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Daniel Schwartz had spent a decade working his way up the corporate ladder on Wall Street when he decided to test his skills in a different trade: cooking burgers and cleaning toilets at a Burger King restaurant in Miami.
“It was a disaster,” Schwartz said of his time working the Burger King drive-thru. “For the life of me, I could not make a good-looking ice-cream cone.”
Getting better at making ice-cream cones, though, wasn’t really the point. The investment-banking analyst turned private-equity whiz kid had just been named CEO of the fast-food chain, the second biggest burger company in the world.
Schwartz, a self-described millennial, had never worked in a restaurant before, let alone run a company. At 32, he was one of the youngest major restaurant CEOs in history.
So he rolled up his sleeves and got to work in Burger King’s kitchens, to find out why the fast-food chain’s sales were essentially unchanged while chains like Chipotle and Panera were notching double-digit growth.
For months, Schwartz split his time between the corporate offices and the restaurant kitchens where he would work the broiler, assemble sandwiches, and take customer orders. He even scrubbed toilets and washed the floors.
Schwartz sat down with Business Insider on Friday for his first media interview since becoming CEO. He said he had one big takeaway from that early experience in restaurants: that Burger King’s menu was out of control.
“It was so confusing — like really confusing in terms of which sauces need to go on which burgers, which toppings go where — and it was leading to worse order accuracy and a lot of waste, too,” he said.
That’s why one of Schwartz’s first moves as CEO was to simplify the menu by stripping it of dozens of products. He also launched a more rigorous process for selecting and rolling out new product launches.
“Our menu had gotten really complicated,” Schwartz said. “We were doing way too much innovation and way too many limited-time offers.”
Schwartz also took a hatchet to corporate expenses by slashing executive perks — a hallmark of Burger King’s owner, private-equity firm 3G Capital, where Schwartz is a partner.
At the same time, Schwartz negotiated deals with restaurant operators in Brazil, China, Russia, and other international markets, which helped grow the number of Burger Kings worldwide by 21% to 16,768 in four years.
Suddenly same-store sales started growing — after years of stagnation.
Then 3G Capital executed a deal to buy Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons in 2014 and created a new parent company, Restaurant Brands International, to oversee the two brands with Schwartz at the helm.
This year, the company added Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen to Restaurant Brands’ portfolio in a $1.8 billion deal.
When Schwartz took over Burger King, its market value was estimated to be around $9 billion. Restaurant Brands is now the third largest fast-food company in the world by market share, according to Euromonitor, and it’s valued at $27 billion. Within the last year, its stock price has soared by more than 35%.
Schwartz, now 36, is sitting at the top, earning more than $6 million in annual compensation.
How a Wall Street whiz kid landed at the helm of Burger King
Schwartz grew up on Long Island, in New York, and assumed until college that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a dentist, or perhaps a doctor like his uncles.
In high school, he split his time between his classes, playing basketball, and tutoring math to other students — a job he got by advertising his services through a paid ad in the local newspaper. He enrolled in Cornell University in the fall of 1997 with the expectation that he would study medicine there, until a Finance 101 course sent him down another path.
Inspired by his class, he started reading a number of business books in his free time and took a particular interest in the surge of private equity buyouts in the 1980s. He landed several internships in finance and after…