UCLA Extension Restaurant Industry Conference Explores 'What's Your Why?'

Technology has helped operators share their stories with consumers.
Technology has helped operators share their stories with consumers. Image Used with Permission

In its 20th year, the UCLA Extension Restaurant Industry Conference decided to dig deeper. Restaurants in today’s market, from fast casual to food truck to full service, are no strangers to sustainability, marketability, and the mountain of critical issues facing operators. But, in a consumer-chef relationship that is increasingly become digitalized, it helps to head straight to the core.

“This year, we’re introducing a ‘What’s Your Why’ component. We’re really kind of reimagining the conference a little bit to have it be more interactive and focused on ‘What’s Your Why’ as it relates to your brand’s story, employee engagement, sustainability—all of those components,” says Laurel Mintz, the CEO of Elevate My Brand who is also a board member.

“We’re creating an environment where we’re going to expect people to really interact and share their own experiences on white boards around the room, and we’ll be interacting with those throughout the day’s events,” she continues. “So, we’re really kind of engaging the attendees in a very unique way that we hope will allow them to express their needs, their desires, their issues, their successes, in a very unique way that we don’t think we’ve seen at any conference.”

Taking place April 26 at the UCLA Covel Commons in Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Restaurant Industry Conference will explore the creative, environmental, and social concerns behind food. The one-day event, which draws around 350-400 people, will gather members of the industry from emerging brands to C-level officers of chain restaurants, as well as some independent operators and other industry participants, such as investors, lawyers, brokers, and bankers.

As Mintz alluded to, this year’s conference is all about the message. With consumers caring more about the story behind their food, it’s up to restaurants to convey that history effectively and broadly. “Anybody observing can see, you can’t go on a restaurant’s website without ‘Our Story’ being one of the tabs,” explains

Anna Graves, the conference chair and an advisory board member, “without getting to know the founders. Without getting to know, in most cases, what the reason was, what they stand for, what the brand is. This is an element that is in all restaurant operators now. It allows them to engage and connect in a way that was not really possible before.”

Graves has been with the conference since its second installation. She says one of the unique aspects is its connection to the University of California. Over the last five or six years, they’ve synergized, which has benefited everyone involved.

“There’s such a wealth of opportunity to exploit there,” she explains. “Tremendous amounts of learning; tremendous amount of insight in the industry and issues affecting the industry. This will be our fourth year that we’re on campus and we’ve involved more of the UC professors and UC administrative people and, of course, this year the president of the university, Janet Napolitano, is going to be our honoree because we’re celebrating the global food initiative she kicked off with Alice Waters. They are some of the most critical issues facing the restaurant industry today. It’s shaping consumer desires and expectations. And like I said, we have a wealth of knowledge—deep knowledge—at this school as well as the industry on this subject. We’re blending them together.”

Graves also mentions that this conference stands out due to its wide breadth of topics. “We’ve got issues that are important to operators, that are important to the finance aspects of restaurants, and a lot of not just operational issues, but core issues relating to interacting with the community and the guests,” she says.

Driving the conversation, however, will be the heart of restaurant’s operations.  “It’s really more mission focused and story driven than ever before,” Mintz adds. “We’re very lucky to have so many more options and choices in the restaurant world than we ever have. What is compelling guests to go to one restaurant, one concept over another, is that brand’s story. And especially in a world that is more and more digitally focused. That brand’s story plays across so many different platforms. From the actual physical collateral materials to any public relations outreach to social media.”

Graves says her favorite part of the conference is what they call the “armchair conversations.” Where last year’s and this year’s award winners have a casual conversation, sometimes literally in armchairs, about the industry. She also points to the Emerging Concepts panel, which offers a platform for successful operators to talk about how and why they’ve been able to grow their brands.

Here is a full agenda for the conference:

8:30—8:50 a.m.

Welcome and Program Overview

Roger Torneden, Director, Department of Business, Management, and Legal Programs, UCLA Extension.

Anna M. Graves, Partner and Co-Leader of the Restaurant, Food & Beverage Industry Group, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

BARS—Bruin Association of Rapping Students

8:50—9:35 a.m.

You Are What You Make: How to Inspire Guests to Build Your Business With You

Every industry is facing a new and fast changing marketplace that is being redefined by shifts in culture, technology and demographics. Your company is under more pressure to reach more guests in more ways than ever. But what if these forces could work to your advantage? What if you could inspire employees, guests and partners to become your most passionate advocates? What if your brand community created and shared your marketing with you? Simon Mainwaring, CEO of We First and New York Times bestselling author, will reveal how to do this based on best practices and real world case studies from the smartest brands in the world. Join us to find out how to define, frame and share your story in ways that will build your brand and business.

