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Live Event

2023 Speakers

Stay tuned for 2024 program details

Keynote Speakers
Danny Trejo

Join NRN’s Editor-in-Chief, Sam Oches for a fascinating discussion with famed actor turned restaurateur and cookbook author, Danny Trejo.

From years of imprisonment to helping troubled youth battle drug addictions, from acting to producing, and now on to restaurant ventures, Trejo’s name, face, and achievements are well recognized in Hollywood and beyond. Trejo’s expanding restaurant empire includes Trejo’s Tacos & Cantina and Trejo’s Coffee & Donut, with a fifth restaurant opening in downtown Los Angeles in March.

Trejo shares his love of food in Trejo’s Tacos: Recipes and Stories from L.A. and Trejo’s Cantina, a book about cocktails, snacks & amazing non-alcoholic drinks from the heart of Hollywood (release April 2023).

Join us at Lone Star Pool where keynote speaker Danny Trejo will be on hand for a meet and greet. No “closing” vibes for CREATE! Instead, let’s kick off CREATE 2024 to be held in October 9-11, 2024 in Nashville.

CREATE Speakers
Daniella Senior
Founder & CEO
Colada Shop

Daniella’s love for food and hospitality began at the early age of 13 when she founded a successful catering business from her home in Dominican Republic. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a Certified Sommelier, she has cooked in some of the greatest kitchens in the nation, including Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin, and has also led superb restaurant management processes in venues such as Jose Andres’ Zaytinya and served as regional director for Richard Sandoval Restaurants. In 2016 Daniella developed a unique concept for Washingtonians that focused on the love of good food, coffee, cocktails and social interactions – Colada Shop. With five locations and several more on the way it has quickly become a DC area favorite and has received numerous national acclaims. In 2017, she partnered with Chef Ryan Ratino to open Bresca, a modern French bistro focused on seasonality of ingredients and affordability. It was awarded a Michelin Star in the guide’s 2018 edition. In 2019, she opened award winning Serenata and Zumo a dual concept at La Cosecha Market. Serenata, a full-service Latino cocktail experience crafting preeminent cocktails sourced and inspired by the many countries that make up the fabric of the rich Latin American heritage and Zumo serving as it’s daytime Juice & Toast Shop. At 34, Daniella has proven to be not only a great business woman but also an excellent professional providing superb creative direction, and outstanding team management. She has been deeply invested in the professional growth of her team, women and minorities. In 2021, Forbes Magazine named her one of the Next 1000, a prestigious list that showcases the ambitious entrepreneur in every region of the country. She serves on the boards of Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and Re:Her. She is a James Beard Women Leadership Program Fellow, a Culinary Ambassador for the US Department of State, member of the Latino Economic Network Advisory Committee, a Fellow of the Culinary Institute of America as well as a member of Vice President Harris’ Round Table of Latina Entrepreneurs. In 2020, she was recognized as a Washington Business Journal Minority Leader and most recently as an honoree of their 2023 class of 40 Under 40.

Kris Douglas
VP of Technology
Smalls Sliders

A 20-year technology and digital executive, Kris is currently VP and head of technology for Smalls Sliders, a hyper-growth emerging QSR brand. Kris leads defining & delivering the “4-wall” restaurant tech-stack within each location and enabling enterprise shared service technology solutions. Prior to Smalls, Kris led IT strategy and PMO execution at Inspire Brands. He has also garnered broad technology experience in the Healthcare, Network News, Consulting, and Consumer Beverage industries. Kris’ experience in high-paced startup environments give him a keen ability to enable value driven governance models. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with family, and being actively engaged with his local community.

Joanna Fantozzi
Senior Editor
Nation's Restaurant News

What are you responsible for at your company?
I'm the technology reporter at Nation's Restaurant News

What excites you about the future of this industry?
I'm excited about the definition of restaurant expanding to mean so much more: digital presence, ghost kitchens, CPG, and the metaverse.

Other than your own restaurants, what is your all-time favorite meal?
My mom's Sunday dinner (pasta and meatballs with 'gravy')

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I got married twice because of the pandemic, with one small wedding and one large party, so technically I have two wedding anniversaries!

Steve Shlemon
President
Ford's Garage

Steven T Shlemon has had an impressive career in the restaurant industry for over 45 years. He has built small restaurant companies into very powerful brands and has taken on established restaurant companies that needed new top level talent, innovation and strong strategic planning. Steve took over a small Florida based restaurant company in October of 2020 called Icon Restaurant group. Icon owns the license agreement with Ford Motor Company to build out Fords Garage Restaurants. With the help of his new management team and Franchisee’s, Steve has opened 6 new restaurants in the past 12 months (20 total) with 8 more under construction. Before taking over Icon Restaurant Group, Steve was the Chief Executive Officer of Dallas based Whiskey Cake, Ida Claire and Sixty Vines brands. Prior to this, Steve was the CEO of Miami based Benihana Inc. overseeing Benihana, Ra Sushi and Haru Sushi concepts with a total of 99 restaurants.

Maria Rivera
CEO
Smalls Sliders

Maria is a grassroots executive with more than 20 years of experience leading multi- unit and omnichannel retail and food service companies. Maria simplifies issues and builds organizations to hold a stronger position in the customer eye. She is known and recognized for her transformational work in some of the most relevant brands in the Retail & Restaurant space (Krispy Kreme, Darden Restaurants, TGI Friday’s, The Walt Disney Company). Given today’s massive disruption in consumer behavior, she brings a unique perspective, at a time where reimagining brands faster than the rate that consumers are reimagining themselves truly matters. With a strong ability to connect brands to purpose and differentiation, Maria is known to put people at the core of what matters most and unlocking capability to drive performance. In late 2022, Maria was named Chief Executive Officer for Smalls Holding, LLC, the parent company of Smalls Sliders. With over 40 units in its development pipeline, the brand has garnered a fanatical guest following being named one of Nation’s Restaurant News Breakout brand of the Year. Most recently, Maria served as Krispy Kreme’s US President, where under her tenure revenues grew from $300M to ~$1B and delivered increased EBITDA growth YOY. As part of her progressive growth vision, Maria and her team expanded Krispy Kreme’s omnichannel strategy, adding innovative layers across e commerce, and points of access expansion. Before Krispy Kreme, Maria served in a variety of executive roles for Logan’s Roadhouse, TGI Friday’s, Darden Restaurants, Caesar’s, Hilton, and The Walt Disney Company, where she led critical implementation strategies in M&A, operations, supply chain, technology, development, and business intelligence. Maria was at the forefront of navigating the global pandemic creating an enterprise response team while driving innovation which surpassed shareholder expectations and earning “best in category” industryleading food safety recognition. Maria is passionate about championing DE&I initiatives and has advocated for minority Employee Resource Groups and increased female representation in the industry. A visionary leader who sees this new era of disruption filled with possibilities to reimagine companies, brands, and leadership models, Maria’s superpower is strengthening the cultural fabric that unlocks agility and that drives speed to market.

