Giving Life to the Tender Greens Sustainable Life Project

Erik Oberholtzer
Erik Oberholtzer co-founded Tender Greens in 2006 in Culver City, California, a chef driven, organic, quick-casual restaurant concept with 13 locations and counting. Himself a chef, Erik manages a growing team of talent along with some innovative new brands and projects that will positively impact people's accessibility to good food and sustainable lifestyles.

The original idea of Tender Greens was to democratize the local food movement through price point, speed of service, and cooking style. Over the past eight years, we have achieved our goal. Along the way we realized there might be an opportunity to share this lifestyle with a demographic less likely to participate but more likely to benefit if given the opportunity.

The Sustainable Life Project (SLP) has shown that food, farming, and the culinary arts can act as an agent of change in young people’s lives. The young people we work with are at-risk foster youth, ages 17-24. For 12 weeks they visit the Tender Greens farm network, participate in classic culinary arts classes, and intern at one of our restaurants for real world experience. The program has been a great success, with many of the graduates employed full-time at our restaurants. As with Tender Greens, starting SLP had its ups and downs. What have we learned?

In the beginning, we envisioned a farm with living quarters for the youth and counselors. We floated this idea for several months, visited some farms, and even flirted with purchasing land. It was a big idea with lofty goals that never materialized.

Our next attempt to get started was partnering with the City of Los Angeles District 13 and Elysian Valley Neighborhood Council to plant an urban farm in Frog Town, along the LA River. We built a coalition of interested parties, cleared the land for planting, involved our farm partners in Oxnard, and invited the neighborhood to see what we had come up with. Well, they loved it and took it away from us.

Serendipity brought us together with Inner City Arts in Downtown LA. We visited the dreamy arts campus that serves over 10,000 students per year from underserved schools in Los Angeles. We shared our frustrations with starting SLP and they shared their desire to introduce culinary arts to the curriculum.

We pivoted our program that day. Instead of focusing on urban farming, an area we had no expertise or inroads, we would center our program on cooking, an area we had great expertise. Inner City Arts would serve as an incubator for a culinary arts program. Our farm experience would be shared through our farm and artisan network, including Scarborough Farms, Silver Lake Farms, ReRide Ranch, La Brea Bakery, International Marine, Jidori Chicken and Jones Coffee Roasters. On-the-job training would happen at Tender Greens. We enrolled our first class in the fall of 2012.

The program took a tremendous amount of time and energy to launch. We learned not to over complicate or overcommit. The youth are filled with gratitude. Everyone involved is touched by the students’ transformation. But the work does not end after the program graduation. The heavy lift for the students and Tender Greens is to follow these individuals as they navigate the “real world.”

As we continue to refine the program it is this stage we are most focused on. How do we operate the program without disrupting the rhythm of Tender Greens? With the next class, starting in early 2014, we plan to involve more of our team members in the process. Human Resources will help with the application process. Finance will set the students up in their paid internship. Our chefs will divide the duties of culinary classes and mentorship. Past SLP graduates will be assigned to students for support and a means to pay it forward.

Our goal is to break the cycles of poverty and dysfunction through the inspirational power of food. The challenges they face in their neighborhoods won’t go away. What we offer is a way out and a door to a more sustainable, fruitful life and career possibilities. Good food, real food and whole food should not be a privileged experience. We hope to inspire other entrepreneurs to share their knowledge, skill and passion to act as agents of change in their communities.