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On Its 10th Birthday, This Chain Vows To Take Sustainability To The Next Level

Three friends have spent the last decade building an environmentally sustainable empire

Eric, Matt, and David—the three men behind the fast-casual monster/(Photo by Sean Marier)

When three friends joined forces to launch the first Tender Greens a decade ago, they hadn’t even heard of the term “fast casual” yet. While the restaurant is now one of the leaders in that quick-and-healthy food space, they’re taking the slow, thoughtful approach to their sustainability practices.

In their early days, Tender Greens’ founders—Erik Oberholtzer, David Dressler and Matt Lyman—were working at the ritzy Santa Monica hotel Shutters on the Beach and growing tired of the fine-dining scene. They wanted to create a restaurant concept that had “all of the good stuff from luxury [establishments] without the luxury prices,” Oberholtzer says.

Perhaps the earliest seed of Tender Greens was planted in Oberholtzer’s mind during the decade he spent cooking in some of the top kitchens in San Francisco, including the acclaimed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He describes Tender Greens as “very much a part of the Bay Area slow food point of view, with the Southern California fast-food efficiency.”

The Southern fried chicken is a staple./{Photo by An Hoang)

Yet Diners at Tender Greens might not realize the work that goes into hand-picking the seasonal ingredients for the restaurants; after all, they make the food look easy. The menu runs the gamut of simpler comfort fare like Southern fried chicken over a bed of butter lettuce to more high-end specials like maple-roasted pork belly paired with by a carrot-and-parsnip puree. Since their launch in 2006, the trio has opened 22 Tender Greens locations up and down California, following through with their highly conscientious philosophy about using hyperlocal and high-quality ingredients.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It's very much a part of the Bay Area slow food point of view, with the Southern California fast-food efficiency.[/quote]

One of the most fascinating aspects about Tender Greens’ maturity is how they’ve been working more and more with California farms that grow both indoors and outdoors through hydroponic systems. Oberholtzer does this for two reasons: “One is to offset the impact of the [California] drought—using hydroponics methods, you use about 90 percent less water than you would in the fields, which is huge when you think about power concerns with the climate,” he says. “Also, you can grow food in non-traditional areas [like] in warehouses, in vacant lots, in urban areas.”

That farming technology will likely come in handy when Tender Greens expands out of state—they’re considering opening in New York where there certainly won’t be the kind of optimal growing conditions that The Golden State gets to enjoy. Oberholtzer plans on growing produce indoors close to their future restaurants’ outposts, so they won’t have to ship fruits and vegetables across the country.

[quote position="left" is_quote="false"]By using mineral nutrients instead of soil, the towers can grow everything from leafy greens to strawberries and tomatoes.[/quote]

In fact, the company is so committed to the future of hydroponics that they had LA Urban Farms install aeroponic towers on several of their restaurant patios, next to where guests dine. These vertical gardens use 90 percent less water and 90 percent less space than conventional farming systems, according to LA Urban Farms. By using mineral nutrients instead of soil, the towers can grow everything from leafy greens to strawberries and tomatoes.

Oberholtzer also sees the aeroponic towers as an opportunity for guests and his team to participate in the conversation around hydroponics and the future of urban farming. Niels Thorlaksson, a partner at LA Urban Farms, says that he foresees hydroponic systems playing a bigger role in cities and communities throughout the world.

The aeroponic towers in action at Tender Greens Hollywood/(Photo courtesy of Tender Greens)

“We are going to have more people to feed in the future, and we’re not going to want to use as many resources as we do now,” Thorlaksson says. He believes doing this will help us “tackle some of these challenges together like using less water, using less space, and growing more nutritious crops.”

Oberholtzer and his team don’t skimp on the meat side of things either; they visit each of their poultry and beef farmers to make sure they’re comfortable with every step of the process. The cows are raised in open pastures and are antibiotic- and hormone-free. Tender Greens has also migrated 60 percent of their restaurants to using grass-fed beef. The chickens are fed non-GMO vegetarian feed, and a majority of the greens come from Scarborough Farms, a grower they trust in Oxnard, California.

The salami kale salad/(Photo by An Hoang)

In regards to their mission to serve hyperlocal produce, their Bay Area, San Diego and Orange County locations source from the local farms in their areas. Oberholtzer says that they try not to “hammer guests over the head” with information about their ingredients, but they are willing to share any details about their sourcing should diners want to know more. Thanks to their relationships with farmers, and being able to use their chain’s large size as leverage, Tender Greens has been able to better negotiate long-term deals on their core ingredients, so they can keep prices relatively low for the masses at their restaurants. (Most of the entrees at Tender Greens run around $11.50.) Since Scarborough Farms is not only a vendor, but also an investor in Tender Greens, the chain gets family discounts on produce.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The vision was to create the kind of company we would want to work for, a place that felt like home.[/quote]

Last year, Shake Shack restaurateur Danny Meyer became a shareholder in Tender Greens, a serious boost to the company’s expansion efforts. Oberholtzer says his team sees Meyer as a “great guide and mentor as we grow to this next phase,” due to Meyer’s success in building his own brands. The guys are now eying their expansion to Texas and cities on the East Coast.

David Dressler, who instantly built a bond with Oberholtzer when they met at Shutters on the Beach over a decade ago, thinks back to what inspired them to launch Tender Greens.

The interior of one of 22 Tender Greens locations/(Photo courtesy of Tender Greens)

“The vision was to create the kind of company we would want to work for, a place that felt like home, where there were no compromises and where everything that we did was based on a set of really determined values where everybody got to win,” he says.

It looks like they’re doing what they set out to do.

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