Tender Greens Uses Close Farmer Relationship To Offer Affordable Farm-to-Table Fare
Jeff Gangemi Aug 22, 2012 Restaurant Beat 0 comments
When Erik Oberholtzer opened Tender Greens in Culver City, California six years ago, the daily food and fashion e-newsletter Daily Candy promoted the opening among its audience of foodies.
Oberholtzer and business partner and fellow chef Matt Lyman had expected a good opening day, but they were overwhelmed by the response! “We had a line out the door a half hour before we opened. We had to close early 'cause we ran out of food,” Oberholtzer says.
“Those lines from the first day just never left – they just grew and grew and grew,” says Oberholtzer, who was executive chef at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica before starting Tender Greens.
The farm-to-fork restaurant, which also counts David Dressler as a co-owner, is a chef-driven, organic, quick-casual restaurant that now operates eight locations and counting. The reasonable prices and farm-fresh food, which is delivered six days a week from Oxnard’s Scarborough Farms, have helped Tender Greens grow into a mini-empire, with huge demand.
Having a close farmer-chef relationship has been critical to the company’s success. Scarborough Farms, with whom Oberholtzer already had a relationship, is an equity partner in Tender Greens. In fact, when Oberholtzer was developing the concept, he says he built many of the menu items around what Scarborough Farms already grows. “They gave us product for equity, and we’ve become their largest customer,” he says.
All items on the menu — which includes salads, entrees and sandwiches made with humanely raised meats served with vegetables, mashed potatoes and salad — are priced at around $11. Signature items include the Chipotle Barbecue Chicken Salad, Grilled Octopus Salad, Chinese Chicken Salad, and Oberholtzer is known to include “anything that you might find at a gastro-pub,” including short ribs, braised pork belly and rabbit.
Oberholtzer says he wanted to create a concept where eating fresh, local food could be a daily part of people's daily lifestyle, without breaking the bank. “People want a hyperlocal, organic, chef-driven food experience, but to get it, you’re dealing with reservations that you may not be able to get, and it’s going to set you back $120. While a lot of our customers still go out for full service sometimes, they’re still coming to us three or four times a week,” Oberholtzer says. “There’s demand for what we do, and there aren’t a lot of alternatives.”
The demand is clear. Oberholtzer says each of his eight restaurants serves between 800 and 1,000 people a day, and the business is expected to gross about $27 million this year.
But the goal of Tender Greens is to be more than just another farm-to-table restaurant. Oberholtzer and his partners also aim to help grow the market for sustainably raised produce and meats by making it affordable, comfortable, and served in a decidedly non-exclusive way. “I think we can convert people not 'cause we’re out preaching or recruiting, but because our restaurant is accessible both in price and service structure to a lot of people. Especially in Southern California, counter service and fast casual is something people can get their head around. And when they taste the food, it becomes somewhat addictive.”
Too often, the farm to fork experience has been limited to the expensive market and a privileged lifestyle, says Oberholtzer, who admits that his core market still consists of the upscale customer who exercises and shops at farmers' markets and organic grocery stores.
“But if that’s our only audience, then we’re not doing our job,” he says. “The key is to make it accessible to the other 60% — to pull them out of the processed food world into something much better,” Oberholtzer says.
Still, running a growing fast-casual restaurant chain and converting the masses to healthy local food can be challenging, particularly when your commitment to sourcing quality, sustainable ingredients is unwavering.
Oberholtzer says that, as Tender Greens grows, it gets more and more difficult to source local, natural, sustainably-raised cattle, lamb and pig from his network of small, independent farmers.
But he refuses to skimp on quality. “We buy the best meat within reason, and we give a reasonable amount on the plate, versus buying commodity and giving a huge portion,” he says. More and more, chefs at Tender Greens are using whole animals, since Oberholtzer says it connects everybody a little bit more with the reality of farming. “The flat iron is only a small bit of the animal, and the ranchers need a home for all of those things,” he says.
Can Tender Greens scale beyond California with its year-round growing season? Oberholtzer argues that it can. “California is certainly unique in its growing climate. But I would say that we can do a Tender Greens in any city where chefs are really focused on cooking with local ingredients. Obviously that might be more expensive in New York or Boston.”
Just like the hordes of hungry people that already line up to eat at Tender Greens, the rest of the country will just have to wait to sample its affordable take on farm-to-table fare.
Jeff Gangemi is FarmPlate's Director of Partnerships and Communications. A lover of both local and far-flung foods like soup dumplings and carnitas tacos, Jeff believes in the power of food, writing and entrepreneurship to effect social change.
Images provided by Tender Greens restaurant