Kim Freer
CMO
Wetzel's Pretzels

Kim Freer is the Chief Marketing Officer at Wetzel’s Pretzels, a fun-loving, iconic 370-unit bakery chain with locations across the U.S., Canada, Panama and Puerto Rico. Recognized as the Innovative Snack Category Leader, Kim continues the brand’s legacy of delivering handheld happiness to its ever-growing fanbase. Through national brand exposure and successful new product introductions, Kim has helped catapult the company to record sales and create unprecedented store pipeline growth. While supporting the beloved core brand, Kim led the introduction of a new streetside concept, Twisted by Wetzel’s, which provides a bigger, bolder expression of Wetzel’s. With an imaginative menu and immersive store design, Twisted by Wetzel’s amplifies the fun, flavor and joyfulness in snacking. By reimagining how and where pretzels are enjoyed, the wildly popular concept is disrupting the snack category and attracting a new generation of snack lovers. Kim advocates for equal representation in the restaurant industry, promoting the brand’s recently launched Access to Equity program, which aims to make franchise ownership more accessible for women and minorities. She’s been consistently recognized for her restaurant leadership, including recent acknowledgements by Entrepreneur as a “Top 50 Franchise CMO Gamechanger” and Fast Casual in their “2023 Women in the Lead” list. A seasoned executive leader with a track record of success, Kim has a wealth of franchise marketing experience across a portfolio of nationally recognized brands. Prior to joining Wetzel’s, some of Kim’s experiences included serving as the Vice President of Brand Marketing for Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza during its explosion – then known as “the fastest growing restaurant in the history of food.” She also managed Subway restaurant’s local store marketing for thousands of locations across the Western U.S. and has supported brands like Volkswagen, Audi, Evinrude and Cessna. im earned a Master’s in Advertising from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and hails from the great state of North Dakota, where she received her Bachelor’s in both Mass Communication and Speech Communication at NDSU. Go Bison!

Derrick Pratt
COO
Portillo's

Derrick Pratt is a seasoned restaurant executive with a proven track record for driving best-in-class operations, profit, performance results, world class culture and people development. Derrick joined the Portillo’s family in September 2020 to lead restaurant operations, bringing with him strategic leadership experience in operations, real estate development, franchising and licensing, marketing, finance, supply chain management, and operations general management. Derrick joined Portillo’s from Starbucks, where he most recently served as VP, Operations Services. Prior to that, he held a Regional VP of Operations role for Starbucks Southeast market, leading 800 locations and $1.4 billion in annual revenue, among other roles. Before Starbucks, Derrick worked his way up to various VP-level positions within the McDonald’s organization and was also a franchise owner/operator for a fast-casual deli concept in Dallas. Raised in an Army military family, Derrick grew up and went to school on the Fort George Meade Military Base in Maryland. There, he learned skills that secured him a role with the National Security Agency as a Crypto Analyst. While in this role, he took additional courses and also a part-time job at McDonald’s, beginning his love for working in the restaurant industry. Derrick also has an MBA from Texas Christian University.

Joe Reinstein
Executive Director
Digital Restaurant Association

Joe Reinstein works at the intersection of digital media, technology and public policy and is the Executive Director of the non-profit Digital Restaurant Association (DRA), an independent coalition of restaurants advocating for a fair and sustainable restaurant technology ecosystem. Joe helps restaurants move from digital disruption to digital transformation. Joe’s ensures the DRA provides public policy advocacy, educational resources and technology solutions for DRA restaurant members. Joe is dedicated to helping restaurant owners increase online revenue, improve restaurant performance and streamline operations.

Michele Maerz
President
Salata Salad Kitchen

Michele Maerz brings over 30 years of restaurant industry experience to her role as president of Salata. Prior to stepping into the role of president in May 2023, Michele served as vice president of operations of Salata, joining the growing salad concept’s executive team in 2021. During her time in the role, Maerz and her team improved operational procedures; solidified a partnership that not only opens new revenue streams on major corporate campuses, but also in facilities in Houston and Dallas; rolled out several new menu items including a Certified Angus Beef® steak protein to the salad menu; and launched the Salata Mobile Kitchen to assist operations during restaurant remodels that created an opportunity for greater community involvement. In her role as president at Salata, Michele is responsible for the overall strategic vision and leadership of the Salata brand and ensuring operational excellence across Salata’s more than 90 corporate and franchised restaurants along with franchise expansion across the country.

Christine Schindler
Co-Founder & CEO
PathSpot

Christine Schindler is PathSpot’s CEO and Co-Founder, the leading health and safety operating system for smart restaurants and businesses that prepare and serve food. As a Duke-alum and Biomedical Engineer, she is passionate about utilizing engineering principles to make an impactful change in the world. She developed PathSpot’s flagship product, the HandScanner, to prevent foodborne illnesses by monitoring employee handwashing practices accurately and effectively. Through Christine's leadership, PathSpot has grown to partner with thousands of businesses worldwide.The PathSpot HandScanner has protected 1.7 million meals through completed employee hand scans in the last year alone and has increased handwashing frequency at partner locations by up to 80% in just 90 days. As a result, Christine has dramatically impacted the restaurant industry, ensuring the safety of employees and customers, helping businesses save labor costs, reduce food waste, and increase profit. Outside of her work in PathSpot, Christine mentors young entrepreneurs with the Clinton Global Initiative and serves on the Board of Directors for Aunt Flow, a femalefounded company providing menstrual products to businesses and schools. Christine is also the founder of Girls Engineering Change, a nonprofit organization that seeks to close the 7:1 male-to-female gender gap in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields. The organization connects middle and high school girls with a network of college mentors who work alongside them on engineering projects to make a tangible impact in the world. Christine has been recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30, Time Magazine Top Inventions, and Entrepreneur Magazine for her work and was recently named a Rising Star in Hospitality Technology Magazine’s 2023 Top Women in Restaurant Technology Awards. She is committed to improving our world by empowering those working in STEAM fields and is passionate about establishing a safer and more efficient industry for brands, employees and customers.

Tom Kempsey (Judge)
Sr. Director of Culinary Operations
Margaritaville
Geoff Alexander
President & CEO
Wow Bao

What are you responsible for at your company?
As the president and CEO of Wow Bao, I am responsible for creating and nurturing a culture of caring. It is my daily focus that all members of the Wow Bao Team feel safe and successful. I am laser focused on encouraging the best from every team member, to ensure Wow Bao's mission of "creating moments of exploration and bao-ndless opportunity" occurs.

In less than 30 words, how would your customers describe your restaurant brand?
I believe our guests would describe Wow Bao as, "A fun, fast-paced Asian restaurant that serves great portable food and is always innovating. They are available in airports, sport stadiums, hot food vending machines, and in grocery stores."

What excites you about the future of this industry?
The technological advances are coming fast and furious, so the excitement has never been greater. However, I am most excited to see owners, managers, and staff bring back the element of Hospitality. Pre-pandemic we were all in the hospitality industry. Post-pandemic, we have all shifted to the food industry -- many reasons factor into this: labor cost, commodity costs, labor shortages, and so on. I am very vocal that, as industry leaders, we need to pay more attention to the details of the dining experience.

Other than your own restaurants, what is your all-time favorite meal?
Nothing better than a slice of New York pizza.

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I've been teaching spin (indoor cycling) for almost a decade, which is great fun and provides a fantastic outlet for my physical and mental health.

