How Farm-To-Table Restaurant Chain Tender Greens Sprouts Entrepreneurs

The restaurant business is notoriously brutal, but SoCal farm-to-table chain Tender Greens has found a new way to build profitable careers for chefs.

"I realized there was nobody in the food chain above me whose job I wanted," recalls David Dressler of the moment eight years ago when he and two of his colleagues experienced enough entrepreneurial angst to quit their jobs.

The former director of food and beverage operations for the Four Seasons and two fine dining executive chef—Erik Oberholtzer and Matt Lyman—had each spent some 15 years in some of the most prestigious kitchens. But while working at the luxury beachfront resort Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, the then-thirtysomethings decided it was finally time to take a risk. "We were all at same stage of life, same point in our careers, had seen the luxury experience over and over again and it wasn’t changing," says Oberholtzer.

So they launched Tender Greens, a SoCal farm-to-table chain that offers the fare of a Chez Panisse with the no-frills expediency of a Chipotle (Oberholtzer actually did work at the famed Alice Waters slow-food mecca Chez Panisse). The trio came up with the concept after recognizing there was no shortage of both fine dining and fast food options, but not much in the middle. They wanted to offer food that was akin to the dinner-party fare the chefs would cook for their foodie friends—made with fresh ingredients from local farmers markets—but was accessible to the masses.

To make the economics work, Tender Greens decided to nix service and gratuity in favor of high-quality ingredients sourced from local farms. Which means for $11 (which every main dish on the menu is priced at), customers can dine on seasonal delicacies from braised rabbit or octopus, to grilled local yellowtail paired with Bhutanese red rice with a cabernet vinaigrette. And the recipe is working: the chain now has nine locations and did $28 million in sales last year.

But Dressler, Oberholtzer, and Lyman also wanted to solve another problem faced by career chefs. "You reach a point at which you’ve been in that restaurant circuit, and there’s only room for so many Thomas Kellers and Daniel Bouluds," says Oberholtzer. "There’s also a shelf life on chefs. The big jump for them is to learn how to be an entrepreneur. How to run a business and be a business owner."

So Tender Greens, which now has 500 employees, built its model to incubate other chefs stuck under the culinary glass ceiling: Each Tender Greens location is run as its own business. The team hires a fine dining executive chef—who has experience in the kitchen, not the back office—to build that business from scratch. When they arrive, they work under a manager in order to learn the ropes of customer service, the front of the house, maintaining costs, and profitability. Once they’ve proven they can handle finances and customers as well as their knives, they are promoted to manager, with the ultimate goal of running several locations in a region. "They start out as chefs and become creative business people," says Oberholtzer.

To attract and retain top talent, Tender Greens chefs are also encouraged to explore their passion projects, with the parent company putting skin in the game. Earlier this year Tender Greens created a joint venture with its San Diego executive chef, Pete Balistreri, who makes his own salami. P. Balistreri Salumi, the brand, is an 49/51 split (TG has majority control), but Balistreri has the option to increase his stake over time. "This is an opportunity for him to really take a business model for himself to ensure his own financial future," says Oberholtzer. "It guarantees that he doesn’t take that business opportunity and turn it into a total distraction for what he’s doing with us."

And Tender Greens' commitment to cultivating talent doesn’t stop there. Last year, they started the Sustainable Life Project, a culinary arts program for teens and young adults at risk for homelessness. For 12 hours a week over three months, the students are taught everything from advanced pastry to knife skills and visit local dairy and pig farms to learn about different aspects of farming, like composting. If they complete the curriculum, the students are guaranteed a job at Tender Greens.

"For many of these kids, the idea of vegetable stopped at French fry," says Dressler. "This doesn’t just offer them a chance to get out of poverty and offer them a job, but it ends a cycle a lot of these foster kids go through that teaches them how to eat, how to actually have an appreciation for food and healthier lifestyles."

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[Sprout Image: Holbox via Shutterstock]

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