Steele Smiley’s Restaurant Company Gets a New CEO
Kelly Baltes, incoming CEO of Minneapolis-based Steele Brands Provided photo

Steele Smiley’s Restaurant Company Gets a New CEO

Chain restaurant veteran Kelly Baltes will replace Smiley as CEO of Steele Brands.

Steele Smiley is doubling down on plans to expand his restaurant brands nationwide, and he’s tapped a hospitality industry veteran to help.

On Monday, Minneapolis-based Steele Brands – parent company of salad chain Crisp & Green and two other fast-casual restaurants – announced that Kelly Baltes will replace Smiley as CEO. Smiley, who founded the company, will remain on board as executive chairman and “sole controlling shareholder” of the business, according to a news release.

Steele Smiley, founder of Steele Brands
Steele Smiley, founder of Steele Brands

Baltes’ tenure aligns with Smiley’s national ambitions: Before joining Steele Brands, Balte served as president of Maggiano’s Little Italy, a chain of Italian restaurants with 52 locations across the country. Baltes also worked in operations at Darden Restaurants, whose portfolio includes Red Lobster and Olive Garden. He went on to serve as chairman and CEO of Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, which was later acquired by Darden.

The news release credited Baltes with transforming Cheddar’s “into a more nationally positioned chain, resulting in tripled revenue growth.”

“Kelly is an industry veteran, and I am confident in his ability to expand the Steele Brands footprint,” Smiley said in the release. “Kelly is a true operator – he literally grew up in this business, and has played every operational role within a restaurant system, from bussing tables early in his career to CEO.”

Smiley first met Baltes as a prospective franchisee, a company spokeswoman said in an email. “Steele and Kelly maintained a relationship, which ultimately turned into an opportunity for Kelly joining the business as CEO,” the spokeswoman said.

For his part, Baltes said the opportunity to lead Steele Brands is “the most exciting one” in his career.

A former fitness industry entrepreneur, Smiley launched Crisp & Green back in 2016. The salad chain continues to compete with Los Angeles-based Sweetgreen, which opened its first Minnesota location this year. Five years later, Smilely introduced Stalk & Spade, a plant-based burger restaurant. Next on the docket is Paco & Lime, a Mexican-inspired restaurant slated to open in 2023. All of his concepts are focused on wellness and healthy eating.

Today, Steele Brands’ footprint extends to more than 25 states. The company says it has 200 restaurants either open or in development, and it aims to open one store a week in 2023.

“Ultimately, our goal is to be the fastest growing restaurant chain in American history,” Smiley told TCB in a June 2021 podcast interview.