting when he told me, and I can remember his voice—my reaction to it was like- I can’t accept that… I went home that night and said, ‘You know, that is how a lot of the world thinks about things.’ I didn’t [think] like that.”

A little over a year later, he dropped the mic to said COO, with one of his many major successes in the food industry. So what did he do?

He states, “…Working on pizza I learned two things: that cheese is the most important thing that drives most people’s value perception of pizza (the more cheese the better—no matter how much you put on it, there’s never enough); and, dogs get to eat the crust, because most consumers who aren’t bread lovers eat the pizza and then flip the crust to their dog.” (Remember, this was an era before the now ubiquitous tasty crusts designed to get around this problem.)

Thus the eureka moment- add cheese to the crust. Like most innovative ideas, as Ryan frequently points out, “they always seem simple in hindsight”, but nobody had thought of this rather retrospectively obvious solution to the crust problem.

Of course, perhaps why it wasn’t so obvious was the fact that the execution is surprisingly tricky. You might at first think to add the cheese to the top of the crust itself like the rest of the pizza. The issue is that this doesn’t actually really distinguish the product that much from competitors, which was half the point. Further, this partially gets rid of the handle people use to hold the pizza without getting their fingers messy and potentially at first burning themselves on the hot cheese. Not a deal breaker, but not ideal for any of these reasons.

The obvious solution was to put the cheese inside the crust, which he did, but this too came with issues. In the first test run, he noted the cooked crust ended up turning out looking like a bike tire, though it tasted good. The bigger issue was that this changed the dynamics of cooking the pizza as a whole. He elaborates, “Baking a pizza with cheese in the crust and baking a thin pizza is like baking a turkey and a chicken wing at the same time. And so there was a lot of technical work that went into how you design the dough and the pan it’s cooked in so that you can have the [twp parts of the] product coming through the same oven in the same amount of time. The vision is only as good as the execution, so we had to [do] a lot to make the execution work. It took us a year and a half.”

After the product debuted, however, it was massive hit, with Pizza Hut selling, according to Ryan, over a billion dollars worth of stuffed crust pizzas in the first year, and seeing overall sales rise about 10% as a result. He had successfully innovated a supposedly uninovatable product.

Other major hits Ryan achieved while with Pizza Hut included the introduction of the Meat Lovers, Pepperorni Lovers, etc. pizzas, which were soon ubiquitous among major pizza chains playing copycat, as with the stuffed crust later.

On this one, he stated, “[The Lover’s Line] taught me that great ideas that fit into your everyday operations are easy wins if they are designed and positioned well [with] the customer. Meat Lover’s, Pepperoni Lover’s, Cheese Lover’s—all those products were kind of an early win; it was like hitting a bunch of singles, but we scored a lot with those singles.”

He and his team also introduced the Pizza Hut breadsticks, chicken wings, and Sicilian pizza, among other things, during his time heading up new new product there.

Now having made a name for himself in the restaurant world, Ryan got the call for a gig at the New York Yankees of Fast-Food chains- McDonald’s- to see if he couldn’t work his magic there as the Worldwide Chief Concept Office. And boy did he.

Perhaps his most famous addition while with McDonald’s was the McGriddle. As for the inspiration here, he states McDonald’s execs tasked him with coming up with a way to increase breakfast sales. After studying the offerings, he realized a glaring hole in the lineup- essentially, everything was savory. There was nothing at all sweet on it. And if breakfast diner offerings are any indication, people love them some sweet with their morning savory and bitter coffee.

Of course, the obvious thing to do was add something sweet like pancakes or French toast sticks like other fast-food chains would later try. But that didn’t really fit at all with what people came to McDonald’s for. He states, “the big void on our menu was something sweet in your hand. [This] was the key to McDonald’s. [The product has to fit with] why people are using you and why you’re valuable to them.”

Thus, “We basically took the Grand Slam Denny’s breakfast and put it in your hand. And the only little piece of technology we needed was how do you get the syrup inside the pancakes so you don’t have to have syrup in one hand, sandwich in the other [when driving]. We worked hard to [figure out how to make] those little syrup crystals, and once we had that, McGriddles happened really quickly.”

Not stopping there, among many other tweaks to the McDonald’s menu in his years there included the McFlurry, the Dollar Menu, and, of course, the Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait- an obvious product now, but no so much at the time.

He states of this one,

These days yogurt sales are going up and up and up, but remember this is back in [the mid-90s], like a decade before [the Greek yogurt explosion], and there wasn’t a huge American love affair with yogurt. People were eating it, but they weren’t really enjoying it. So the idea I had for the yogurt parfait was to work the fat out of the yogurt, replace it with a little more sugar to make it more palatable for Americans, and then to present it more like a dessert than something healthy. [The issue was] people weren’t crazy about yogurt. When I took the most popular yogurt off the shelves and put my first couple prototypes in front of consumers, they didn’t like it… So for the yogurt parfait, we actually created a vanilla yogurt that tasted more like vanilla pudding but was actually real yogurt, and that set things on the path to success… It got popular really fast as a meal [and breakfast] replacement, and for many, as a dessert item.

