It’s safe to say we’re extremely spoiled to be able to work on Buddytruk in Santa Monica – the weather is perfect, the beach is beautiful, it’s a great place to develop an app for on-demand moving and hauling, and there’s always something to see on 3rd Street (looking at you, street musicians). But if there’s one perk to trump them all, though, it has to be the outstanding selection of restaurants for the benefit of our taste buds. We have the best organic coffee shops, excellent cold-pressed juice, and quite possibly the best lunch spot in Santa Monica – Tender Greens.
With six locations in Los Angeles alone (and several others in the Bay Area, Orange County, and San Diego), Tender Greens may not be brand new to Los Angeles. However, the line of hungry folks that goes out the door and down the block should speak volumes as to how good their food truly is. With hand-picked local ingredients, farm-to-fork freshness, and the best salads and hot plates (Mmm seared albacore) this side of the Mississippi, Tender Greens has become a food staple on the Westside.
We had the chance to chat with Christina Wong, Director of PR & Brand Expression for Tender Greens about everything Tender Greens, startups, expansion, and what it takes to make it in the hyper-competitive restaurant business.
Hi, Christina! We’ve been big fans of Tender Greens for quite some time, which you could tell by our shout-outs on Twitter! What are the origins of Tender Greens?
Christina: Tender Greens opened its first location in 2006 on a not-so-nice-at-the-time street in Culver City. The idea was to bring the farmers market to your plate at a price that everyone could afford. The co-owners/founders Erik Oberholtzer, Matt Lyman and David Dressler came from fine dining backgrounds – the three met while working at a beachside luxury hotel in Santa Monica. At the time there weren’t a whole lot of healthy-fast casual options; it was either fine dining or fast food. The guys were used to cooking with the best quality produce and ingredients, but couldn’t afford to eat at the types of places that they worked at. They longed for a place that served the type of fresh, healthy food that they wanted to eat on their days off and at a price that fit their budget. So Tender Greens was born.
We love the farm-to-fork style of Tender Greens. What would you say is the company goal?
Christina: First and foremost, make delicious food using the best possible ingredients and offer it at a price that everyone can afford. We’re a company of chefs and food lovers, [so] good food and great service is at the heart of everything we do. On a bigger scale, our goal is to continue to open more Tender Greens restaurants all over California, and eventually in other states. We opened Tender Greens with the purpose of making healthy, good food affordable.
Good food shouldn’t be a privileged experience and the restaurants are designed to do away with table service in favor of offering the best quality ingredients at a price where everybody wins. Our farmers win because they are getting a fair price for their product, and our customers win because they get great food at a good price.
Who are the key leaders in the company?
Christina: Erik, Matt and David are co-founder/owners. At each restaurant we have an executive chef who drives inspiration and innovation at the restaurant level. Many of them come from fine dining backgrounds and have cooked in some of the best restaurants in town.
What makes you guys so unique? Where does the name “Tender Greens” come from?
Christina: Our chefs and the chef-driven concept is what makes us unique. Where else can you get a fine dining or gastropub dish made with the best possible seasonal ingredients like braised rabbit, crudo, porchetta and steamed mussels for only $11 a plate? No where! Our core menu items are incredible but I personally think that the daily specials is where Tender Greens shines. Our restaurants are not just cookie cutter copies, each location has a different chef with a unique style and passion. Santa Monica is more seafood driven so you’ll see things Octopus Carpaccio and Fisherman’s Stew. Marina del Rey has Gino Angelini trained pasta makers who create daily pasta specials. Hollywood has a summer beer garden and whole animal roast on the back patio. West Hollywood has a high protein, low carb “Muscle Menu” special. I know people like to stick with their local Tender Greens, but I encourage you to venture to different locations. There’s a different vibe, the specials are different and it’s a great way to experience our unique chef-driven concept. Even the art is thoughtfully chosen to match the neighborhood.
The name Tender Greens was inspired by a menu item. The owners remembered a menu ingredient “tender greens” at a restaurant in San Francisco and loved how fresh it sounded. We do serve a lot of salad and vegetables, but we have plenty of non-rabbit food to balance it out. We believe in eating more vegetables with reasonable, balanced portions of proteins and the indulgent stuff. I can’t resist our pastries. Have you tried the Citrus Olive Cake?
What’s the best part of being with a company like Tender Greens? Everyone looks so happy that works there, kind of like walking into an Apple store! What’s the hardest?
Christina: The best part is seeing the genuine passion and inspiration bubble up and over from the owners, chefs and customers. I love hearing the owners’ passion and vision for the company they want to build and how much they care about the people who work at the restaurants. I love watching and listening to our chefs talk about what they’re working on, the way their eyes light up when they’re telling me about what they’re pickling, curing or making from scratch. I know that we’re doing something right when our farmer partners tell us how working with Tender Greens has impacted their business for the better. Since I manage our social media, I am also lucky enough to see the gratitude and happy comments from our customers who are obsessed with Tender Greens.
