Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Ones to Watch | By Judy Kneiszel

Tender Greens
Tender Greens uses locally-grown produce in their salads.

If you pulled three guys from the kitchen of a fine-dining restaurant and challenged them to come up with a fast-casual concept, what would they come up with? Apparently California-based Tender Greens.

“The Tender Greens concept was born of three professionals in a high-end, white-tablecloth hotel kitchen who were tired of doing what they were doing and saw a hole in the L.A. market for healthy, sustainably farmed food at a reasonable price,” says Tender Greens co-founder David Dressler.

Dressler was director of Food & Beverage at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica when he got to know chefs Erik Oberholtzer and Matt Lyman, now his business partners. Dressler says that over the years, while he was working “every conceivable food and beverage management position” in prominent hotels across the country, his two chef partners spent much of their careers dealing with sustainably farmed food. The three were inspired to start Tender Greens by a shared vision to create a place where “a chef would eat on his day off.”

“It’s a chef-driven, food-centric concept, but somebody like me has to keep an eye out for customer service and handle employee training,” Dressler says. “We look for a mature, experienced chef to run each restaurant, but also try to keep in mind that we need a well-rounded team.”

The concept clearly resonated with Southern California diners, who have welcomed four Tender Greens locations into the market in less than four years. The first one opened in Culver City, California, in June 2006, followed by San Diego in June 2008, West Hollywood in March 2009, and Hollywood in February.

“We have a five-year plan that takes us up and down the coast of California and into a few out-of-state markets like Washington, Nevada, Arizona, and maybe Oregon,” Dressler says. “We have growth planned for 25 to 30 restaurants. As long as we keep things spread out, there’s a whole new set of farmers we can buy from.”

He says that at this point, the company has no intention of franchising, but “might consider it if the right experienced regional partner came along.”

Tender Greens teamed up with Scarborough Farms, an independent farm that provides produce to many upscale Southern California restaurants. Leafy greens, like red and green romaine, mizuna, baby arugula, and baby spinach, are hand picked from the fields and delivered to Tender Greens daily. Dressler says Tender Greens restaurants also do some individual sourcing of produce at smaller local farms and farmer’s markets.

“As long as the quality is there and cost factors are met, it gives the chefs some latitude and helps keep us on mission,” he says.

Part of that mission is to provide a conscious connection to the origin of the food in the mind of the customer.

Tender Greens

Founders: David Dressler,

Erik Oberholtzer, Matt Lyman

HQ: Culver City, California

Year Started: 2006

Annual Sales: $9 million

(excludes Hollywood location)

Total Units: 4

Franchise Units: 0

Web Site:

www.tendergreensfood.com

“We want the customer to come into a bright and happy restaurant that feels like a neighborhood bistro, not a cookie-cutter place,” Dressler says. “We want them to read off a simple, straight-forward menu and have a smiley, happy person take their order. The customer then watches people make their food to order in an open, stainless-steel kitchen.”

The menu at Tender Greens is divided into four parts: Simple Salads, Big Salads, Hot Stuff, and Comfort Soups.

“Big Salads are composed of many, many ingredients,” Dressler says.

Some of the Big Salads are the Tender Greens chefs’ interpretation of classic salads, like the Grilled Chicken Cobb, which is made with romaine, blue cheese, bacon, egg, avocado, and tomato.

There are also Big Salads original to Tender Greens, like the Chipotle Barbecue Chicken made with romaine hearts, avocado, green onions, queso fresco, crispy tortilla strips, and cilantro lime dressing.

The 10 Big Salad choices are all priced at $10.50. For $5.50, customers can order one of the five Simple Salad choices, including: romaine hearts, Caesar dressing, shaved Parmesan, and garlic croutons; red and green butter lettuce with tarragon dressing; baby spinach, goat cheese, hazelnuts, and cabernet vinaigrette; baby arugula, tomatoes, and balsamic vinaigrette; and tender greens and sherry vinaigrette. For an extra $5, Angus flank steak, free-range chicken, albacore tuna, or grilled vegetables can be added to a Simple Salad to make it a meal.

Like the vegetables, meat is thoughtfully procured. Along with the free-range chicken, the beef is hormone-free and the tuna is line-caught in the Pacific.

A third way to eat at Tender Greens is to take any of the proteins or the grilled vegetables and pair them with garlic mashed potatoes or order them as a sandwich on rustic bread. That Hot Stuff option is $10.50.

Finally, the menu includes Comfort Soup, with tomato bread soup with basil and rustic chicken every day, plus two changing flavors, for $4.

“An average ticket at Tender Greens is $14,” Dressler says. “Maybe a little higher at dinner because people will have wine or beer with dinner.”

If customers have room for dessert, Dressler says Tender Greens has what he calls an “upscale bake sale” every day, including cookies, cupcakes, and brownies all made in house. Even the choice of baked goods is affected by what produce happens to be in season.

“We’ll take whatever is best at the farmer’s markets and make jam,” Dressler says. “Then we’ll make thumbprint cookies with the jam.”

Of course, the Tender Greens management team isn’t just concerned about sustainability when it comes to food. Tender Greens makes an effort to run an environmentally sustainable operation, from the food on the plate to the paint on the wall. Eco-sensibility infuses nearly every aspect of the restaurant, including the use of green detergents and cleaners, biodegradable to-go containers, recycled napkins, organic cotton uniforms, and potted herbs for décor that are also used as cooking ingredients.

Reclaimed timber and bamboo outfit the floors, counters, and tables, and water-based, nontoxic paints and fluorescent lighting are used in the interior. Each location also collects and sorts its glass and plastic recyclables on site, and the San Diego store features solar panels and tankless water heaters to significantly reduce the amount of natural gas needed to heat water for the restaurant.

The vision behind the design was to make Tender Greens look like a vintage beachside cottage. All locations have patios with outdoor seating. The Culver City location has a retractable roof for the best of both worlds. That location, which has the smallest amount of seating among the locations, can accommodate 100 guests. The remaining restaurants each seat 120.

Dressler says Tender Greens restaurants are located in neighborhoods with strong foot-traffic business.

“Vertical tall buildings filled with hungry folks during the day and an adjacent bedroom community to replace those folks at night,” Dressler says, describing the ideal setting for a Tender Greens. “We appeal to both young and old, professional and retired. We cross all ethnicity lines, appealing to anyone who likes comfort food.”