They say after 10 years in New York, you can officially call yourself a New Yorker.

I qualified for that status a full five years ago, having now lived in what I consider the greatest city in the world for 15 years.

New Yorkers often have a chip on their shoulders when it comes to the significance, or lack thereof, of other cities across the country. Los Angeles typically gets hit with a major dose of our snobbery. But here goes: We are wrong about L.A. After a visit earlier this month, I believe the innovation and passion (two words I do not use lightly) coming from the hot, emerging restaurateurs there is nothing short of game changing.

To be clear, Nation’s Restaurant News West Coast bureau chief Lisa Jennings has been consistently insistent about the power of the city’s entrepreneurs for years. Her deep connections there and understanding of the state’s notoriously difficult operating environment have gained her respect in the operator community, and she has been vocal about how brands like Mendocino Farms, Lemonade and those from AdVantage Restaurant Partners — Umami Burger, 800 Degrees, and the soon-to-open Choco Chicken and Masty Roll — are driving change.

At the relatively small but extremely soulful event I attended, Restaurant High, I was lucky enough to see just how right Lisa has been. The event was created by top law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which has a major presence in restaurant and hospitality law and consulting, and brings together an invite-only list of emerging brands, power players, private equity firms and the people in between who make the restaurant industry what it is. You can see Lisa’s quick take on the event in her latest column.

Why are these L.A. players so dominant today? Many have found a sweet spot with today’s consumer, offering “craveable” but sometimes healthful items, like Mendocino Farms’ Healthiest Salad Ever (see our coverage on spring and summer salads), in beautifully designed restaurants that customers, often Millennials, want to frequent. Even more, many of these brands’ founders believe a new breed of restaurant can drive positive change by delivering high-quality food at affordable prices in a sustainable way, while treating employees right. They operate from deep guiding principles rather than just best business practices.

Considering what the industry is up against, including the minimum wage battle, employee recruitment pressures and union challenges, operators could learn a thing or two from L.A. While New York is the center of restaurant finance, and Chicago is arguably the best foodie town, L.A. may be the soul of the industry. And that’s a hard thing for a New Yorker to admit. 

Contact Sarah E. Lockyer at sarah.lockyer@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @slockyerNRN.