Temple Gallery of Success Award Winner Shares Secrets of His Success
By: Nick Santangelo
Fast-casual restaurants offer healthier, higher-quality meals than fast food restaurants do without the sit-down service and expense of casual dining restaurants. For Temple University College of Liberal Arts (CLA) students, that translates to on-campus options like Crisp and Chipotle.
But for Erik Oberholtzer, CLA ’91, there’s more to it than that. Oberholtzer has built a fast-casual empire on the back of his passions for sustainability and investing in people. The CLA Psychology graduate is the founder of Tender Greens, a popular California-based fast-casual chain that’s begun expanding to the East Coast. For his success with Tender Greens and his affiliated Sustainable Life Project charity, Oberholtzer won a 2018 Temple Gallery of Success Award.
Tender Greens’ nutritious meals tend to cost around just 12 bucks, which seems like a bargain. Oberholtzer, who recently visited CLA and spoke with Environmental Studies students about sustainability, has said in the past that it’s possible thanks to high-volume sales (30,000 customers are fed daily) and great partners. But there has to be more to it than that, doesn’t there?
“I had come out of fine dining as a chef,” says Oberholtzer, “but I had also come out of Philadelphia, Temple in Pennsylvania, which I always would joke, ‘Philadelphia is always in a state of recession,’ and there's something about both work ethic and living within your means that's instilled both in the city and on this campus.
“It really—it sort of inspired me to be the chef of the people versus just the one percent. And I had to learn how to navigate the supply chain and develop menus and a brand that was relatable and affordable and profitable.”
By making good supply chain decisions, Oberholtzer is also able to support responsible farmers and back sustainable agriculture. It’s all part of his life’s ambition to promote and provide healthier, better, sustainably sourced meals.
it sort of inspired me to be the chef of the people
Today, there are a number of fast-casual chains with similar goals. But that wasn’t so when the chef and entrepreneur founded Tender Greens, and there remains no shortage of restaurants selling cheap, unhealthy meals made through industrial production methods. In a 12th floor Anderson Hall class, an Environmental Studies student wants to know what can be done about that. Is it a cultural issue? A business one? A political one?
Oberholtzer responds that any CLA student who wants to make a difference needs to be prepared to work—and work hard—for more than 40 hours a week. He also notes that businesses and politicians respond to cultural changes, not the other way around. It’s true that meat will continue to be produced through an industrial process so long as consumers demand a 99-cent burger, but “policy follows culture,” says Oberholtzer. “Policy doesn’t shape culture.”
Speaking of which, Tender Greens’ internal culture is one that’s supportive of its people. Its policy is to pay people highly competitive wages and to foster career growth. To the Temple grad, it feels like the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business.
“We pay our farmers fair prices and give them the margins to thrive,” he explains. “Our employees, it’s not just what you're paying an employee when they start, but it's also creating a path for growth and development so that everybody knows what their potential journey is.
“And then along that journey they're getting paid. They're not getting squeezed, they're not getting abused, because I had come up through a restaurant industry that was somewhat abusive, and that helped shape me as a leader and as an entrepreneur to create a better environment.”
Oberholtzer also works with those who most need this sort of career help through his charity. The Sustainable Life Project reaches at-risk youths aged 17-24 and tries to help them build a future for themselves before they end up in jail or homeless. They’re given Tender Greens jobs that come with training, paychecks, access to healthy food and a work environment that Oberholtzer describes as family-like.
We pay our farmers fair prices and give them the margins to thrive
The inspiration for the Sustainable Life Project goes all the way back to Oberholtzer’s days as a CLA student. Looking out a window in the ‘80s, he saw what would become the tallest Philadelphia building at the time, Liberty Plaza, going up. But he also looked around North Philly and saw homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. When he moved to Venice Beach, Calif. to start Tender Greens, Oberholtzer saw the same disparity and decided to do something about it. Now, the Sustainable Life Project provides alternative paths for kids he says previously “had no paths at all.”
But back on the Temple Main Campus, Oberholtzer sees kids with many paths—if only they’ll reach out and take one of them.
“I think it's important for students here to know that they're in a place that if they really take advantage of it, it'll pay dividends for the rest of their lives, but they have to be active participants in the journey.”