The 2016 UCLA Restaurant Conference, themed “What’s Your Why?,” featured a fascinating session with Erik Oberholtzer of Tender Greens, Adam Schlegel of Snooze Eatery and Mario Del Pero of Mendocino Farms. I spoke with each of these inspirational restaurateurs to explore what drives their concepts. In this first installment of a three-part series, I spoke with Oberholtzer, who is co-founder and CEO of Tender Greens, a healthful and seasonal fast-casual concept that received an investment from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group in 2015.
Erik, you have been called a social entrepreneur. What does that term mean to you?
A social entrepreneur draws upon business techniques and private-sector strategy to help solve social, cultural or environmental problems. Tender Greens, as a conscious company, looks at ways to impact these areas positively through supply chain, personal development and community outreach. We take things to a higher level through our Sustainable Life Project, a job training program for at-risk youth.
What is your higher purpose?
My partners and I came up with Tender Greens during the first organic food movement, started by Alice Waters. I cooked through the ’90s in the Bay Area's best restaurants; Matt did the same in D.C. and Atlanta. Tender Greens is a pioneer in the second disruptive food movement we are now calling fine casual. This class of restaurants draws from the roots of the first, at a much more approachable price and service model. This helps to democratize slow food, real food and good food. We saw a void between fine dining and fast food and created Tender Greens.
How do you meet the quality of healthful high-end food and still fit into a fast-casual price point?
The food we serve is just as high quality as fine dining, where my partners and I spent our careers before Tender Greens. We can serve fine-dining quality fast and affordably because of a few factors. First, we have a very casual, counter-service format, which democratizes the dining experience. By taking away the valet parking, the host and the waiter, we reduced the costs straight away by 30 percent. Then, we run our restaurants efficiently. We can provide food quickly at a price point that many people can afford on a daily basis. The other differentiator is our menu, which is not a single category menu. So we’re not just a salad place, or a burrito place, or a pizza place — we have a little bit of everything, and it’s all craveable.
Describe the quality of Tender Greens’ food.
We are very committed to the quality of the food we serve. We can serve the highest-quality ingredients because we leverage our relationships with small farmers. We get to know the farmers well. That is really important to us. We visit the farms, walk their fields, walk their pastures and spend time with the farmers themselves. From these visits, I can understand the labor conditions, how are the animals cared for and what the fields look like to determine if this is a producer I want to do business with. To go beyond that, we have someone on our team that deep dives into the products we buy to make sure every product meets our requirements in terms of sustainability.
We have also doubled down on our commitment to hydroponics at many of our locations. By growing vertically, we are able to produce more food per square foot, using 80 to 90 percent less water than with traditional farming, while growing closer to where the plates and people are. As farmable land is receding, especially in urban areas, where everyone wants fresh food, it’s important to figure out ways to grow organic food in tighter areas. So that’s just another example of how as social entrepreneurs we are creating a solution to the problem that benefits the community and our environment, and is good for our business.
Sustainability and high-quality ingredients are part of our business model, not separate initiatives.
I love that you can grow tomatoes right at your restaurant in the middle of the city. What do you think is important to your customers? What are they looking for?
I think it starts with craveable food. I think when people walk into Tender Greens, the menu is familiar because we serve many classics. Our commitment has always been to take what we know people already like and honor those items by using the very best ingredients and the best, smartest techniques. In some ways, I would say the ingredients, the techniques and the care that goes into Tender Greens is much better than even the most expensive restaurants. I think that’s important, and that’s what people respond to the most. The other thing we hear a lot, and I love to hear, is, “This is how I cook at home when I have time, but I usually don’t have time to shop and cook. Tender Greens is so important because I don’t have to compromise my diet when I don’t have the time.”
Staying true while scaling up
With busy lifestyles, it is hard to shop and cook and eat right. What types of diets or eating preferences do you see most in your customers?
Well we’re seeing a lot of sensitivity to gluten. And there’s always sensitivity to calories and fat, but we do not overtly promote or highlight any dietary models, so we don’t have an item that is specifically paleo or gluten-free. Our menu is just inherently accommodating to all of those. We do that by cooking with balance versus trying to accommodate every trending dietary concern out there. I think if there’s anything that resonates with us, it’s Michael Pollan and his notion of eating whole food, good food, mostly plants and not too much of it.
The most credible nutrition experts agree that Americans should be following that advice. There is definitely a lot of confusion about what is healthy. There is a lot of confusion, too, on some of the — I’ll call them buzzwords — that customers are looking for, such as local and organic. What’s your definition of organic?
Yes, that’s part of the problem. Everyone uses those terms loosely, which then dilutes the message or the power. In terms of organic, it’s our view that those farmers adhering to organic practices are not inferior to certified organic producers. In some cases, it’s really that the small farmers can’t afford to go through the regulations and the oversight to get the certifications. In other cases, there are a lot of farmers who like to live outside any regulations.
So organic to you is any farmer who is adhering to those practices? They don’t necessarily need to be certified?
Yes, and that’s where the local comes in. To me, local is that I can drive to a particular farm in a day, visit the fields and pastures, and talk with the farmers. At the end of the day, there’s a level of trust, but I need to walk every field and feel that they will serve our guests well. The certification is nice to have, but I think it’s the true practices that matter.
You have 22 locations now. Where do you want Tender Greens to be in five years?
Yes, we have 22 locations now — most are in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, and we have three in Northern California, and we’re opening two more in Berkeley and Stanford.
We would love to open six to eight restaurants a year. We’re imagining growth outside of California could be more robust than in the state. We figure we’ll continue to open in key markets, but I believe there are many communities out there that should have access to good, affordable food, and we plan to work to deliver that.
How will you scale up while staying true to your practices?
That’s one of the key responsibilities for me and my partners. Our legacy and leadership mean never compromising our core values. I think that’s what also gives us a competitive edge. It gives us this internal belief system of what we think is right, whether it’s social policy, the environment, health and wellness, or what food should taste and look like. We start with our guests and chefs. We draw our inspiration not from trending topics or fads, but our young talent, what’s happening in pop culture, and how we might participate in that conversation. I think we can scale up successfully by aligning with our core values that got us here and then continuing to be progressive, forward thinking and willing to take risks in a leadership position.