The hardest part is having to say no to the hundreds of requests for charitable donations and events in our local communities, especially ones from regular customers. We love supporting our communities and every cause has merit but unfortunately we don’t have unlimited resources to donate and participate in everything. I read every single request and try my best to respond to every one but we get so many! If we do say yes, we try to participate in more meaningful ways that’s more impactful than just donating gift cards or free food. As a result, I have to get creative to come up with unique and interesting things that work for the charitable request but doesn’t feel like we’re just handing someone a gift card.
What brought you to work at Tender Greens?
Christina: I just love what they do and what the owners believe in. They stand for something that I personally support and am passionate about from a food, sustainability and community perspective. I started working with Tender Greens handling their PR and social media at an agency when they only had 2 restaurants – the original Culver City location and the second in Point Loma, San Diego. I’ve watched and helped them grow into the 12 going on 20 restaurants we have now. There was a point when I just knew that I needed to be a part of the “something bigger” that the owners are building. Oh, and I get to eat Tender Greens almost every day.
What’s your role as the Director of PR & Brand Expression?
Christina: My role at Tender Greens as the Director of PR & Brand Expression is to spread the word about Tender Greens and give people more reasons to love us. Many of our customers already love our food but when they learn more about our philosophy, our chefs, passion projects and Sustainable Life Project, it just makes coming to Tender Greens even more special. I find different ways to share all the interesting and cool things that our chefs and people are doing, whether that’s in an article, in a magazine, newspaper or online, on our blog, through social media, community events or internal communication with all the people who work at our restaurants.
Because of our name, customers tend to think that we’re just a salad place but if they dig a little deeper they’ll discover so many wonderful things about why Tender Greens is so much more than just salad. For example, our lettuce and produce is picked fresh daily and grown by a family farm in Oxnard, CA, we cure our own bacon, we have phenomenal made-from-scratch pasta, one of our bussers is a Tibetan Buddhist nun, we have a collaborative craft beer brew coming out this month and we have a culinary internship program for foster youth to learn about where their food comes from and working in a restaurant. Check out our blog, you’ll discover lots of cool stuff.
Who is the executive chef and how can we steal him from you?
Christina:Like I mentioned earlier, we have lots of executive chefs! One for each location and our sous chefs are rockstars too. I’m so impressed by our rising talent. No, you may not steal them! Many of our chefs have worked with Erik, Matt or Dave at other points in their careers when they were at fine dining restaurants and luxury hotels. The history runs deep.
What are your favorite items on the menu? Mine is the big plate with the seared albacore! So good!
Christina: So many! Where to start? The Southern Fried Chicken Salad (not at Santa Monica location or Culver City) was my go-to for a long time. When it first debuted at West Hollywood I could not stop eating it. As you can imagine, eating lots of fried chicken is not exactly healthy so I had to change it up. My new favorite is the Octopus Salad, there are two versions of it – the one at Santa Monica with fennel, fingerling potatoes and lemon vinaigrette and the Thai Octopus Salad at all the other locations. The Octopus is perfectly cooked, tender, moist and flavorful. Tell me, where else can you get an Octopus dish like this for $11?
I’ll also share a secret with you. If you order a sandwich, ask for it Oaxacan style. It’s off-menu. Our sandwiches are really good, but make a chicken, bbq chicken or steak salad Oaxacan style (with avocado, queso fresco, Cholula sauce) and it’s a whole other level of delicious. This is how the cooks at our original Culver City location would make lunch sandwiches for themselves, our customers saw them eating it and said “I want that!” and so it became a secret menu item. Oh and the desserts! I can’t help myself, ever. All our desserts are made from scratch daily by our talented pastry team. I don’t even know where to begein because they’re SO good. Check out our “Sweet Stuff” board on Pinterest for an idea of the stuff they create, I’ve saved photos of the desserts: http://www.pinterest.com/tendergreens/sweet-stuff/.
You guys have quite a few locations now. Is there a point when you guys realized you weren’t just a startup anymore?
Chrstina: Yes, we’re at 12 locations with plans to open 6 more this year. We arrived at that realization last year and are now transitioning into the next phase of our growth.
What would your advice be to another restaurant startup?
Christina: Don’t be afraid to say no, there’s lots of distractions and tempting offers out there but in the end you have to do what’s best for you and your people.
Where do you see Tender Greens as a company 1 year from now? 10 years? 100?
Christina: The plan is to continue opening lots of Tender Greens restaurants and expanding in a smart, sustainable way so we can continue to make good food accessible to everyone. A year from now, we’ll be closer to our goal of 30 restaurants by 2016. 10 years, who knows, maybe locations outside of California. 100 years, hopefully there will be enough farm land, resources, farmers or high tech growing solutions for us to still have fresh produce and we’re not all eating food in the form of pills or that gross, flavorless Soylent idea.
For more information on Tender Greens, check out one of their 13 locations around Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Orange County, or San Diego. You can also find them online at www.TenderGreens.com, Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram @TenderGreens.