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General FIT - Tender Greens-1

Erik Oberholtzer talks transforming a passion into a business

October 25, 2018

Erik Oberholtzer, Founder & CEO of Tender Greens, talks transforming a passion into a business, breaking into new markets and the importance of re-branding for standing out in saturated markets. Transitioning from an executive chef to an executive business leader, Erik Oberholtzer discusses how Tender Greens can no longer solely rely on high quality hospitality, guest experience and ingredients to drive their success.

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Q&A

Jeff: You turned your passion for food into a national restaurant group. How did that happen?

Erik: It certainly wasn't over night. My identity is still that of a chef in the same way that an actor is always an actor even if they go onto becoming a director or a producer. Throughout the years I went through various identities - first a chef and then a restaurant owner. At some point, I started to feel like an entrepreneur and then came a stage where I really related to the idea of becoming a founder, but still remaining a chef. I only really started to officially take on the role of CEO around three years ago when we began to further professionalize the organization behind Tender Greens and for the first time had a very sophisticated board overseeing a national growth plan. It was not necessarily the most comfortable transition.

Jeff: Transitioning from an executive chef to an c-level executive, what has been the most transferable skill?

Erik: As a chef I led with food and with 15 years of fine dining training I had and still do have a very intimate and intuitive relationship with food. Food is part of my life, its part of my identity. What was more difficult to develop was the business side of things and that came over time with the right mentorship and also from learning from both success and failure.

Jeff: From a business perspective, what is the Tender Greens’ ethos and what market are you trying to target?

Erik: We opened our first restaurant 12 years ago in Los Angeles. At the time, L.A. had a foodscape that had a massive gap between expensive fine dining and cheap fast food. Our mission 12 years ago and our goal today remains the same, and that is to fill that gap in the foodscape and provide good food to everybody.

Jeff: Tender Greens is profilic on the West Coast. You recently took Tender Greens national and expanded into New York. How are people responding to Tender Greens in New York?

Erik: It's been a remarkable experience. New York is a very noisy, big market. We entered with the halo of Danny Meyer at our side. We also had 12 years of success behind us in California and there is a lot of synergy between L. A. and New York. Many people in New York were already aware of us, and there were a lot of Californianas living in New York who were missing California and were grateful for our entry.

The New York press has been very kind to us and New Yorkers, who can often be a bit jaded, recognized that we are a little different. They recognized that we’re not just another fast-casual chain, but a restaurant that identified this space between fast-casual and casual dining. They recognize that we fill this gap with a sophisticated food offering, an intense commitment to great product and chef leadership in an environment that feels like a full-service restaurant.

One of the best comments I have heard from old school New Yorkers is that Tender Greens is reminds them of some of the old New York diners and delis because it invites community, and we offer that seasonal home cooking that you would cook for yourself if your apartment was big enough.

Jeff: Is there a most-popular dish at Tender Greens?

Erik: Despite the fact that we are inherently a healthy restaurant, the fried chicken is something that our customers are fanatical about. What it speaks to is that it's okay to have moments of indulgence, just if you indulge, make sure you indulge in the best version of your craving made from the best ingredients possible.

Jeff: A lot of people who aren't familiar with your brand might assume Tender Greens is just a salad spot. How do you differentiate yourself from this assumption when entering new markets?

Erik: It's always been a double-edged sword for us. I think Tender Greens signals that we are plant-forward and we are healthy, which is something that a lot of other brands aspire to. The challenge is that by name, it does lump us into a very cluttered market. There are plenty of other restaurants that have popped up throughout the years that sound very similar to Tender Greens.

When we did the rebrand we considered changing the name, but we had built up so much brand equity with our name throughout the years that we decided not to. Instead, we changed the logo and removed the arugula leaf so that it now symbolizes a pan and a plate to point towards the importance of the chef detail in our restaurant.

Jeff: How are you guys talking to consumers now?

Erik: In a sense, we use all forms of communication - digital, print and television. Historically, the marketing for us was in the form of hospitality, guest experience and ingredients. That worked for a lot of years, but as you grow into new markets in a world that has become incredibly noisy with so many channels of communication, it is hard to touch everybody.

We have gotten very involved with social like everyone else. We hired a CMO that looks at marketing differently than we have traditionally. He is really looking at data and measuring what is working and what isn't, and that's caused us, for now, to just experiment.

There's a big billboard on Lincoln Blvd right now that has a quote with our name on it. It's a Postmates billboard, but with our content on it, so that is somewhat of a new strategy for us. We have done TV through our relationship with the L.A. chargers and L.A. Galaxy where we send chefs to feed the teams at their training camp throughout the year. We still leverage PR, but PR has shifted too as people listen to more podcasts as they do magazines.

Jeff: Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to turn their passion into a business?

Erik: I think anybody that wants to start something should ask themselves the 3 why’s: why does the world need this product or service, why now and why am I the best person to execute this new idea? If you can answer those then you go for it.

Jeff: Switching gears, what is your favourite meal to make?

Erik: My favourite meal is made from whatever I found at the farmers market that day. If I were to pick a classic, I would pick a bolognese using mushrooms instead of meat. When I go out, what I order is contextual and based upon the cuisine of the restaurant I go to, but the one thing that I always crave is a perfectly roasted chicken - whole and on the bone with an indulgent side of mashed potatoes or even just a simple salad.

Jeff: What is your favourite restaurant in New York?

Erik: I am asked that question often and I always go back to the same answer. There is this little cafe in Soho called west~bourne. Everything about is is incredibly precious, but not too precious. It is really intimate and small with counter service, and the food is uncomplicated but delicious.

Jeff: How would you describe the color green to somebody that is blind?

Erik: Depending on where we were, I would pull a few blades of grass if it were the right season and have them crimple that grass up and have them smell it and chew on it for them to take in the intensity and texture of it.

 

Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes