Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change: Erik Oberholtzer

Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change: Erik Oberholtzer 11/1/2018
By Anita Jones-Mueller, CEO of Healthy Dining

This interview is one of a six-part series, “
Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change” presented as the keynote sessions at the California and Florida Restaurant Association Shows. Other “Superstars” to be featured in the series, include: Jonathan Rollo, Commander-in-Leaf, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop; Nicole Bushnell, VP of Marketing, Luna Grill; Steven Goldstein, Chief Marketing Officer, Sharky’s Mexican Grill; Rich Wagner, President, Nature’s Table; and Maria Caranfa, Registered Dietitian and Global Nutrition and Food Policy Lead, Bloomin' Brands.


Anita Jones-Mueller: I’m thrilled to have Erik Oberholtzer share his insights and passion for food and sustainability.

Erik, let’s start with you telling us about yourself and your brand:

Erik Oberholtzer: I’m the chef and co-founder of Tender Greens, a restaurant chain built on the mission to bring good, real, whole food to as many people as possible. About 12 years ago, we opened our first restaurant in Los Angeles (Culver City) and have since expanded to 28 locations throughout California, New York and Massachusetts.

I came out of the fine dining world of San Francisco and when I initially relocated to Los Angeles, I found many really great restaurants that nobody could afford. There was a large, affordable fast food culture as well, but if you wanted to live a healthy life, you couldn’t live off fast food. So, we set out to bridge the gap between the two and lead with craveability and deliciousness in a context that everybody could relate to. We started with food that everyone is familiar with, just done in a way that has better ingredients from local farms with healthy soil, which breeds healthy plants, that leads to a healthy lifestyle. 


You have a great story of how you started Tender Greens – and how your beginnings have provided the foundation of your brand. Tell us about that.

Erik: Our vision for Tender Greens has always been to design the menu with a plant-forward lens, giving people an alternative to overly indulgent, often unhealthy food.

In the beginning, when Tender Greens was just a menu on paper and a two-page overview, my business partner Matt Lyman and I drove up to Oxnard, a farming community north of Los Angeles, to meet with Jeff and Ann Stein at Scarborough Farms. We had a simple pitch to them, which was: We want to build a restaurant concept about everything you grow. We were hoping they would write a big check to help us get started. We were na├»ve, though, and thought farmers had a lot of money and that they would write a big check to us because it was good for their business, too. But the reality was that we were rich in dreams, not cash – and they were rich in produce, not cash. But it ended up working. With every restaurant that opened, the first $25,000 were invoices that were converted to equity and we were able to convert that to a lot of money for our farming business partners years later.

Over the years, that relationship has helped to build a supply chain that’s robust and based not on transaction, but on true partnership and relationship. Now we write checks to farmers going through a rough season, and they will pay us through chickens, eggs, or carrots. Knowing your farmers and everything about them, with a significant level of trust is important. That is the foundation of the local food movement.

What’s important to you and your guests in terms of food and food quality?

Erik: We just opened a location in Manhattan, and that has really strengthened our vision of who we are and how we meet our guests’ expectations. There are a lot of complexities to opening a brand like ours in New York, but the city also hosts an audience of health and wellness enthusiasts. I think that what we add to the New York food scene is our obsession with ingredients and going a bit deeper on the supply chain, whether it’s leveraging controlled environment ag or indoor growing seasons that are agnostic to climate – because climate is an issue in New York, very different from California. We are working with a small, organic Amish farming network in Lancaster County (Pennsylvania) and bringing those amazing ingredients into Manhattan at a price point that everybody can still afford. I think we’re differentiating ourselves in New York because of the California view on raw ingredients and how we cook – which is really: Buy the best ingredients, don’t screw them up, don’t get in the way, don’t mask them, but let the products speak for themselves.


How have your guests changed in the last few years?

Erik: Social impact is becoming a strong desire for our guests, and I think it is really important to stay ahead of what people are asking for. At all levels, holistic health, both in lifestyle and also food integrity, is extremely important. This includes farming practices, the backstory and details there, and how that is supporting transparency. We want to support a robust food system and not just offer food to people at the expense of something else. Our customers, and the public at large, are asking these types of questions and they are going to continue to want to know, whether free trade or fair trade, soil health, environmental impacts of food – all of that needs to be in the positive.

If we are good stewards of the earth, then everybody has three opportunities every day to vote through their meal choices as to what side of the earth story they want to be on. So, if you stand for positive impact for the planet and you relate to and connect with the public and customers, they are going to vote with their dollars which is good for business, and ultimately its good for the planet and all of us.

What is your favorite menu item at Tender Greens?

Erik: I have professional chefs in each one of my restaurants. All of them have culinary backgrounds that match mine. I get excited about trying whatever new items our chefs are showcasing and it’s great to taste the best ingredients of the season, whether that’s heirloom tomatoes that just came in, or a local fish that we brought in from small catches. It’s also the chef’s individual personality, passion and point of view coming through in the techniques and special nuances in the dish – that’s what I really get excited about. I’m a believer that fried chicken and arugula can live on the same plate. Those two have become politicized. One’s on the right side of the political spectrum and the other on the left. And a good dressing brings them all together.