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Tender Greens promotes Apple vet as CEO to win the salad wars

New president and CEO Denyelle Bruno was one of the first hired to build Apple’s retail division. Her management style is vastly different from Steve Jobs’s.

Tender Greens promotes Apple vet as CEO to win the salad wars
[Photo: Liz Clayman, courtesy of Tender Greens]

There are a few things you need to know about Denyelle Bruno as she steps into her new role as President and CEO of the Los Angeles-based fast casual restaurant chain Tender Greens, taking the reins from founder Erik Oberholtzer.

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One is that she’s got an aggressive plan to expand the business. Tender Greens currently has 28 locations, and Bruno wants to nearly double that in the next two years. The other is that the retail veteran has earned the chops to do it.

Denyelle Bruno [Photo: courtesy of Tender Greens]
Bruno started working in retail at Macy’s West directly after college. The plan, according to her, was to work there until she got a “real” job more aligned with her psychology degree. “Turns out I was good at retail,” Bruno says, “For me it almost like a game.” The chaos and the intensity suited her well, she says, but more than anything, she loved the “cycle of interaction” between retailer and customer. It would inform her future management style that she categorizes as “servant leadership.”

Her philosophy stands in sharp contrast to one of her former bosses, Steve Jobs. “We couldn’t be more different,” she asserts, adding that she did take some valuable lessons from him during her tenure. Bruno was one of the seven people recruited to start Apple’s retail business, back before the signature stores and their genius bars became a ubiquitous part of our brick-and-mortar shopping experience.


Related: 3 essential branding lessons from a rare Steve Jobs interview


During the designing and building of the stores, Bruno recalls one particular moment in which Jobs came in to do a walk-through (which he did regularly to monitor progress and offer feedback). Known for his laser focus on small but significant details, Bruno saw that he was unhappy with the direction of the grain of the wood on the shelves and complained to the contractor. The other man explained that trees don’t always grow in the direction he wanted the grain to go, and Jobs fired him on the spot.

Bruno admits Jobs’s reaction was severe, and his authoritarian, dictatorial approach doesn’t reflect her management style, and is rarely successful anywhere else. Jobs’s particular flavor of being a wildly brilliant visionary who constantly pushed boundaries wasn’t based on ego, necessarily, she says. “It was purely based on the drive for something better.”

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Her takeaway from this “typical Steve story” was more about the way he thought. “Don’t start with no. Don’t imagine anything is not possible,” she remembers learning. “Because the second you start shutting things down in a competitive environment, you set yourself up to lose.”

Leading Tender Greens will be an exercise in growing despite a very competitive environment; fast casual restaurants are still the smallest segment of the restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, there are over 1 million fast casual restaurants in the U.S. that employ over 14 million people. However, industry research firm Technomic reports that fast-casual restaurants will grow by 7.5% this year, leading other dining establishments.


Related: Tender Greens and the fast casual “sweet spot”


Bruno remains confident. Tender Greens is on track to pull down up to $100 million in revenue for the first time this year, which means the strength of the brand is growing. Bruno’s career, apart from Apple, has taken her through leadership roles at equally strong brands in different industries, including Peet’s coffee, Drybar, and Designs Within Reach home furnishings. “Every place I’ve gone, I’ve had more autonomy and responsibility, and that excites me,” she says.

But more to the point, she notes that each place had devotees who are quite likely to cross-pollinate with her current employer. “The person who would buy an Apple computer would drink Peet’s Coffee, get a blowout at Drybar, and eat at Tender Greens.”

As a first-time CEO, Bruno’s next order of business is to continue building out the A-team she needs to shepherd the next phase of explosive growth for the chain. Although skills and experience will vary from role to role, Bruno maintains that she’s looking for people who are ready to ask questions. “I expect them to challenge me,” she explains. “I would never [take a product or service] out in the wild without vetting it and having someone poke holes in it.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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