Emphasizing Local Farm Ingredients, Craft of Cooking, Fast-Growing SoCal Restaurant Chain Stays True to Roots
September 9, 2012 | Melinda Clark
For Erik Oberholtzer, cooking and eating high quality, local, sustainably produced foods is “part of his DNA.” Oberholtzer co-founded Tender Greens, a rapidly-growing “slow food done fast” restaurant chain that serves affordable, sustainable, delicious meals across southern California. With big plans for growth in the works, Tender Greens faces the difficult, but exciting challenge of staying true to its roots while expanding across the state.
After culinary school and an impressive career as an executive chef at luxury resorts in Hawaii and San Francisco, Oberholtzer ended up in Los Angeles, where he met business partners Matt Lyman and David Dressler. The three of them decided it was time to venture out on their own – and they were very aware of a niche that needed filling.
“Tender Greens was a reaction to the lack of really good affordable causal options in Santa Monica,” says Oberholtzer. “We wanted to create a place that spoke to our products and culinary sensibilities but wasn’t as expensive as the places we had all worked previously. We also wanted to create a brand that resonated with people and that redefined the quick casual space.”
The foundational concept of Tender Greens is high-quality ingredients produced locally. The majority of the restaurant’s produce is “fresh picked daily” from Tender Green’s partner, Oxnard’s Scarborough Farms, and the rest comes from small local farmers and ranchers. The meat is all sustainably raised; the beef comes from grain-fed, hormone/antibiotic free cows, the chicken is free-range and hormone free and the tuna is line caught from the Pacific. The restaurant also partners with artisans and boutique wineries, breweries and coffee roasters.
Though it may sometime be tempting to go for cheaper, mass market ingredients that are deemed “good enough” by the public, Oberholtzer explains Tender Greens’ commitment to buying only the best. “You’re limited to being only as good as your products…You can only do so much with technique and everything else if your raw products aren’t good enough,” he says. He adds that maintaining Tender Green’s strict standards on buying local “has its challenges. It’s more expensive. It takes a lot of discipline. We buy only California olive oil, California olives. We really try and support local, even though it’s less expensive to buy some Spanish olive oil.”
He predicts that this will become even more of a challenge as the chain continues to grow. “We demand a lot of volume; sometimes our needs outgrow our farms,” he says. “Not all farmers can supply us on a regular basis…We ran into that with beef quite a bit. We were working with local ranchers and they couldn’t support our demand.” The challenge, he says, is “maintaining your integrity and your bar for quality while at the same time being able to provide the amount of food.”
Oberholtzer says he spends a lot of time building steady, mutually-beneficial relationships with new farms. The relationships are based on the understanding that Tender Greens wants the farms to make money, and will offer them fair prices; and in return, Tender Greens expects a little bit of a break.
“For a farmer, it’s really important to know that if you’re growing a tomato, that when it’s ripe, someone is going to be there to buy it,” says Oberholtzer. “That’s always a struggle for any farmer…If they raise an animal that takes 18 months to come to maturity, they want to know that they’re going to make some money at the end…Because of our volumes and consistency, we’re able to commit. We’re saying okay, here’s what we expect to need, can you accommodate it and can you accommodate it at this price, knowing that we’re not going to drop you.”
The farmers also know that Tender Greens isn’t going to make huge margins on their products. They pass on the fair prices to their customers, and make money by doing a large volume of business – each restaurant feeds an average of 1,000 to 1,200 people a day – rather than by adding huge mark-ups on each item.
Oberholtzer explains that everybody who does business with Tender Greens has to “buy into the whole value and volume mindset. We will buy a lot of ingredients, but you’re going to have to give us a break and understand that we’re giving our customers a break. We’re providing a community service to people – we’re offering exceptional product at a price that everyone can afford.”
So far, it’s been an incredibly successful model. Since the restaurant first opened its doors in Culver City in 2006, business has taken off.
Oberholtzer remembers day one. “We opened with a line at the door – the line didn’t stop until 7:30 at night, at which time we had run out of food so we had to close early,” he remembers. “The next day it was the same thing. They crushed us…It took us a few weeks to realize that this is going to be part of our daily reality.”
Six years later, business is still booming. The chain currently has eight restaurants, with two more planned for this year – one in Orange County and one in Marina del Rey. Next year, they plan to open in three downtowns: San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They’re also working on a deal in Westwood. Oberholtzer says they plan to open about five restaurants a year going forward. For now, the focus is still on California, although Oberholtzer predicts that “2014 will be the year that we’ll venture outside California,” most likely starting with a location in Seattle.
To maintain their high standards while rapidly expanding, Oberholtzer says that they focus on their relationships with farmers and on hiring chefs who bring their own point of view to the restaurant. “The key for me,” he says, “is that it’s always understood that we didn’t hop on the farm to fork bandwagon. We were part of this long before Tender Greens and…it’s part of our DNA. We also celebrate the craft of cooking, which is why we don’t have kitchen managers; we have legitimate chefs who could hold their own at any top table in the country.”
“As we evolve, we continue to grow with chef talent and build more and more relationships with farms…we tour the farms all the time, and I think it’s part of what’s fun about this business, if you stay connected and understand that things don’t grow in boxes or clamshells,” he says.
Side Note: Tender Greens and Oberholtzer strongly support the initiative to require labeling of products containing genetically modified organisms. Please visit Tender Greens’ blog to learn why Oberholtzer thinks consumers should demand transparency on GM foods.
Oberholtzer will also be speaking at Seedstock’s October 24th Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Conference at UCLA. Tender Greens will provide lunch for the conference goers. Register now!