All we wanted to do was democratize good food and fine eating, and have it accessible to all.
When my business partners and I opened Tender Greens in Culver City almost ten years ago, there was nobody else out there who was doing what we were doing. I would say we were the first in the "fast-casual" scene of restaurants. Chipotle and Panera were around, but they weren't doing what I like to call "fine-casual," which was a considerable step up from anything else out there.
The term "fast-casual" didn't even exist. Even to this day, I don't like that term because it feels a little restrictive. We are often lumped in with salad chains, but we are a lot more than that. We don't see ourselves as "the Chipotle of fill-in-the-blank." Now, establishments like Chipotle have been recategorized as "fast food plus." We didn't call each other anything back then because what we were doing didn't exist.
We were just chefs burnt out of the fine dining world. I was part of the first wave of California-style organic cooking. I used to work at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, and before that I was in San Francisco working at places like Aqua, Campton Place Restaurant, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley with Alice Waters. Somewhere, when cooking at all of these establishments, was the inspiration to open Tender Greens.
While Alice may be the godmother of slow, organic food—and that kind of philosophy is how I was trained—one criticism that Alice always failed to answer well was how to expand her lifestyle outside of Berkeley, California. That approach to cooking is idyllic if you have time to drive out to these small farms and have the money to eat that way, but for the rest of the country, it is not achievable. Thus, my mission was to take the idea that Alice started 30 years ago and bring it to a much broader audience, so that it is a daily luxury to eat good food and not an occasional experience.
I walk every fish auction, killfloor, and farm so that I'm comfortable with the practices that are supporting our supply chain.
Being a chef is a tough lifestyle and you don't make a ton of money. I remember finding myself in LA 13 years ago and not being able to afford to eat at fine dining restaurants, even if I worked at one. So, you are cooking this amazing food for people with means, but on your day off, you can't go eat this food yourself because you can't afford it? This also influenced our goals. We wanted to provide a restaurant where line cooks, sous chefs, and waiters would appreciate the quality, integrity, backstory, and philosophy of the ingredients, as well as the sophistication of the food in an unpretentious, relaxed way.
We honor Alice's contribution to the world but we have just carried on the torch.
The reality behind the food that I was cooking throughout my career was that the food was really meant for the One Percent. Tender Greens was meant to bridge the gap between Chez Panisse and In-N-Out.
I just spoke at Sustainatopia in San Francisco and I tried to explain how we manage our complex supply chain and how it has evolved over time. We currently operate 22 Tender Greens around California, but as we've expanded, it is a double-edged sword. Sure, we now have purchasing power that allows us to buy better ingredients without squeezing the farmer. That being said, we have also grown out of farmers. Sustainability is a big issue for us. We recently took off an octopus and peanut salad we had on the menu because octopus is becoming less and less sustainable. When we put that item on the menu at our restaurants, octopus had not yet reached peak trendiness. People complained about this but we just used that as an opportunity to explain our philosophy.
You can push a food philosophy without preaching. You don't have to tell people how to live but you could nudge and influence things. I walk every fish auction, killfloor, and farm so that I'm comfortable with the practices that are supporting our supply chain. If I walk into a farm that I'm not comfortable using, then I simply will not use them. I'm an advocate for animal rights, while at the same time I know that beef, chicken, and fish production is not going away anytime soon.
Recently, a lot of fine dining chefs have taken notice that you can become be really successful in this marketplace. There are a lot more places that have entered the market, and this is good for customers and it is good for the farmers. It is also good for us because it continues to be more innovative and keep the needle moving forward.
Our anniversary is coming up in a few days and we have come a long way. We learned a lot of things the hard way and it was pretty brutal in the beginning, but we poured our heart and soul into it and we listened to every single guest—and we pivoted if we needed to. We have never stopped pivoting, and I think it's a shame when brands relax on their lead, or sit back, relax, and continue to play their greatest hits. In this way, restaurant culture is a lot like music, too. If one day you stop getting invited to play shows, it is because you didn't continue to evolve and capture the narrative of the times.
As told in an interview to Javier Cabral
Erik Oberholtzer is the cofounder and CEO of Tender Greens. For more information on his pioneering philosophy and his restaurants, visit his website.