Anand Gala
Founder & Managing Partner
Gala Capital Partners

Mr. Gala is the Founder and Managing Partner of Gala Capital Partners, LLC, an investment firm focused on lower middle market franchisors, software companies and commercial real estate. The current investment portfolio includes interests in chain restaurants, software & technology, real estate development, franchising and public equities investment. Current portfolio companies include: MOOYAH Burger, Proper Food, Cici’s Pizza, Dunn Brothers Coffee, Rusty Taco, Dillas Primo Quesadillas, Clovr Life Spa, Plate IQ Software, Cut & Dry, Simple 123, Targetable, Lunchbox, Ecotrak, Stream and Perfect Software, as well as investments in Famous Dave’s BBQ restaurants. Mr. Gala graduated from the University of Southern California. He previously served on the Board of BBQ Holdings, Inc. (Nasdaq:BBQ), is a member of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE), University of California-Irvine CEO Roundtable, and a member of the Young President’s Organization (YPO), serving as past Chairman of the YPO Food & Beverage Industry Network and YPO Franchise Industry Network. He is directly involved in numerous charitable and community causes focused on healthcare, education and children, including JDRF, Pratham, American India Foundation (AIF) and has served as a Director of the Gala Foundation since 2000.

Seth Cohen
President & Co-Founder
Sweetfin

Seth Cohen is the President/co-founder of Sweetfin and directs their marketing and strategic partnership/business development initiatives and serves as Sweetfin’s director of real estate. Seth received a Bachelor's degree in business from the USC Marshall School of Business. Sweetfin has been named a “Breakout Brand” by Nation’s Restaurant News, one of the top 40 “Hottest Fast-Casual” Concepts in 2022 by QSR Magazine and has been featured in Vogue, GQ, Bloomberg Business Week, Bon Appetit and other prominent publications. Seth was named in Zagat’s “30 under 30” list as a “culinary game changer who is redefining the food and beverage industry”, one of the top 35 “Young Leaders to Watch” by QSR Magazine.

Andy Hooper
CEO
Hart House

As CEO of Hart House, a new modern plant-based quick service restaurant chain set to reinvent the fast-food industry, Andy Hooper is on a mission to revolutionize every aspect of the restaurant industry from the food to the customer experience, to the needs of employees. With more than 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Hooper is a proven leader and expert on people development, operations, brand, and technology. He has led diverse multi-unit teams for domestic and international brands, developed technical product and driven culinary innovation, increased talent development and guest satisfaction/engagement and is responsible for rapid expansion and shaping brand culture.

Most recently, Hooper served as President, COO, and CPO for &pizza, where he led the business through rapid growth and transformation with the opening of three new markets, built a world class leadership team, and oversaw the development of the proprietary &pizza operating system, an adaptive intelligence system responsible for the automation of enterprise functions that fueled the digital transformation of the business. During his tenure, &pizza delivered best-in-class unit volumes and returns on capital, fueling multiple rounds of growth capital and increasing enterprise valuations. Previously, Andy served as Chief Innovation Officer & Chief People Officer at Cafe Rio Mexican Grill and held various positions with Burger King Corporation. Hooper is excited to lead the Hart House team, delivering ground-breaking food that delights their guests and shatters the expectations of what plant-based food can be. He currently resides with his family in Washington, D.C.

Brad Bergaus (Competitor)
Corporate Chef, Director of Menu Innovation
Taco John's
Brad Wise
Executive Chef & Owner
Rare Society

Coming of age along the shores of Cape May, Chef Brad Wise never had culinary aspirations. A serendipitous tag-along led to a job mopping floors at Jake’s Pizza. Now, he’s one of the region's leading chefs and restaurateurs, with five distinct concepts that highlight the bold, smoky, wood-fired flavors he’s known for. His story begins on the Central Coast. Dating his now wife, whose family has roots in the region, Chef fell in love with Santa Maria-style grilling. An ancient method of cooking, live fire proved to be fun for him, the unharnessed, spontaneous flame, the drama fueling his obsession with wood-fired everything. This has become his unintentional trademark, a signature style that is on full display across his portfolio of restaurants, which to date include Trust, Fort Oak, Rare Society, Cardellino, Mr. Trustee, and The Wise Ox. Before this, he was the Executive Chef at JRDN and Belmont Park. Itching for something to call his own, Chef began quietly cultivating a few investors, showcasing his idea for a restaurant by hosting tastings at his house. The flavors, the ideas of marrying food, beverage, and service was the springboard of TRUST, which opened in 2016. Neighbors flocked to the dining room, devouring shared plates composed of wood-grilled vegetables and rustic entrees, paired with wine and cocktails by his passionate team. Accolades came swift, anointing this fledgling restaurant group as one to watch in the city, with a chef hellbent on pushing San Diego’s culinary reputation forward. Chef made quick work of building an empire. Fort Oak, with its sophisticated menu and Mid-Century design, signalled a progression in his preferred cooking method. Cardellino, an Italian-American restaurant focused on handmade pasta and pizzas, opened in early 2020, and The Wise Ox, a butcher and sandwich shop in North Park, debuted in September of the same year. While the successes are what inevitably make it into these biographies, this particular failure should not go unnoticed in this one. A boilermaker bar lasted a year, and upon folding, ignited what is perhaps his greatest invention. Rare Society, an homage to the infamous Vegas retro steakhouses that simultaneously highlights the distinct Central Coast cooking style so beloved by Chef, opened in late 2019. The reception was warm, and what he’s created is a neighborhood steakhouse that’s comfortable and unpretentious, elevated through the quality of the dishes and warm hospitality. What’s next for our protagonist? His fully-fledged restaurant collective is full-steam ahead, and he’s committed to creating a new restaurant for the next generation of hospitality workers. With a belief in providing an honest wage and giving those who work for him the tools to provide for their families and build their own retirement, Chef hopes to redefine what working in this notoriously taxing environment can mean. And in the meantime, you can find him raising his two young daughters, Charlie and Georgie, with his wife, Kristen, and enjoying all the great things America’s Finest City has to offer.

Andre Vener
Co-Founder
Dog Haus
Mario Del Pero
Partner, DOM Food Group
Co-Founder, Mendocino Farms

A pioneer in the fast casual dining movement, Mario is the founder of numerous restaurant concepts, including Mendocino Farms. Today, Mendocino Farms’ 64 locations (and counting) are among the most loved and highest grossing sales-per-square-foot restaurants in the country. Mario co-founded Mendocino Farms on three principles: creating neighborhood gathering places, building a work environment that empowers the team to sell happy, and supporting local farmers and artisans that deserve it. Mario is a Nation’s Restaurant News Power List awardee, City of LA Entrepreneur in Residence, and a sought after advisor, speaker, and investor in the food and restaurant space. He has an undergraduate degree from USC.

