09 May 2011

Tender Greens and the Sustainable Life Project

by Paul David

We recently tracked down Erik Oberholtzer (pictured on the far left), founder of Tender Greens Restaurants in the Los Angeles area, to learn more about how he uses local, organic food and his development of the Sustainable Life Project, an organization which mentors inner city kids on organic gardening techniques.

What made you get into cooking?
During college I would go to the Italian Market and Reading Terminal, then cook to relax. After graduating we were entering the recession of the early 90's.   People were losing their jobs with no tangible skill set to fall back on. I was passionate about food and wine and thought it recession proof.  I also wanted to control where I lived and food is universal. I was right. I have lived in some of the best cities in the world and never went hungry.

What brought you to LA?
After 911 and the bursting of the dot com bubble San Francisco became a bit depressing. I was ready for a change and moved to Santa Monica to live and work on the beach at Shutters on the Beach.

How did Tender Greens get started?
Shortly after taking the helm at Shutters i knew this would be my last job working for someone. LA has some great restaurants that cater to the A list. Shutters is one of them. It is also home to many iconic fast-food concepts that are cheap but I would never eat at in a sober state.  LA lacks neighborhood restaurants. Particularly on the westside. Tender Greens is a response to this void. So far people seem very happy we are here.

What is the philosophy/idea behind Tender Greens?
The kind of food you would cook if you had the time and skill to shop at your local farmers market and specialty store  And enjoy it in a sophisticated yet uncomplicated setting with friends. It is the "3rd place" between work and home.

How much of the food you use is local?
90% is from California and it's coastal waters. Because of LA's sprawl we source from northern California on cheese, vinegar, and some poultry.

How much of the food you use is organic?
All of our products employ sustainable farming practices. We source organic whenever possible but don't get too caught up in certification as this is more an administrative issue for small farmers than what they can absorb. 70-80% is a good estimate on Organics. Everything is free of pesticide, GMO, hormones, or antibiotics.

On the Tender Greens website you mention using recycled materials and environmentally friendly products. There is a lot of "greenwashing" these days. Can you've us some specific examples?
This is true. Honestly it is hard to sift through the rhetoric on plastics, recyclables. Compostables, etc.  All I can say is we spend more money and thought to the packaging, building, and energy we use than most. Our next move forward is going 100% bottleless at all of our restaurants to cut down on bottle waste and carbon footprint related to packaging and logistics. We look at Whole Foods as a model in this regard.

What is the Sustainable Life Project?
SLP is our non profit aimed at effecting change in kids lives through the interaction with all channels of food production. Our focus is on kids aging out of the foster care program who show an interest in food.

How does the dynamic farming program for foster kids work? Do you have farms in LA? 
We are working in partnership with some other more established organizations to identify needs in care and best practices. We are working with Eric Garcetti's office to develop urban farm spaces in Hollywood with hopes to scale the model throughout the city.

How does Homeboy Industries work with the Sustainable Life Project?
Homeboy is one of the programs we admire and feel we can learn a lot from. We are able to help them by providing job training and placement at Tender Greens

What is your favorite part about being a social entrepreneur in LA?
Participating in positive change in a city that embraces new and innovative ideas. I like to look at the Tender Greens model more as a movement than a business or brand.  Thinking this way keeps the community top of mind. Profit and growth follows organically.

Do you teach organic farming methods?
Yes, composting, crop rotation, proper soil and climate analysis to make sure we are planting properly. Scarborough Farms helps us with the farming. LA helps us with climate.

Do your workers get a share of the food produced?
Our volunteers get first dibs on product. Experiencing food at all stages is paramount to the success of our program.

Click for more on the Sustainable Life Project, or Tender Greens


About the author:

Into traveling and checking out new places.

Follow on twitter