The nation’s more than 660,000 restaurants, including thousands in Orange County alone, not only offer careers in entrepreneurship, management and operations, but are also a growing space for marketers and social media professionals. Lauren Sassano ’12, a Mihaylo College MBA-marketing grad, discusses her role as senior marketing manager for Carlsbad-based Rubio’s Coastal Grill and how to get started on a food-based marketing career.

For Lauren Sassano ’12, a relationship to the restaurant industry goes back to childhood. “I’ve always had a passion for food,” she says. “My family owned several Round Table Pizza locations. So growing up, I worked at Round Table as a cashier. For me, food is not just fuel, it is something that brings people together in an experience. There is something very special about going out to eat with your friends and family. It is something I’ve always been passionate about.”

After earning her undergraduate degree in psychology from Whittier College, Sassano landed her first career job in the food services industry, working for TEAM Enterprises as strategic marketing team leader for their account representing Miller Brewing Company.

In 2007, she joined the fast-casual, fresh-Mex chain Rubio’s, where she worked in the field in Orange County for several years. Drawn to marketing strategy, she sought a corporate role. “When I was there, I would tell my boss that I wanted to work on programs that impact the entire system,” she recalls.

A sandcastle emblazoned with the logo of Rubio's Coastal Grill and the 2016 Coast Fest cleanup event.

Rubio’s commemorates its support of the 2016 Coast Fest Beach Cleanup & Party. The company connects with the community through philanthropic involvement and a fundraising program.

After working for the corporate offices of Taco Bell for a year as their associate analyst for multibrand and express, Sassano returned to Rubio’s, where she currently serves as the company’s senior marketing manager. In 2012, she earned her MBA in marketing from Mihaylo College.

“I have six field marketing specialists who I manage. They are responsible for funding and securing local events, partnering with community organizations, setting up large sponsorships for the year and local store marketing training,” she says. “Our general managers are great at running restaurants, but they aren’t marketing experts. We spend a lot of time creating marketing training materials and meeting individually with store managers to ensure they understand how to do their own marketing, such as telling local businesses about our catering program or visiting local schools to let them know about our fundraiser program.”

Leading Rubio’s fundraiser program, the restaurant’s community engagement initiative, is a particularly rewarding aspect of Sassano’s role.

“Organizations can go online and choose a time and location to hold a fundraiser event at Rubio’s, with 20% of the pre-tax sales donated back to the organization,” she says, noting one of the primary uses of the company’s web presence. “There are also many technical aspects of running and improving the website, ensuring that we can effectively market promotions to our guests.”

Restaurant Marketing 2.0

With the rise of social media and web-based food delivery, Sassano notes that a transformation is remaking the restaurant industry, offering new opportunities for marketing professionals.

“We have Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash and many other platforms that deliver food. Especially in the fast-casual space, customers want convenience and great food, but they don’t necessarily want to go to a drive-through and get fast food,” she says. “Getting quality food delivered in a timely manner to your home or workplace is a growing trend for consumers. There are so many options at your fingertips.”

Looking at Rubio’s future, Sassano anticipates a continued recalibration as consumer tastes and options change.

“I see us evolving as consumer demands and needs change. People used to buy physical gift cards at the grocery store or from a specific retailer. Now people can order a gift card online and email it directly to the recipient,” she says. “People like to know about the ingredients they are eating, and where they are sourced. I expect the demands and needs of our guests to continue to evolve over time.

Launching Your Restaurant Marketing Career

Want to make restaurant marketing part of your future? Sassano says a combination of applied restaurant roles and marketing experiences create a well-rounded background.

“I would recommend any type of in-restaurant work experience. Working in a restaurant provides a great appreciation for how the operations side of the food industry works. This is really important, even on the marketing team” she says. “At Taco Bell, they offer a lot of internships in various departments, including social media. Looking for internships in the restaurant industry is a great opportunity to gain some experience and exposure. In general, there are many marketing experiences that can translate over to restaurants. While restaurants are specific, there is a lot of crossover with other areas of marketing.”

Regardless of technological, economic or societal changes, Sassano believes there will always be opportunities in the restaurant field. “We all eat, so restaurants will never not be necessary,” she says. “Everyone loves food, and they love to gather with family and friends to eat food. It is such a cool industry because it brings people joy and happiness.”

The Mihaylo College Impact

For Sassano, earning her MBA in marketing at Mihaylo College provided an essential background in business that has served as a versatile foundation for her career. She notes that the program encompassed a wide range of coursework, including in accounting, finance, management and operations, providing a synthesis with her early career.

“The MBA program makes you such a well-rounded business person, not just a marketer. It was helpful to have a job prior to starting the program. Having a start in my career gave me a better appreciation for all of the classes I took,” she says. “For example, when I run a promotion, I might not be responsible for pulling together the ROI, but I do need to be able to review the financial information and understand what it means. The MBA program at Cal State Fullerton gave me the baseline to help me understand this. I also appreciated the finance courses. While by no means am I an expert, I received invaluable information and training on things I felt were so applicable to my current job.”

The highlight of Sassano’s Mihaylo College experience was her capstone course, in which she and classmates initiated a marketing analysis for a restaurant business. “We looked at a specific business and their whole business plan and provided recommendations on how to make it better,” she says. “I assisted a restaurant in my capstone project, which was ideal. I reviewed their current marketing strategy and made some recommendations.”

For More Information

For more on careers in the hospitality industry, including restaurants, visit the Center for Entertainment and Hospitality Management (EHM) at their website or at SGMH 5284. In addition to offering an academic concentration in the field, the center also supports networking and professional development opportunities for students seeking careers in the field.

For more on Mihaylo Graduate Programs, including academic paths designed specifically for working professionals, visit the programs online or at SGMH 4210.

Team leaders of the Rubios Coast Fest pose in front of a music stage in Oceanside, California.

Community engagement, such as the Rubio’s Coast Fest Beach Cleanup & Party, help the chain build relationships.