Tim McEnery
Founder & CEO
Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurants

CEO and Founder Tim McEnery’s passion to enrich lives set him on a course to create one of the fastest growing, highest affinity brands in the United States, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants. Founded in 2009, the brand has since grown to 57 restaurant and tasting rooms across 11 states and is home to the largest wine club in the world. Cooper’s Hawk, an experiential brand, includes multiple elements; an upscale casual dining restaurant with full-service bar, private dining rooms and Napa-Style tasting room and retail gift store - all under one roof. McEnery’s vision is anchored by the wine club – a 600,000-member community that has seen precedent-setting growth since its inception and over 600 wine awards for its 70-varietal collection. Wine club members enjoy exclusive perks, trips around the world and proprietary wines developed in collaboration with luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Charles Boisset, John Legend, Zac Brown, Katie Lee Biegel and more. Curated monthly dinners have featured chefs and TV personalities like James two-time James Beard nominee Tyler Florence, Brooke Williamson, Carla Hall, Gail Simmons and more. In 2022, McEnery partnered with Luca Issa to bring Piccolo Buco, a Neapolitan pizza concept from Rome to Chicagoland, continuing his mission of bringing new and innovative experiences to guests. McEnery’s drive to create something exceptional can be measured by a community of 8,000 employees, all who contribute to a culture thatreflects his vision of ‘Enriching Lives’ while fostering personal development. Notable awards include NRN’s “Hot Concept”, “Breakout Brand”,“#9 Fastest Growing Restaurant in US” and #126 “Largest Restaurant Chains”. Cooper’s Hawk was also received the Pacesetter Award by Restaurant Business for industry leadership and growth. McEnery, a “LEAD Award” winner and 2019 Golden Chain Award honoree was a global finalist for Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” award, named in Crain’s Chicago Business’s ’40 Under 40’ and was named Ernst & Young’s “Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year”. Cooper’s Hawk is the official wine partner of the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Richard Young
Director
Frontier Energy Food Service Technology Center

Richard is the Director of Outreach at the Frontier Energy Food Service Technology Center (FSTC), an unbiased, commercial foodservice, research-and-training facility. Richard focuses his efforts on translating Frontier Energy’s 35 years of food service research into practical information. He has created and delivered over 1000 presentations and classes during the last 30 years and authored numerous research reports and articles in magazines, newsletters, and on the web. He is also the creator and author of the online Foodservice Energy Efficiency Expert (Fe3) training and certification program (www.fethree.com).

Bret Thorn
Senior Editor, Food & Beverage
Nation's Restaurant News

What excites you about the future of this industry?
Operators are going to incorporate an expanding variety of cuisines and flavor combinations in their food & beverage offerings.

What is your all-time favorite meal?
Honey roasted duck with young ginger at a restaurant near the Bangkok government headquarters.

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I despise raw tomatoes.

Otto Othman Headshot
Otto Othman
Co-Founder & CEO
PINCHO

What are you responsible for at your company?
Lead our above store team and brand every day.

How would your customers describe your restaurant brand?
PINCHO is an elevated Latin street food concept centered around burgers + kebabs. Foods you know, with flavors you've never experienced before.

What excites you about the future of this industry?
Food will always be something that brings people together. No matter what new technology is launched, we will always sit down and break bread together. Always focus on hospitality and you will always win.

Other than your own restaurants, what is your all-time favorite meal?
Sushi Nigiri at Hillstone

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I got suspended for 9 days of school in 9th grade for hacking into the school computer network.

Briana Valdez
Founder & CEO
HomeState
Peter John Newlin
Chief Experience Officer, Birdcall
Chief Vision Officer & Partner, Gastamo Group

Newlin is a Partner at Gastamo Group a Denver based real estate and hospitality company. Newlin's current seats include CVO of Gastamo Group and CXO of Birdcall Holdings. Newlin received his MBA from University of Denver in 2011. Over a 13- year history at Gastamo Group, Newlin has played an active roll in the creation and evolution of Park Burger, Homegrown Tap and Dough, Perdida, Birdcall and most recently Lady Nomada. Birdcall represents the future of fast food. Along with creating the brand, Newlin developed Birdcall’s own proprietary POS and management solution, Poncho Technology, to improve the operational efficiency of the Birdcall restaurant. Newlin has a deep love for being a community member in the neighborhoods Gastamo and Birdcall have the privilege to operate in. Newlin is the founder and director of the community-run music festival in RiNo, the Denver Deluxe and an active board member on Rocky Mountain YPO Board and EatDenver a local restaurant non-profit.

Kat Claypool
Director of Sales
Wisetail

Meet Wisetail Director of Sales, Kat Claypool. Kat is an experienced Sales Leader in the technology sector. With a background in delivering tailored SaaS solutions and a strong track record, she has earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MBA from the University of Charleston. Kat is known for her exceptional leadership qualities, including integrity, honesty, and a passion for her work. She excels at building teams founded on trust and authenticity. She specializes in helping organizations transition into close-knit communities, using her tech and leadership expertise to inspire stronger, connected teams. Outside of her professional life, Kat enjoys spending time with her Golden Retriever, Rizzo, and Belgian Malinois, Greta.

Scott Taylor
Former CEO
Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux

Scott Taylor served as President & Chief Executive Officer at Walk-On’s Enterprises Operations, LLC from December 2022 to June 2023. Prior to being named Chief Executive Officer, Scott served as the brands President & Chief Operating Officer since December 2010.

During his tenure as President & Chief Operating Officer, Scott led the organization in systemization and structure while building a leadership team that operates a best-in-class franchise organization.

Walk-On’s was voted ESPN’s #1 Sports Bar in North America in 2012 and launched their franchise program in June 2014. Today, Walk-On’s operates over 80 locations throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas. Walk-On’s is on the path to reaching 100 locations by the end of 2024 with a steady pace of growth of 20-25 locations per year afterwards.

Prior to joining Walk-On’s Enterprises, Scott served as Chief Operating Officer for Family Sports Concepts, the franchisor for Beef O Brady’s Sports Pubs and The Brass Tap, from 2002 to 2011. During his tenure with Family Sports Concepts, the company grew from 40 franchise locations in 4 states to 276 locations across 23 states.

Scott currently serves as La State Director for the LRA and serves on several industry and community advisory boards.

Scott also serves as an advisor for the LSU EBV (Entrepreneurship Program for Disabled Veterans) and is the Chairman of the industry advisory board for the College of Tourism and Hospitality at the University of Florida.

Scott received his BA degree from the University of Florida and an MBA from the University of Louisiana.  Scott resides in Baton Rouge, LA with his wife while both of his children are attending college at the University of Florida and Florida State University.

Stacy Peterson
CEO
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

Stacy Peterson joined Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams as the Chief Executive Officer in December 2022. A Certified B Corporation, Jeni’s is dedicated to making the finest ice creams the world has ever known and bringing people together. Founded in 2002 by James Beard Award-winner Jeni Britton, the company today has more than 75 scoop shops across the country, a robust online store for nationwide shipping at Jenis.com, and a rapidly growing presence at national retail stores like Whole Foods, Publix, and Safeway, as well as regional retailers.

Prior to Jeni’s, Stacy worked for Wingstop Restaurants, Inc. in various leadership roles across Marketing, Innovation, Technology, and Operations. During her nine years at Wingstop, Stacy was responsible for overseeing the revenue driving initiatives for the brand, including culinary innovation, omni-channel advertising, modernizing national marketing capabilities, and building a digital and delivery business. Previously, Stacy held various leadership roles at FedEx Office, Service King, and CBRE.

Anthony Moussignac
Director, Restaurants
Solink

With a decade mastering restaurant operations and five impactful years at Solink, Anthony Moussignac blends industry know-how with tech innovation. From serving tables to shaping Solink's future, he's a bridge between hospitality and cutting-edge solutions. Anthony's mix of practical smarts and tech savvy makes him a sought-after speaker reshaping the dining landscape. Join him to explore how video + data are changing the game in restaurants, and learn from his journey that marries experience with innovation.

