What You Didn't Know About Smashburger's Co-Founder

Hamburger joints like Smashburger seem to be a dime a dozen in the United States. You'd think that, with plenty of well-known burger chains, there wouldn't be room or a need for more. Or that they could be successful with so much competition. The first Smashburger opened in Denver, Colo. in 2007, and thankfully, neither of Smashburger's co-founders, Tom Ryan and Rick Schaden, had the belief that there were too many places to get a delicious burger, otherwise the world might never have tasted burgers that are literally smashed to give them a juicy flavor before being cooked on a grill. Instead, they obviously saw an opportunity with all of their combined food and restaurant experience.

Co-founder Ryan had an advantage because he studied food science for his undergrad degree. He was hungry for more knowledge and continued his academic studies, becoming a pro in the food world. He's become a true expert who is well sought-after in many fast food chain establishments, as noted by The Denver Post. For the majority of his career, he has been the creative guy experimenting, developing, and creating new products to bring to the market (via Franchise Times). And, it turns out, we can all thank Ryan for some iconic items that have graced fast food menus.

A girlfriend inspired him to study food science

Sometimes we're drawn to study certain things because of our hobbies or thanks to inspiration and encouragement from family members. Others know exactly what they want to be when they grow up at a very young age. But for Ryan, he would be inspired by a girl he was dating in college who would ultimately influence what he would pursue while attending university. He'd graduate with a food science degree, launching him into a world of playing with, fusing, and manipulating food, flavors, and textures to make food appetizing and appealing to consumers on a national and global scale.

The Smashburger co-founder said in an interview with The Denver Post, "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 I thought most people took for granted, from making ketchup to ice cream."

Tom Ryan is a food expert, really

A degree in food science may seem sufficient in the food world, but Ryan was fascinated by knowing and understanding the science of how food and flavors work, how they pair well or don't, and how ingredients can add some magic to a dish (via The Denver Post). After his undergraduate career, he went for a master's degree studying lipid toxicology and later a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry. Who knew that you get a doctorate in flavor and fragrance? Well, now you do. 

He earned all his degrees at Michigan State, and his Ph.D. degree, in particular, had surely been helpful when designing the concept for Smashburger. Ryan has said, as shared by The Daily Meal. "The smashing creates a deep caramelization, and it sets up a loose and tender texture that forces juices to bubble up through the burger." Additionally, The Daily Meal explained, "After 90 seconds the burgers are scraped off the griddle and flipped with a spatula that's sharpened every morning, and they're finished cooking after three minutes."

Smashburger's co-founder has launched many iconic fast food products

A lot of fast food items flop and don't stay on the menu. But some find incredible success, and they have a creator or creators behind them, though they are rarely in the limelight. Ryan can claim fame to many different food products that hit the marketplace and have become classics. Some are practically synonymous with a chain, such as the McDonald's Dollar Menu, as noted by CNBC's Make It.

According to The Denver Post, Ryan was the genius behind the stuffed crust pizza phenomenon in the 1980s while he worked for Pizza Hut. The item brought in a billion dollars in the first year it was available. When the Smashburger co-founder worked for the Golden Arches in the 1990s, at one point, he had the job title "Worldwide Chief Concept Officer," which sounds like a pretty fun job of being in charge of coming up with different ideas for food items. While at McDonald's, he came up with the McGriddle, McFlurries, and the Dollar Menu. He also worked for the sandwich chain Quiznos, where he helped develop two best-selling subs: the Steakhouse Beef Dip and the Prime Rib Sub.

He didn't plan on becoming a CEO

Tom Ryan never wanted to be CEO, which may sound strange or even surprising for someone who is the co-founder of a successful hamburger chain. Ryan said he prefers experimenting, creating, coming up with flavors, and developing ideas rather than steering the ship. He said in an interview with Franchise Times, "I never in my entire life aspired to be a CEO, I wanted to be the creative guy. I wanted to be playing with food and marketing and designing concepts." 

Although becoming a CEO wasn't on his radar, he said, "Here comes this thing at age 60 to say maybe you should go do this — I will tell you in hindsight it's become a very refreshing experience for me." He had another reason to take the helm after Smashburger went through three CEOs in a short period of time. Plus, the company behind the Philippine-based food chain Jollibee, which owns part of Smashburger, presumably encouraged Ryan to head the company. "I'm committed to them, they're committed to me and we're going to make Smashburger the best global better burger brand in the world," Ryan explained.

Smashburger's Tom Ryan considers this person to be his hero

This may be one of the sweetest things to hear from a very successful business man. In an interview with The Denver Post, when asked who his hero is, Smashburger's Tom Ryan said his wife, Jody. "She is the love of my life, she is my North Star, my motivation and a great partner," he shared. "She has a fabulous sense of humor, a pragmatic view on life, she's a great mom, and we share a lot of passions. The passion for food, travel, wine, company." 

Sounds like he hit the jackpot by having a caring and encouraging partner with whom he can share all of his ups and downs. This isn't the first time Ryan has talked so highly of his wife, either. In an interview with Franchise Times, when asked about retiring, he said he was happy with his work-life balance, saying, "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?"