This tiny salad chain backed by Shake Shack's founder is about to blow up
Tender Greens is about to blow up.
Earlier this summer, the California-based salad chain received a minority investment from Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack and CEO of one of the most successful restaurant groups in New York City.
Tender Greens told The New York Times it will use the investment to open more restaurants in California and beyond. The chain, founded in 2006, currently has 22 locations in California.
We recently stopped by a Tender Greens' downtown San Francisco location to see what the buzz is about.
"Every now and then," Danny Meyer, who founded Shake Shack, said in a statement, "I'll visit a restaurant and love the idea — the food, the people, the culture — so much that I wish I'd thought of it myself."
"That's exactly what happened with Tender Greens," Meyer said. Earlier this summer, his restaurant company, The Union Hospitality Group, made a minority investment in the fast-casual chain — its first time taking stake in an outside concept.
A box of menus sits just outside the entrance, which makes sense considering the long line of customers I see wind out the door every day during lunch hour.
The menu gives customers a choice of protein — such as herb-brushed albacore or salt-and-pepper chicken dusted with garlic, oregano, and thyme — and asks how they'd like it served: on a sandwich, as a hot plate, or on a salad. All cost $12.
Presentation platters just behind the counter boasted the day's special sides, including roasted corn, rainbow carrots, and a salad comprised of quinoa, summer squash, and watermelon.
These peaches looked drool-worthy. They were used in the day's special Harvest salad, a mix of red and black plums, peaches, and candied almonds over a bed of greens, drizzled with plum vinaigrette.
Further down the counter, I saw hearty slabs of steak, tender barbecue chicken breasts, and fried chicken.
I quickly realized that Tender Greens, despite its herbivorous name, is so much more than a salad joint. And I was very jealous of whomever walked away with this hot plate.
Tender Greens sources the food on its menu from local farmers, ranchers, artisans, boutique wineries, breweries, and coffee roasters — which means the menu varies greatly by location.
There's another reason for the difference in menus, and it involves this guy. This is Chef Todd Renner, executive chef of the downtown San Francisco location.
Every Tender Greens location has its own executive chef, typically with a background in fine dining, who shapes the restaurant's menu based on their culinary influences and preferences.
Renner cut his teeth in craft pizza restaurants and backyard barbecues, after he and a buddy found an old meat smoker in college. He studied at the Italian Culinary Institute, which gave him an affinity for simple seasonings and salami.
His background seeps into the menu. At Renner's suggestion, I ordered a hot plate of salmon over sautéed caponata, a popular Sicilian side dish made of vinegar-sweetened eggplant, roasted vegetables, and capers in a sweet and sour sauce.
Meanwhile, a sizable piece of salmon, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, was tossed onto the grill.
Renner plated the salmon-topped caponata on a beautiful piece of natural wood. This felt far from being a fast-casual experience.
And it tasted nothing like a fast-casual meal would. I was mesmerized. The perfectly cooked salmon, which I mopped in a pesto drizzle on the side, fell apart in my mouth.
And the caponata was, was — I'm still speechless. At first, I mistook the eggplant for morel mushrooms, a five-star dining ingredient, because of their tender, juicy flavor.
Of course, I couldn't leave Tender Greens without trying one of its famous signature salads. They all cost $12.
I opted for the Chipotle Barbecue Chicken salad, which you can find at any Tender Greens location. A chef cut the meat to order.
And I watched another cook slice the tortilla strips. The amount of teamwork needed to execute a single order reminded me of being behind-the-scenes of fine-dining restaurants in New York City.
It was plated on a textured ceramic dish, of course.
Typically when I think "chipotle salad," I imagine a bed of greens drowning in canned corn, black beans, cheddar cheese, and spiced chicken. This masterpiece went beyond ...
Each bite had something new to offer, with romaine hearts, avocado, queso fresco, crispy tortilla strips, green onion, and a cilantro lime dressing. The hint of barbecue in the chipotle chicken was surprising and original.
I took home some desserts, including this dulce de leche coconut bread pudding that was rich but not overly sweet.
Though I ran out of room, these cupcakes also looked divine.
Tender Greens bills its menu as "slow food done fast," and I couldn't think of a more fitting description. Within 10 minutes of ordering, I sat doe-eyed over plates that could easily have emerged from kitchens at one of Meyer's James Beard-awarded restaurants.
So, yes. I will definitely be back. (And no, lovely commenters, Tender Greens did not pay me to write this.)
SEE ALSO: Little-known Mexican-food chain run by former Chipotle exec is ranked best in US
Perhaps one day Tender Greens will be in this ranking of America's favorite fast food restaurants:
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