Lauren Bailey
CEO & Co-Founder
Upward Projects

Lauren Bailey is the CEO & co-founder of Upward Projects, a restaurant development and hospitality company known for one thing – making people feel good. Spanning over 30 restaurants and five brands across five states, Upward Projects is comprised of the Postino WineCafe, Joyride Taco House, Windsor, Churn Ice Cream and Federal Pizza brands. Selected to the Nation’s Restaurant News “Power 50” list of people who represent the best in restaurant leadership, Bailey and Upward Projects are regarded for developing first-rate culture and adapting and reusing historically relevant buildings that are an integral part of the neighborhoods they serve. The company has also been named to the Inc. 5000 list for multiple years as one of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. In 2022, Lauren was awarded the TrueTrep Award from The Elliot Group, recognizing entrepreneurs who have successfully built a brand with inventive vision, relentless persistence, and a focus on purpose and people. Also in 2022, Bailey joined the board of Brand USA, a federally mandated private organization dedicated to marketing the United States as a premier travel destination globally, after being selected by the sitting Secretary of Commerce and in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security. Bailey serves on the Arizona State University Foundation’s Board of Directors, the Experience Dynamic Advisory Board, is a proud “big sister” with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central spanning nearly a decade, was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame as “Restaurateur of the Year”, has been honored as a “Food Pioneer” by the Arizona Restaurant Association, was selected by the Phoenix Business Journal as an “Outstanding Women in Business” and selected as a finalist for the Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. Texas born and Indiana raised, Lauren graduated from ASU with dual degrees in Communication and Fine Art. Drawing upon her degree, Lauren is also intimately involved in the design and décor of each Upward Projects location, from guiding the design direction to concepting and executing the custom ‘art walls’ that adorn each and every Postino WineCafe. In her spare time Lauren travels the world, chases her son around, hunts for vintage treasures, creates art, cooks dinner for friends, and spends time with the most important people in her life.

Alicia Kelso Headshot
Alicia Kelso
Executive Editor
Nation's Restaurant News

What are you responsible for at your company?
Providing Nation’s Restaurant News and sister publication Restaurant Hospitality with daily reporting on industry news, enterprise features for both digital and print, and multimedia content for podcast and video channels, while also serving as an ambassador for the publication via in-person and virtual events.

What excites you about the future of this industry?
The pandemic finally brought the industry up to speed on technology, while also enabling operators to become smarter, more agile and more employee-focused out of necessity. This should strongly position the industry for historic success once lingering challenges -- like inflation, supply chain shortages and labor shortages -- start to dissipate.

What is your all-time favorite meal?
My late father owned a steakhouse, and he made the best filet mignon, Caesar salad and bananas foster

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I am on a swim team comprised of fellow former college swimmers. We hit happy hour after Friday practices because everyone needs a little incentive.

Michael Schatzberg
Michael "Schatzy" Schatzberg
Managing Director
Branded Restaurants
Nathaniel Ru
Co-Founder
sweetgreen

Nathaniel Ru is the Co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of sweetgreen, leading the brand and their award-winning creative team. His passion for storytelling has led him to work at the unique intersection of food, lifestyle and social impact. He oversees a team of thinkers and marketers who use creativity and storytelling to help redefine what the fast-food industry will look like in the years to come.

Nathaniel and his co-founders started sweetgreen in 2007, opening their first location in Georgetown, DC, just three months out of college. Their vision is to be as ubiquitous as traditional fast-food, but far more transparent and honest. Since inception, sweetgreen has served over 200 million healthy meals.

Nathaniel graduated from Georgetown University and lives in Los Angeles.

Jeff Chandler
CEO
Hopdoddy Burger Bar

A proven, hands-on leader with more than 30 years in the restaurant industry, Jeff joined award-winning Hopdoddy Burger Bar in 2016. Jeff has led brand expansion growth over 500% while cultivating a world class and compelling culture, curating and developing elite teams and achieving category-leading financial results.  Hopdoddy currently serves its award winning and innovative Burgers, Beer, Shakes and Fries at 50 locations in 8 States by 2000 motivated team members with a purpose of “Helping Motivated People Achieve Their Dreams”.  

In 2021, Chandler was also named CEO of HiBar Hospitality, a growth-focused umbrella company owned by L. Catterton that in 2022 completed its first acquisition, Grub Burger Bar. In this role, he’ll continue leading both brands while seeking additional growth opportunities through mergers and acquisitions as well as continued organic growth.   

With an extensive history in restaurant operations, team building and coaching, Jeff has successfully led and served as CEO / President for multiple fast growing, innovative and highly differentiated brands on the West Coast.   Truly inspired to help others succeed, Jeff continues to engage and assist other start up brands in accelerating and strengthening their teams and processes for successful and sustainable growth

Leigh Anne Zinsmeister
Group Managing Editor
Nation's Restaurant News

What excites you about the future of this industry?
All of the emerging brands that are finding ways to thrive in such a weird environment.

What is your all-time favorite meal?
I'm a breakfast girl: A Belgian waffle and crispy bacon with a mimosa

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I once won a Grey's Anatomy trivia contest and ended up using a full day of PTO on a random Tuesday to collect my prize: Meeting one of the stars.

Judge: Jessica Tomlinson
Vice President of Culinary
Ford's Garage USA
Christi Ravneberg
Director, New Product and Development
Nation's Restaurant News
Ron Ruggless
Senior Editor
Nation's Restaurant News

What excites you about the future of this industry?
Hospitality will remain the core, no matter the changes

What is your all-time favorite meal?
Osteria Francescana - Modena, Italy

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I can tap dance.

Brian Thompson
VP Company Operations
Donatos
Tiffany Derry (Judge)
Founder/CEO
TD Concepts
Karim Webb
Founder
PCF Restaurant Management

Karim Webb is an Entrepreneurial Activist and co-founder of PCF Restaurant Management, a franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings. PCF has five restaurants in the Los Angeles area, with three additional units in development. Webb's leadership and advocacy for a more equitable restaurant industry earned him a spot on the 2021 NRN Power List. Webb is also Venture Partner in Slauson & Co., an early-stage venture capital firm investing in the tools, platforms, and people aiding in small businesses' development, democratizing access to business ownership. He is currently President of the board of Airport Commissioners for the Los Angeles World Airports/LAX.

Andrew Smith
Managing Director/Co-Founder
Savory Fund

Andrew is the Managing Director and co-founder of the Savory Fund, a food & beverage focused fund founded in 2018 with over $700M in assets under management. In 2020, Savory closed Fund I at $100M, and a subsequent $100M Fund II in May of 2021. Currently, Savory owns and operates 9 beloved brands, including Swig (acquired by Larry H. Miller Company in 2022) Mo’Bettahs, R&R BBQ, The Crack Shack, Via 313, Pincho, Hash Kitchen, The Sicilian Butcher, Saigon Hustle and has their first tech investment in 86 Repairs. Andrew spent the last 25 years as an entrepreneur, co-founding three different technology companies from 1998-2008 and exiting them via public and private acquisitions. He entered the restaurant industry in the middle of one of the greatest recessions. Since 2009, Andrew has assisted in developing, acquiring, and operating 360+ restaurants across 12 states, generating over $2.2B in sales, and creating more than 40,000 jobs. Savory portfolio brands plan on adding 50 restaurants in 2023 and hiring more than 8,000 new team members and leadership executives. Andrew won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year® award in 2017 and was featured as Utah’s BusinessQ Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018.

