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How Tender Greens Turns Top Chefs Into Fast-Food Cooks

A quick-serve chain lures kitchen stars by treating them like entrepreneurs.
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For chefs Erik Oberholtzer, David Dressler, and Matt Lyman, the thought of a chain restaurant evoked bland, homogenized, suburban strip malls. They rebelled against that stereotype when they launched Tender Greens, a series of quick-service restaurants that serve fresh organic dishes made from local produce, cheeses, and meats.

To give each restaurant its unique vibe, the three men set out to hire fine-dining chefs to run each location. It was a good idea, but executing it proved tough: Great chefs don't usually aspire to work at quick-casual restaurants. The three solved that problem by turning each chef into a kind of entrepreneur, giving each control of his or her individual restaurant--including operations, culture, and menu items.

The strategy is working. Tender Greens has grown to 12 restaurants and an estimated $40 million in annual revenue. Below, Oberholtzer, Tender Greens's CEO, shares his tips for attracting top employees and keeping them engaged. 

1. Emphasize work-life balance. Cooking at an upscale restaurant is very often a young person's game. It can be highly competitive and usually requires long, grueling hours. What Tender Greens may lack in prestige for chefs, it makes up for in work-life balance. Many chefs hit a wall around age 40, Oberholtzer says. Those chefs proved to be the perfect candidates for Tender Greens. He sought out those fine-dining chefs facing burnout and lured them to Tender Greens with better hours, six-figure pay, and control over their restaurants.

2. Let chefs make (small) mistakes. Chefs are held to high standards for the restaurants' financial performance, quality, and service. But Oberholtzer encourages them to take risks on new ideas, whether their own signature dishes or adding new items like organic sodas. A flop is considered a "micro-failure," because it may run only a day, week, or month at a single location. The right idea, however, could have a big impact across the company. "The key here is not success or failure; the key is that we continue to evolve individually and as a company," he says.

3. Make them accountable for business results. Many chefs who leave the kitchen dream of opening their own restaurant, but few have the business know-how to pull it off. Oberholtzer and his partners teach them how to be entrepreneurs. Chefs attend leadership workshops, receive bonuses for hitting financial goals, and learn software tools for tracking product cost, labor, and daily revenue. They also get full access to all company financials at quarterly meetings and monthly P&L reviews. Should they need help, the founders make themselves available.

4. Give chefs the freedom to do their own thing. Like Google, Tender Greens gives chefs plenty of freedom to pursue their personal interests. Tender Greens chef Eric Hulme's passion for craft beer led him to host a whole-animal roast and beer garden each month on the patio of his Hollywood restaurant. Likewise, when chef Peter Balistreri developed an award-winning Italian cured salumi, Tender Greens partnered with him to launch a brand called P. Balistreri Salumi that it distributes to restaurants, hotels, and specialty grocers across California.

 

 

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
From the March 2014 issue of Inc. magazine




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