Thursday, November 18, 2021
  Awards and Recognitions

By Letty Fernandez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Three students representing the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program at the UTRGV Robert C. Vackar College of Business & Entrepreneurship earned first place at the Restaurant Finance and Development Conference held Nov. 8-10 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The team of Andrea Garza, Paulina Martinez and Abelardo Villarreal earned first place in the “Restaurant of the Future” competition. Their restaurant concept, “Wonder,” was an immersive, multisensory culinary experience using augmented and virtual reality technology.

“Dining is a new experience on its own, and we wanted to take that and further develop it,” said Garza, a junior majoring in finance. “We wanted to combine technology, something that is constantly changing, with dining out. In our plan, the theme would constantly change every five weeks, preparing the food to match the theme and to keep customers engaged and wanting to come back.”

Their presentation impressed the judges so much it earned them the top prize. Of their concept, the judges said, “What distinguished the UTRGV student presentation was that it was innovative, followed a growing trend, and was very distinct from the other presentations in the boldness of their idea.”

Villarreal, a senior accounting major from Mission, said teamwork was key.

“We shared ideas and put them together in this futuristic restaurant we called Wonder,” he said. “Then we started rehearsing for the presentation. We never stopped rehearsing, even minutes before we presented to the judges.”

The competition required the students to develop or redesign a restaurant of the future by creating a short promotional video and PowerPoint, and to present their 10-minute pitch live on stage in front of a panel of judges. Then they had to answer questions from an audience of several hundred people.

Martinez, a senior from Mission majoring in hospitality and tourism, works in the restaurant industry while attending classes at UTRGV.

“Presenting for the judges was nerve-racking,” she said. “However, once we got started, everything flowed, and it showed how prepared we were. Attending a conference like this one definitely helped me as a student to broaden my horizons and be exposed to this type of professional life.”



Restaurant Finance and Development Conference is the largest gathering of restaurant owners, developers, financiers, franchise companies and operators, totaling more than 3,000 attendees.

The students were invited to represent UTRGV in the intercollegiate restaurant brand development competition, where they competed against three other universities that have long-standing programs in hospitality.

“I was very impressed with our team’s work ethic and team spirit, and how they fearlessly went up against some real powerhouse universities,” said faculty advisor Chef Marcel Fortuin. “It was an honor to be their adviser and coach.”

While at the conference, students had the opportunity to attend several educational sessions on finance, economic trends, marketing, strategy development and restaurant business trends and outlook. They also met industry professionals and explored career options.

“In addition to student learning and success, one of the primary reasons for taking our students to these national events is to showcase our emerging program through our outstanding student ambassadors,” said A.J. Singh, founding director of the UTRGV Hospitality and Tourism Program.

At this year’s conference, the students met UTRGV alumnus Roland Gonzalez, executive vice president of operations for Virtual Dining Concepts. Gonzalez spent some time with the UTRGV students to personally discuss their career goals and shared his journey after graduation from UTRGV.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.