Todd Wilson
Executive VP & CFO
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

As CFO, Todd is responsible for all Red Robin financial disciplines including accounting, financial planning & analysis, tax, treasury, and investor relations. Prior to joining Red Robin, from 2018 to 2022, Todd served as the CFO for Hopdoddy Burger Bar, a privately held L Catterton Growth portfolio company, where he engineered significant operating margin expansion, doubled unit count through organic growth & acquisition, and completed two successful debt refinancings. From 2016 to 2018, Todd was VP Finance for Jamba Juice, leading finance & investor relations, and spearheading the process that culminated in a successful strategic sale of the company. Prior to that, he served in progressive financial leadership roles at Bloomin’ Brands from 2006 to 2016. In his final 4 years at Bloomin’, Todd served as Division CFO and VP Finance for Carrabba’s Italian Grill leading the brand to record sales and profitability in his final year. Todd earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Florida and a Master of Business Administration degree with a concentration in Finance from the University of South Florida. Todd enjoys wake surfing in the summer and snow skiing in the winter, with his daughter Ava and son Zac.

Josh Kern
CEO
SPB Hospitality
Ali Knapp
President
Wisetail
David Woolley (Competitor)
Former Director of Deliciousness
Inspire Brands
Rian McCartan
CEO
Swig

Rian McCartan is the CEO of Swig, Home of the Original Dirty Soda™ and leader in the customized beverage category. He joined Swig in September 2022, prior to its acquisition by Utah icon The Larry H. Miller Company. McCartan’s leadership has been instrumental during the company’s explosive growth: Swig has nearly 50 corporate locations, will add 25 more in 2023, and recently announced multi-unit franchising. Prior to Swig, McCartan was the former Vice President of Global retail and real estate for See’s Candy, a Berkshire Hathaway Company. In the first half of his career, he held leadership positions with Fortune 500 retailers such as American Eagle Outfitters, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., and Skechers U.S.A. He was also a consultant for several leading startups in the direct-to-consumer space, which led him to executive roles at Will Leather Goods in Portland, Ore., and Tecovas in Austin, Texas. McCartan’s expertise shines in joining emerging brands, pre-scale, and then strategically guiding them through hyper growth and high unit counts. Throughout his career, he has aspired to lead brands with innovation, quality, strength, and authenticity.

Lynn Hay
Director Culinary Operations
Entegra
Jim Balis
Managing Director Strategic Operations Group
CapitalSpring

Jim Balis joined CapitalSpring in 2014, where he serves as Managing Director of their Strategic Operations Group. Jim oversees restaurant operations for much of the CapitalSpring portfolio, and provides pre-acquisition diligence on potential investments.  He has over 40 years of restaurant experience and has served as CEO for over 15 restaurant companies. Additionally, Jim is the CEO of Sizzling Platter which is a 700-unit multi-branded franchisee restaurant platform operating in the US and Mexico. Jim also serves on the board of directors of more than ten different restaurant companies and is an advisor to other boards. Before joining CapitalSpring, Jim was the Founder and President of the Restaurant Management Group, a boutique advisory firm specializing in the restaurant industry.

Holly Petre
Digital Editor
Nation's Restaurant News
Jason Bogovic
Director of Client Success & Solutions
Nation's Restaurant News
Steph So
Head of Digital Experience
Shake Shack

Steph So is VP of Digital Experience at Shake Shack.  She oversees digital marketing, digital product roadmap and strategy and third-party delivery partnerships.  Since joining the company in 2019, Steph has been focused on growing digital sales and supporting integrated marketing campaigns in new digital channels.  She’s launched multiple enhancements across Shake Shack’s App and Web and has been fundamental in integrating new delivery partners and launching co-marketing campaigns across their platforms.  

Prior to Shake Shack, Steph served as Chief Marketing Officer at Extend Fertility, the largest single clinic egg freezing practice in the country.  Previously, Steph was the Chief Marketing Officer at Cover FX, a global color cosmetics brand.  Her career has spanned fashion and beauty with a focus on building strong digital brands with integrated marketing and storytelling.  She’s built that experience across large and small brands with roles at Ralph Lauren, Shopbop and Estee Lauder.  

Steph began her career in professional services, as an Analyst at Goldman Sachs and a Consultant at Bain & Company.  She graduated with honors from Stanford University and received her MBA from Harvard Business School.  She is a Co-Founder and serves on the Board of South Bronx United, a soccer-based youth development organization. She resides in Manhattan with her husband and three young sons.  

Jason McGowan
Co-Founder & CEO
Crumbl

Jason McGowan is the Co-Founder and CEO of Crumbl, America's fastest-growing gourmet cookie company. Prior to bringing friends and families together over a box of the best cookies in the world, Jason built We're Related, an app that helped connect 120 million users to their families, founded a ring company called EMBR, helped design and build Nintendo TVii, and was top 40 under 40 in BusinessQ Magazine. He is a proud American Citizen, who recently immigrated from Canada. He thrives on working with brilliant people in creating simple, high-quality, products and services that can improve the lives of others and impact society for the better. Jason enjoys spending time with his wife and seven children, competing in board games, golfing, and traveling.

Tiffany Sawyer (Competitor)
Corporate Director of Culinary & Beverage
First Hospitality
James Perry
Director Sales Enablement
Entegra
Sam Oches
Editor-in-Chief
Nation's Restaurant News
Jack Li
Executive Chairman
Datassential
Zach Rash
CEO & Co-Founder
Coco

Zach Rash is the CEO and Co-founder of Coco, the robot food delivery service that’s taking LA by storm. Coco is backed by Sam Altman, Founders Fund, and others and most recently closed a $56M Series A. Before Coco, Zach and his co-founder Brad attended UCLA, where they bonded over a shared passion for robotics. At UCLA, they founded the Connected and Autonomous Electric Vehicles (CAEV) consortium, where the first incarnation of what became Coco was set into motion.

Nate Weir (Competitor)
Vice President of Culinary
Modern Restaurant Concepts

What are you responsible for at your company?
Culinary Innovation, heart of house processes, kitchen line design and equipment stack, strategic menu direction, and bringing lots of positive energy!

How would your customers describe your restaurant brand?
Where delicious, clean, real food is available to everyone and healthy doesn't mean boring. Eat Well, Be Happy!

What excites you about the future of this industry?
I'm excited to see a macro trend of restaurants continue to move toward better, cleaner, more sustainable ingredients that support the health of our guests and planet!

Other than your own restaurants, what is your all-time favorite meal?
I am a huge pizza nerd! I like just about any style of pizza, but my "last meal" pizza would probably be from Pizzeria Delfina in San Fran.