Keynote Speaker:

Simon Mainwaring, Founder and CEO, We First, Inc.

9:35—10:30 a.m.

State of the Industry

The Food Industry is undergoing unprecedented changes, driven by changing tastes, new technologies and heightened risks driven by climate change and globalization.  Never have the business challenges—and opportunities—been as great. William Rosenzweig, Dean of The Food Business School of The Culinary Institute of America will look at the trends and technologies that are transforming the food system.  We will examine how human health and planetary sustainability are coming into sharp focus in the food system. His presentation will showcase the exciting tools and technologies that are creating new production processes, distribution systems, and consumer market niches. He will share examples of opportunities for widespread innovation and risk mitigation on topics that include transparency, personalized nutrition, the digitization of food, and robotics.

Featured Speaker:

William B. Rosenzweig, Dean and Executive Director, The Food Business School

11 a.m.—noon

Sustainable Food Procurement and Operational Practices

Sustainable Food Procurement—How do we make local and other more sustainable food sources the norm rather than the exception while also increasing food production to feed the growing population across the world economically?  What role do restaurants play in this?  Issues that will be examined include facilitating direct purchasing with small farmers, sustainable farming, food hubs and collectives, sustainable seafood, fair trade products, grass fed beef, humane production practices, reducing antibiotics.

Sustainable Food Operation Practices—Consumers understand that sustainability does not end with procurement.  This session will provide an overview of best practices in sustainable food service operations, and perspectives from leading restauranteurs.  Topics to include: achieving zero waste, your company’s carbon footprint, LEED construction, utility consumption and incentives, water use, packaging, urban agriculture, the ROI of sustainability.


Nurit Katz, Chief Sustainability Officer, UCLA


Erik Oberholtzer, Co-Founder, Tender Greens

Mario Del Pero, Co-Founder and CEO, Mendocino Farms

Adam Schlegel, Co-Founder, Snooze, An AM Eatery

Noon—1:40 p.m.

Luncheon & Innovation Award Presentation

Award Recipient:

Janet Napolitano, President, University of California

Armchair Conversation with Kevin Reddy, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Noodles and Company

1:55—2:55 p.m.

Food Security/Availability and Equity

Do restaurateurs need to be concerned with food policy issues that impact equity and food security, or other social welfare issues?  More and more, yes!  Take for example the Quick Service segment being blamed for growing obesity, or the steady decline of soda consumption and sales.  How will these issues impact your business? Today’s consumers are looking to you to be socially responsible!   This session will examine relevant and impactful issues of the day that may impact your business and how your business can be pro-active and get involved.  Topics discussed will include: Fair wage and labor practices in restaurant operations and agriculture, public health trends related to food issues, food security and access, and the value of non-profit partnerships.


Kim Kessler, Director, Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy, UCLA


Chuck  Scofield, Executive Vice President, Share our Strength

Zach Koff, Sr. Vice President, Operations, Shake Shack

2:55—3:55 p.m.

The Three Faces of Finance: Family Offices, Private Equity and Strategic Investors

All money is not equal. Learn about the perspectives and value added benefits of accepting capital from various investor types.  Our panel will include leading investors from 3 different categories:  high net worth family offices, private equity funds and strategic investors.


Damon Chandik, Managing Director, Head of Restaurant Investment Banking, Piper Jaffray & Co.


Sabrina Merage Naim, Principal, Echo Capital Group and Vice President, Consolidated Capital Group

Rahul Aggarwal, Partner, Brentwood Associates

Mark Leavitt, Chief Investment Officer, Union Square Hospitality Group

4:25—5:30 p.m.

Emerging Concepts

How do emerging concepts differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive landscape from menu, branding, operational and other perspectives?  How are they managing rapid growth in both number of units and new markets?  In this session, we will hear from several up and coming fast casual concepts on how they are “taking their shot” at becoming segment leaders and what they are specifically doing to give themselves their best chance at long-term success.


Mark Saltzgaber


Brett Schulman, CEO, Cava Grill

Jim Mizes, President & COO, Blaze Pizza LLC

Hayden Slater, Co-Founder and CEO, Pressed Juicery

Saad Nadhir, Co-Founder and CEO, Urban Plates

Danny Klein

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