From here, Ryan was pried away from McDonald’s by Quiznos to serve as the Chief Branding Officer, where he spent some time doing his thing there. Among many other tweaks and new products at that chain, he spearheaded the Steakhouse Beef Dip and the Prime Rib Sub- now two of the company’s most popular product.

Perhaps the biggest thing that happened for him at Quiznos, however, was getting to know one Rick Schaden, one of the owners of Quiznos and a man integral to its explosive growth in the early days.

You see, at this point, as alluded to, Ryan noted the fast food chain industry as a whole were basically all going the way of the Titanic due to, at the time, being far too set in their ways and unwilling to innovate in significant ways to the modern market. Being something of an expert in innovation in this industry, he had major ideas on how one could do better in every aspect of the business.

Thus, with Schaden, the pair decided to start a new fast food burger chain known as Smashburgers. Now, while you might think starting a brand new fast food burger chain in 2007 would be tantamount to flushing a lot of money down the toilet, it turns out people actually loved Ryan’s tweaks to the classic fast food chain model, and within 5 years business was booming, seeing expansion at that point up to 200 stores. The company has also twice been named by Forbes “America’s Most Promising Company”, and today they have around 400 locations spanning 9 countries.

Their recipe for success in this extremely saturated market, as with so many of Ryan’s innovations, is “design and execute and scale disruptive concepts… that [are] familiar in name, but not very familiar at all in the way they play out.” He goes on, “We were able to re-qualify burgers because fast food messed it up in the past… Burgers got commoditized…. Restaurants trained people for convenience or quality, but not both…. That gave us the space to operate…” Simply tweak methods to be able to give people quality and convenience at a fast-food chain like price.

On top of that, he states, “Restaurants could look nicer, could give a nicer vibe than operators that are currently in the segment. This is a point Piada Italian Street Food Founder and CEO Chris Doody made to me as well – the look and service experience is part of the entire price-value equation. Look better and do better and customers feel like they’re getting more.”

Further, to make sure they always stay innovative, as with any business, he strongly advocates creating the right culture. Elaborating, “One of the things I credit Smashburger in general as a culture is that we are a mix of wise, tenured individuals … and we combine ourselves with what I call the ‘immortals’- young people in their 20s and 30s who are just dying to get involved in something that they can become passionate about. And I think it’s that combination inside our company that is one of the special and magic reasons Smashburger has been able to do what it has been able to do.”

He also states from quarter to quarter he now gives all department heads the same mandate- “I want three objectives—two that you get done in the quarter and one that sees impact in the next quarter. If you can’t draw a straight line between these objectives and making a difference around customer satisfaction, executional prowess or enhanced profitability, then I don’t want to see them.”

The inspiration for the latter part of this mandate was simply observing that most corporate structures, including at the time Smashburger’s own as they had grown so large so quickly, saw executives running things who had absolutely no concept of what went on within the walls of their stores. This inevitably lead to objectives that were completely tone-deaf to things on the front end of the company at the restaurants themselves. And, thus, objectives that were destined to end in failure and in the worst case actually hurting the company.

Not content to stop at just being the CEO of that company, on the side in 2012 he also started another chain called Tom’s Urban, more or less a slight re-think of a traditional sports bar type restaurant- again meant to tweak familiar things to fit more modern times when people need much more of a reason to, as he put it, “put on jeans instead of sweatpants”, and go out to a sit-down restaurant instead of having the food delivered right to their door. Naturally, this chain has likewise seen steady growth despite being a bit of a side project.

As to how Ryan keeps an innovative mindset despite now having been in the industry for over four decades and at the point when most of his peers are retiring, he notes he simply applies the same mentality of that of his target customer- the 32 year old.

Why is this the ideal age for customers and mindset for ones’ self? His summed up thoughts are- 32 year olds are at the age where they are starting to have excess money, reasonably good taste, some experience in knowing what they want, but aren’t yet stuck in their ways so are still willing to try new things, and otherwise aren’t quite old enough yet to be considered “uncool” by those of the younger persuasion.

As for any plans at winding down his award winning career, he states, “I’m not interested in margaritas and beaching it any time soon. I have this nirvana of a situation: I can’t wait to go to work in the morning, because things are exciting, and I can’t wait to go home at night. My home life is great. My wife is my best friend, and we have a great time even if we’re not doing anything. So to me, it’s like, why would I interrupt that?”

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