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Jason Crain
President
Slutty Vegan

Jason R. Crain is the President of Slutty Vegan Inc. which includes 3 vegan concepts: Slutty Vegan ATL, Dinkies and Bar Vegan ATL. Prior to becoming President of Slutty Vegan, Inc., Jason was an Entrepreneur in Residence at Amazon.com, where he built innovative visual search and augmented reality products for mobile online shopping. He Co-Founded & served as Chief Operating Officer at Partpic, Inc., a VC backed, visual search and machine learning startup that focused on the MRO/hardware industry, which was successfully acquired by Amazon.com in 2016. In addition to his work at Amazon.com, he previously held leadership roles at Shazam, which was acquired by Apple, and Google, Inc. in NYC. Along with his successful business ventures and achievements, Jason works to encourage entrepreneurship and to decrease the disparity gaps surrounding technology and education. He is currently the Founding Chairman of Scholar Made Charter Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and serves as a startup advisor/ investor to a number of small companies. Jason graduated with Phi Beta Kappa Honors from Morehouse College, in which he pledged as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and earned degrees in Spanish and Business Marketing. He later earned his MBA from Kellogg School of Management in 2019. Jason was born and raised in Kansas City, MO, but currently resides in Atlanta, GA.

Lauren Fernandez
CEO & Founder
Full Course

Ms. Fernandez’s expertise spans all aspects of restaurant and franchise operations and development, consumer product development, and brand licensing. Ms. Fernandez brings to the board room multi-national experience in heavily regulated markets, including international mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. Her business acumen is at the heart of her robust consulting practice at the Fernandez Company, a consulting firm working with government, investors and companies providing expert guidance in franchise programs, licensing opportunities and developing consumer product lines. Ms. Fernandez is also the CEO and Founder of Full Course, a restaurant development and investment firm which incubates and accelerates emerging fast casual restaurant brands. As a co-founder and investor in Origin Development Group, Ms. Fernandez has been both a multi-unit franchisee and brand developer, serving as a strategic growth partner for companies such as Chicken Salad Chick®.

Mark Berinato
Sr. Vice President of Digital Experience
CAVA

Mark Berinato is an accomplished customer strategy and digital executive with experience driving profitable growth for billion-dollar and emerging brands through product innovation, digital transformation, loyalty, CRM, and customer service. He is known as an engaging people leader who acts with agility and builds collective ambition through high-performing and diverse teams. Currently, Mark serves as the SVP of Digital, Off-Premises & Customer Experience at CAVA, charged with revamping the company's digital playbook and leading all aspects of digital strategy for the category-defining Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant. During his tenure, Mark transformed the digital guest experience to achieve significant enterprise growth. Before his current role, Mark was the VP of Digital Experience at Panera Bread, where he reinvented the guest experience through the 'Panera 2.0' digital transformation initiative. He redesigned all guest-facing digital touchpoints, integrated 1:1 personalization, and led innovation across voice, digital/physical integration, and payments. Under his leadership, Panera was named the most innovative food and beverage company by Fast Company in 2017. Mark is industry-recognized for his thought leadership and contributions, including being featured in Adweek's marketing innovator series, PSFK 2019, and the KPMG 2019 U.S. Customer Experience Excellence Report. He lives in Andover, MA, with his wife and two daughters and sheepadoodle Freddy.

Tracy Kim
CEO
Dig
Paul Damico
President
Fuzzy's Taco Shop

Paul Damico is an accomplished and well-respected executive with over 35 years of food service experience in the hospitality industry. Paul's career includes top leadership roles in premium organizations, including Host Marriott, FoodBrand, LLC, Creative Host, SSP America, FOCUS Brands portfolio of restaurants, Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill, and Global Franchise Group. In August of 2021, he was named Chief Executive Officer of Experiential Brands, parent to Fuzzy's Taco Shop.

In 2008, Mr. Damico was recruited to Moe's Southwest Grill (a Roark Capital/Focus Brands company) as President of the organization. Over six years, he grew the company from 200 locations to 680, leading the industry in new restaurant openings and culinary development. During his time with Moe's, Mr. Damico delivered 23 consecutive quarters of positive same-store sales growth and was named by Fast Casual Magazine as a Top 26 Executive.

In the middle of the pandemic, in 2020, he was recruited as CEO to lead Global Franchise Group, made up of over 2,000 restaurant locations under Great American Cookie, Marble Slab Creamery, Hot Dog On A Stick, Pretzel Maker, and Round Table Pizza. In early 2021 he successfully sold GFG to Fat Brands.

Following the sale of Global Franchise Group, he partnered with Atlanta-based NRD Capital and was named CEO of Experiential Brands, a new restaurant holding company with Fuzzy's Taco Shop as the first portfolio brand.

An active member of the restaurant industry, Mr. Damico is an International Franchise Association Certified Franchise Executive (CFE) and a Board Member of the National Restaurant Association Fast Casual Industry Council. Mr. Damico has also served on the Georgia Restaurant Association and the Illinois Restaurant Association Advisory Boards.

Juan George
Co-Founder
858 Partners

Juan (JG) George is the Co-Founder of 858 Partners, a boutique restaurant technology management & investment firm that he co-founded with his former CRO in January 2023. 858 Partners provides go-to-market expertise, capital, and connections to restaurant technology organizations possessing the ingredients to achieve extraordinary success within the Enterprise Restaurant Vertical. Prior to launching his agency, JG was the former SVP of Enterprise Sales at Olo (NYSE: Olo), the leading on-demand commerce platform for the multi-unit restaurant space. JG joined Olo as a Seed Stage start-up and over the course of a 15+ year run helped the company go public on the NYSE under the ticker OLO. Olo’s growth story is a masterclass in focused, lean, and efficient GTM execution in a period of market excess.

Charles Nelson
President & Co-Founder
Pizanna

After co-founding Sprinkles Cupcakes and transforming it into a globally recognized brand, Charles Nelson has continued his remarkable journey as an entrepreneur by co-founding the acclaimed Pizzana restaurant concept alongside partner Candace Nelson. Since its inception in 2017, Pizzana has garnered numerous accolades, solidifying its status as a leader in the culinary world. The establishment has been honored with a Michelin Bib Gourmand Award, made appearances on the Los Angeles Times' "101 Best Restaurants" list, and was ranked as the "#9 Pizzeria in the US" by the esteemed Top50 IT ranking in 2022. The New York Times has also lauded Pizzana for its exceptional crust, solidifying its reputation as a pioneer in the burgeoning haute pizza movement in the US. With four locations across Los Angeles and one in Dallas, and more on the way, Pizzana is leading the third wave pizza movement, attracting a devoted following of celebrities and pizza enthusiasts alike. Its brand recognition extends well beyond its current footprint, positioning Pizzana as a frontrunner in the industry. Prior to his groundbreaking ventures in the culinary world, Charles Nelson obtained his MBA and gained valuable experience in technology corporate finance. During this time, he developed a profound appreciation for innovative start-ups, igniting his entrepreneurial spirit. Hailing from Oklahoma, Charles embraces a back-to-basics approach in his enterprises, consistently striving to delight customers by offering products and services that epitomize quality, craftsmanship, and inventive solutions. His unwavering commitment to perfectionism fuels his attention to detail, contributing to the creation of remarkable brands. Charles has garnered numerous awards, recognizing his business acumen and visionary leadership in the field.

