Anyone who meets Alicia Whitney for the first time immediately get a sense of her incandescent essence. It’s impossible to have her sit still for even a minute, because she’s always moving her hands and bouncing her legs, excited to talk to anyone and everyone. Whether you’re a reporter or customer, a friend or a stranger, she gives people not just her undivided attention, but gets them into whatever she’s talking about. And the way she talks! Fast, loud, always smiling, ever-sweet, and driven, Whitney makes even the most bored person fascinated by the stories she tells and the concepts she’s pitching.
Whitney is a natural in the restaurant business, and she has the portfolio to prove it: seven restaurants and counting, stretching from Huntington Beach to LAX. But when you ask her how she got involved in the industry, she’ll tell you something surprising. “I kept going towards the light,” she says, “not knowing what the light was.”
Over the past four years, she’s become one of the most important businesspeople in coastal Huntington Beach, tasked with transforming once-tired areas into vibrant locations for tourists and residents alike. But Whitney is perhaps OC’s most unlikely restaurant mogul. She may lack the typical experience that fellow restauranteurs have, but she makes up for it in an indefatigable desire to make ideas into reality. “I’m really passionate about seeing a vision in my head come to life,” she said.
She left her hometown of Lake Tahoe at 19 for Huntington Beach. “I just thought there was more life for me than what was in that tiny, little town,” Whitney said. And she was right. While working as the longtime marketing director for the Weekly, she received a call from Chad Pallas. He had developed Rehab Beach Club at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas and was to become the head of nightlife and entertainment for UFC owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta’s chain, Station Casinos. Pallas told Whitney that he had been watching her and wanted her to work for him at Station.
On a whim and newly married, Whitney quit her job at the Weekly (editor’s note: We miss you!!!) and left for Vegas, where she expected to work directly with Pallas. Instead, Pallas mentioned he was on a noncompete contract, meaning he couldn’t work for a Hard Rock rival—such as Station Casinos—for another six months. “When I got there, he’s like, ‘I brought you here, not just to work with me, but I want you to be me while I’m gone,'” she said.
Rather than gradually being introduced to the Vegas entertainment scene, Whitney and a small team quickly jumped into big projects. Their first assignment was to help drive the revenue, populate, and rebrand a Stations Casino venue where major musicians such as Slash, Perry Farrell, and Dave Navarro were set to play in a concert series. She then moved on after two years to create a country-western bar called Revolver, which went on to win several industry awards. But while her coworkers lived in the Vegas area, Whitney lived on location, allowing her to closely oversee the project. During that stay, she realized that she was living her dream. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to move to Vegas and I want to do venue development. I want to create concepts.'”
Despite finally discovering her passion, a big part of Whitney was still in California. “My husband and I were on a good three years, almost, of doing this long distance, brand-new marriage,” she said. After creating Revolver, Whitney knew she would have to make a tough decision between her husband and her career. But after finding out she was pregnant while back home, the decision was clear. Instead of letting this surprise stop her, the soon-to-be-mother spent the next seven months flying back and forth from her home in Huntington to her career in Vegas. “I really loved it,” she said. “It was hard for me to give up.”
But about a month after her daughter was born, Whitney found herself depressed. The new mom decided to put out her resumé and get a job closer to home; despite many offers from casinos in Southern California, Whitney didn’t feel a pull towards a single one. It led to her one day just lying on the bathroom floor, crying and unsure of what to do next. “My husband came home,” she said, “and he was like, ‘There, there. You’re good at what you do. You’ll figure it out.'”
Afterwards, Whitney began journaling to clear her head. Soon, she created a business plan for a concept called SeaLegs. With a newborn in her arms, Whitney could see it clearly: “SeaLegs was this wine bar by the sea. It was classic. It was this play on wine, but not too literal.”
Once her daughter was four months old, Whitney secured a lease. Eight months later, the first SeaLegs was built in Huntington Beach in 2012; the wine bar took off immediately. In the spring of 2015, she opened SeaLegs at LAX; one year later, Whitey became “my own competitor” by opening SeaSalt Woodfire Grill next to SeaLegs in Huntington. While SeaLegs boasts a Hamptons-like atmosphere with a menu showcasing the best of California cuisine, SeaSalt adapts Santa Maria’s famous barbecuing techniques by featuring all kinds of meats and finishing salts.
Before bringing Santa Maria down south, the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce approached Whitney with an exciting opportunity. Bolsa Chica State Beach was once home to four cement beachfront concession stands, each specializing in junk food. In order to revamp the boardwalk, the state allowed restauranteurs to bid on the stands. Looking to get the SeaLegs name further out there, Whitney decided to bid. While many bidders drew up plans for a single stand, Whitney went for all four, hoping to increase her chances of getting one.
Four thick binders of creative concepts later, Whitney handed in her plans to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The four bids with the highest points would turn into the new symbols of Bolsa Chica. A month later, Whitney’s efforts paid off when she learned that she didn’t obtain one, but all four concessions. “They called me up and said we got the highest points out of everybody in the bid and that they didn’t want to give somebody all four, but they did,” Whitney proudly says.
The first winning concept, SeaLegs at the Beach, comes directly from her first restaurant. Whitney describes this spot as a “whimsical play of a Hamptons nautical vibe of a beach club.” At this concession, the SeaLegs team emphasizes a quality cuisine while showing off the best that Huntington has to offer. Customers can also rent chairs, fire pits, and cabanas while sipping on beer and wine.
Pacific Kitchen sits near a popular shore break and features a Baja-style menu. After studying old men who surf the break daily, Whitney tried to curate an environment to embody who they are. Pacific Kitchen offers items such as tacos, poke, and burritos bursting with eggs, chorizo, fries, black beans, and bell peppers.
SeaSalt Beachside Burger is a modified offshoot of SeaSalt Woodfire Grill. “At that point in time, I had created the SeaSalt concept,” Whitney says, “so I decided I would just bid another version of it.” This joint focuses on burgers made from scratch, craft beer, and milkshakes.
Set to open in August, Beach City Provisions is aimed at travelers who journey cross country to park their RVs along the coastline. This site will double as a gourmet sandwich shop and grocery store so RV-ers can eat on the road. B.C.P will also offer yoga in the morning for those crammed in their campers and live music at night.
A month after the original SeaSalt fired up, Whitney opened SeaLegs at the Beach and Pacific Kitchen—that’s three restaurants in 30 days, and nearly six in a year. “It’s been kind of nuts,” Whitney cracked.
When I asked Whitney what’s next, she laughed. “I don’t plan on stopping. I’m 36, so I’m too young to die still.” For now, Whitney wants to focus on her concessions and wait a couple of years before committing to anything else. “As soon as I feel like these are ready, I’m going to get ready to grow again.”