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West Coast innovation in spotlight at Restaurant High

One of the things I love most about covering this industry is meeting both the top executives of the Big Powerful Chains as well as the up-and-coming leaders who are building what may be the next Big Powerful brand.

Last week I had the chance to do both at the annual conference known as Restaurant High hosted by law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. The invitation-only event has been held in various West Coast cities over the past few years and has grown to include about 400 restaurant industry executives, from tiny start ups like the yet-to-debut Stir Market in Los Angeles to big chains like Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen and Panda Express, and pretty much everything in between.

It’s a place where the restaurant world and private equity meet, with firms such as Catterton Partners, KarpReilly LLC, Brentwood Associates, TSG Consumer Partners, Rosser Capital, Weston Presidio and the Horowitz Group represented.

And it’s an event where you’ll see the guy behind some of Los Angeles’ hottest restaurants Bill Chait (Republique, Bestia, Short Order, Riviera and more) introduce his former employee Guy Fieri (Johnny Garlic’s, Tex Wasabi’s and more); and then watch Fieri try to coax raunchy road stories out of Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath (“Fly,” “Every Morning” and more) on stage.

There’s always a celebrity or two at these events. The conference theme this year was “Rock the Obstacles,” so it made sense to have a rock star drop in.

To me, however, the real rock stars in the room were the restaurant operators and there’s tons of news to follow up on in the coming weeks. Here are a few tidbits:

The fast-casual “modern cafeteria” concept Lemonade is opening in Dubai next week. The Los Angeles-based chain has 13 units in Southern California and was the talk of the conference.

So was Mendocino Farms, the seven-unit “better sandwich” chain, which has recently started serving a killer pastrami sandwich developed in partnership with “pastrami incubator" Ugly Drum. Fine dining chef Celestino Drago (Drago Centro, Il Pastaio), whose bakery supplies the rye bread for the sandwich, has agreed to build a smokehouse to better supply the restaurants with the smoked meat.

Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman, who now heads culinary venture group AdVantage Restaurant Partners, is opening the first ChocoChicken in Los Angeles on May 29, and will bring it to New York next year. Next up on the list of restaurants he has cooking: a fast-casual vegetarian Indian-Mexican concept called Masty Roll.

Minimum wage was a hot topic. Restaurant industry lobbyist Rick Berman and California Restaurant Association president and CEO Jot Condie urged the crowd to reframe the debate on what is a fair wage to better convey how an increase to $10.10 per hour, as urged by labor groups and the Obama administration, would be a job killer that will take a toll on young workers, in particular.

Meanwhile, chef/restaurateurs like Tom Douglas of Seattle (Dahlia Lounge, Lola, Serious Pie and more) and Hugo Matheson (The Kitchen) argued that sustainability is a concept that should apply not only to the products restaurants serve but also to the people who serve them. That means better pay and benefits like health care. “We need to get off our ass and make sure we’re fighting for workers,” said Douglas.

Then there are the stray tidbits that I find fascinating. East Coast chef/restaurateur David Burke (Townhouse, Fishtail, Kitchen and more) noted how he loves to work with overlooked ingredients. “I want to do something with oatmeal,” he said.

Meanwhile, out in the parking lot, tech entrepreneur and restaurateur Kimbal Musk (The Kitchen) was letting folks test drive his Tesla (Musk is on the board of the electric car company and his brother is CEO).

For anyone who ever dismissed the West Coast (ridiculously), the event was a terrific sampling of the innovation coming from this side of the country. Restaurant operators here see a changing consumer who is looking for fresh food, healthful choices and transparency in supply. Watch and learn.

This blog has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 14, 2014  An earlier version of this blog implied the incorrect developer of the pastrami. The meat was developed with help from smoked meat specialists Ugly Drum.

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