Vincent Montanelli
COO
Wetzel's Pretzels

Vincent has been a member of the leadership team at Wetzel’s Pretzels for nearly 20 years.  Today he serves as COO at Wetzel’s Pretzels where he is responsible for managing the Brand’s overall operations and setting the company’s strategic direction.  Vincent began his career with McDonald’s as a crew member and spent ten years with the brand building his knowledge of restaurant operations and systems and served the brand in many different roles.  Vincent also spent many years working at Baskin-Robbins where he worked in both the national training department and as the brand leader in California where he learned about the franchise business model.  Before joining Wetzel’s Pretzels, Vincent spent about two years with Jamba Juice as the General Manager of its flagship market in San Francisco and homed his company restaurant operations management.  Vincent holds an undergraduate and graduate degree and resides in Pasadena, CA.

Alesha Sisk
Sr Director of Talent & Training
Tupelo Honey

Alesha Sisk, Senior Director of Talent & Training, joined Tupelo in 2014 and has since become a key part of revamping the hiring process, leading successful new store openings, and revamping the digital training program used across the organization. Her talent & training philosophy focuses on culture, core values, hospitality, and leadership.

Sean Tresvant
Chief Global Brand & Strategy Officer
Taco Bell
David Cantu
CEO
Black Box Intelligence

David Cantu is a 30-year restaurant industry veteran and serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer for Black Box Intelligence™, the premiere performance benchmarking company for the hospitality industry. Prior to Black Box Intelligence, Cantu worked his way up in restaurant management with Outback Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, where he served as an Operating Partner in San Antonio, TX. In 1999, he co-founded HotSchedules, the industry’s leading workforce management solution. In his 21 years at HotSchedules, David served as Chief Revenue Officer and Chief Customer Officer, respectively. He facilitated multiple mergers and acquisitions fueling HotSchedules’ significant scale and market position with 6,000 restaurant brands managing 120,000 locations supported by 2.8 million hourly workers. Passionate about innovation and client success, he oversaw the customer advisory councils and chaired the annual Spark user conference where valuable feedback was provided to guide product roadmaps for HotSchedules’ portfolio of products. He departed HotSchedules in 2019 after overseeing the acquisition and merger of HotSchedules and Fourth Enterprises by Marlin Equity Partners. David currently lives in Austin, TX with his wife Danielle and 3 children, Cadie, Giana and Luca. He enjoys hiking, boating, grilling and watching his kids play competitive sports.

Danny Pizarro
CMO
The Salty Donut

Danny Pizarro is a marketing, growth, and technology professional driven by innovation and the desire to push boundaries on how people interact and see the world. As the CMO at The Salty Donut, Danny implements process surrounding digital experience, guest engagement, partnerships and growth in order to develop and manage the brand’s presence and identity across all channels and locations. Prior to The Salty Donut, Danny launched a payment platform that facilitates group payments and crowdfunded item pre-orders for merchants and event producers. He was featured on Apple’s TV series “Planet of the Apps” featuring Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, will.i.am and Gary Vaynerchuk, and grew the business to become a leading payment processor for group payments at major universities across the US. Danny earned his MBA from the University of Miami and holds Bachelor of Science degrees from the University of Central Florida in Business Administration, Psychology, and Biology. He enjoys being active in the local tech community as well as traveling around the world to try new foods.

Scott Frewing
Director, Product Development & Sensory
Lamb Weston
Zandrique Harrold
Director of Operations
Thompson Hospitality/Milk & Honey

Zandrique Harrold has been Director of Operations at Thompson Hospitality since October 2020. She was brought on board to lead Operations for the Milk & Honey brand. Since joining she’s been instrumental in facilitating and executing Milk & Honey’s unit growth and brand evolution, growing from 2 units to 11. Zandrique’s hospitality experience was honed over the last 18 years with companies including Cheesecake Factory and Great American Restaurants where she held roles from Assistant General Manager to Managing Partner. The competitive streak that fueled Zandrique’s ambition to grow Milk & Honey also inspired a successful collegiate basketball career. Zandrique is also passionate about creating equity for young women of color through education and mentorship in the areas of entrepreneurship, academics, health and wellness and social skills. With that mission, she launched a non-profit called Phenomenal Young Women. Milk & Honey will continue to grow, now at an exponential pace, with Zandrique shepherding the brand.

Fred LeFranc
Chaos Strategist
Results Thru Strategy
Digger McElligott
VP of Sales
Paytronix

With over two decades of experience in the SaaS and hospitality space, Digger understands how technology shapes the front- and back-end experience. And as the VP of Sales for Paytronix, he knows how to get that tech into the hands of leading restaurant brands. Digger drives go-to-market strategies to identify and develop opportunities for businesses to grow by identifying pain points and recommending scalable solutions. When he's not helping restaurants compete in a rapidly changing industry, he's still maintaining his competitive edge by coaching youth baseball and basketball teams for his four sons.

Joe Palermo
VP of Operations
Chicken N Pickle

Joe Palermo was named Chicken N Pickle’s Vice President of Operations in 2022, bringing with him a solid track record in successful restaurant operations, knowledge of emerging technologies and trends and research and development in high-volume restaurants. In his role with Chicken N Pickle, he provides strategic direction to guide the work of culinary and restaurant operations; identifies new technologies and systems to streamline training processes; assesses and improves operational and financial performance; and ensures that departmental decisions and project plans for staffing, development, organization, material efficiency and facilities are in line with the company’s business plan and vision. Prior to joining Chicken N Pickle, he served as Vice President of Operations/Research and Development for Grub Burger Bar’s 18 locations in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. He has also held management positions with Twin Peaks, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, California Pizza Kitchen and Texas Roadhouse.

Robin Robison
Chief Operating Officer
Modern Restaurant Concepts

What are you responsible for at your company?
Operations, training, restaurant services, technology

How would your customers describe your restaurant brand?
Fast casual brands focused on better-for-you food that is delicious!

What excites you about the future of this industry?
The ability to innovate and change to meet consumer demand while providing great opportunities for people to grow in the restaurant industry.

Other than your own restaurants, what is your all-time favorite meal?
Crab Ramen with truffle butter broth

Give us a fun fact about yourself!
I used to drive a school bus!

Diana Gahagen (Judge)
Director of Supply Chain & Culinary
PDQ Restaurants
Adenah Bayoh
Founder & Owner
Cornbread

Adenah Bayoh embodies the American dream. At age 13, she escaped the civil war in her native country of Liberia, immigrated to the United States and is now one of the most successful entrepreneurs in her home state of New Jersey. Inspired by her grandmother, who owned a restaurant in Liberia, Adenah is now the owner of 7 restaurants including 4 IHOP franchises in northern New Jersey. She opened her first IHOP in Irvington Township, New Jersey at the age of 27, making her one of the youngest franchisees in the country at that time. Because of the success of this flagship location along with her other business ventures, she is the second largest employer in Irvington.

In late 2017, Adenah launched Cornbread, her first independent fast casual, farm-to-table, soul food restaurant, which she co-founded with fellow entrepreneur, Zadie B. Smith. They recently opened their second Cornbread in downtown Newark. Additionally, in keeping with Adenah’s mission of bringing high quality food and services to urban communities, in late July she launched her latest restaurant concept, Urban Vegan, in downtown Newark.

Susan Szymanski
Sales Director
Nation's Restaurant News
Founding Sponsor
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