Way before Sweetgreen and By Chloe served their first grain bowls, Tender Greens was busy defining the healthy fast-casual category in Los Angeles. (For context, the brand launched in the dinosaur days of 2006, when Subway was considered a good on-the-go option—and we all know how that turned out.)
Ten years later, its 22 chef-driven, sustainable cafes are still an only-in-California experience—but that won’t be the case for long. Thanks to an investment last year from restaurateur Danny Meyer, the fitness instructor fave is currently plotting a nationwide expansion that’s set to start as soon as next year.
If you’re jaded by the organic salad shop takeover, here’s why you should pay attention: For one thing, three chefs with serious fine-dining pedigrees created the brand, and a chef with similar chops was enlisted to run each location. (Think alumni from Gordon Ramsay and Nobu.)
“Everything we do is through the lens of a fine dining chef—but it’s the kind of food the chef makes at home, when he has time to go to the farmers’ market and cook for his friends in a casual setting,” says Erik Oberholtzer, who co-founded Tender Greens with fellow chef Matt Lyman and food and beverage director David Dressler. “That’s what keeps us innovative. Our chefs are changing our menu twice a day, independently, at each restaurant.”
The other thing that sets Tender Greens apart is that, despite the name, its menu doesn’t totally revolve around veggies—in fact, steak is one of its most popular menu items. “We have delicious salads, but we’re not a salad place,” says Oberholtzer. “We sell a tremendous amount of meat.” Good news for the Paleo crowd, especially considering the steaks are grass-fed, the chicken is free-range, and everything’s hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and locally sourced from sustainable farms.
Although no leases have been signed yet, Oberholtzer says when it comes to locations, the Tender Greens team has set its sights wide.
“We like Texas, and eventually we believe Chicago will be a great city for us,” says Oberholtzer. “And we’re definitely looking on the East Coast—certainly, our relationship with Danny Meyer has us very interested in Manhattan.”
“Everything we do is through the lens of a fine dining chef—but it’s the kind of food the chef makes at home, when he has time to go to the farmers’ market and cook for his friends in a casual setting.”
As far as Meyer’s concerned, bringing Tender Greens into his Union Square Hospitality Group fold was a no-brainer. “Every now and then, I’ll visit a restaurant and love the idea—the food, the people, the culture—so much that I wish I’d thought of it myself. That’s exactly what happened with Tender Greens,” says the Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern owner, who notes that this was the first time he’s invested in an outside company.
And although the team is remaining closed-lipped about exactly what to expect from the locations outside of California, Oberholtzer says that each one will have deep roots in the culture of whatever city it’s in. “We’re really going to embrace what makes those cities so special, whether it’s the local craft brew or the fishermen working the [waters nearby],” he promises.
The next 10 years
Of course, the fast-casual landscape is much more crowded now than it’s ever been, but Oberholtzer is looking to that as an opportunity, not a threat. “There’s a lot of attention in this space—more and more people care about food that is thoughtfully sourced and prepared in a way that is healthier than what they were used to,” he says. “We were ahead of the curve.”
Tender Greens intends to stay in that pole position—it’s currently pioneering the use of drought-friendly hydroponic farming techniques along with some of its suppliers, which will allow the brand to grow its own ingredients year-round when it expands into colder climates.
Oberholtzer also wants to start educating his customers about things like GMOs and the merits of eating more plants. “In a very cluttered space with buzzwords flying around—a lot of them misused—we really want to be an active partner in clarifying some of the complexities of the food system,” he says.
Spoken like a true kale-blazer.
Hungry? Check out more of the buzziest healthy restaurants in LA and NYC. And while you wait for Tender Greens to land in your city, one of these other fast-casual spots might already be open.