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How The Seamless Era Is Changing Restaurant Design

At a difficult time for chain restaurants, Tender Greens is taking a different approach to fast-casual.

Tender Greens’ newest location in Los Angeles’s Century City neighborhood is pure Instagram bait. Every corner of the fast-casual restaurant offers a picture-perfect moment: the black-and-white tiled floor, the theater of chefs cooking in an open kitchen, graphic artwork on the blonde-wood walls, and an outdoor dining area outfitted with a crimson banquette and potted cacti. The menu–made with local ingredients–changes daily and is created by a chef trained in fine dining, but at a cost well below that of a white-tablecloth establishment. All of these details are in service of one thing: earning your repeat business.

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[Photo: Bethany Nauert/courtesy of Tender Greens]
In the era of Seamless, Fresh Direct, and Uber Eats, there’s a fierce battle over who will fill your belly. Tender Greens is hungry as ever to best its competition and turn you into a devotee. Beyond its food, strong design and experience-driven architecture are its secret weapon.

“We’re no longer just competing with restaurants in our category or beyond,” Erik Oberholtzer, CEO and cofounder of Tender Greens, says. “We’re competing with Whole Foods, Amazon, the delivery-only brands out there, and the Blue Aprons of the world. So we need to stay very mindful of why people come to our restaurant in the first place, beyond the transaction of, ‘I’m hungry and need something to eat so I’m going to stop off here.'”

[Photo: Bethany Nauert/courtesy of Tender Greens]
When Tender Greens opened its doors in 2006, the dining landscape was very different. Though popular now, fast casual restaurants–think Chipotle, Shake Shack, and Boston Market–weren’t mainstream. An emphasis on locally grown ingredients might be found at a fine dining restaurant, but not at affordable eateries. Now, a number of businesses flaunt the provenance of their food, like Sweetgreen and Dig Inn. To place an order in the past, you might walk in or make a phone call. Now there are dozens of apps and delivery services that let you get your meal. Back in the early 2000s, the most influential reviews were likely from respected food blogs or magazines; now they’re on Yelp or your Instagram feed. A restaurant has to work equally well for a person in a rush grabbing a meal to go at lunch, someone who wants a pleasant sit-down dinner, or a person ordering online.

“It’s not one size fits all anymore,” Oberholtzer says.

Meanwhile, the business landscape is changing, too. In the early 2000s, Wall Street set its eye on the restaurant industry and began investing billions of dollars into this sector. The restaurant growth rate is double that of the American population. According to a New York Times report, businesses are struggling as a result. People are still going out to eat, but since they have so many options restaurant profits are spread more thinly. This summer, Bloomberg declared the fast-casual boom is over.

[Photo: Bethany Nauert/courtesy of Tender Greens]
“There was nothing that looked and sounded like Tender Greens 11 or 12 years ago,” Oberholtzer says of the company, which received investment from Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. It currently has 25 locations in California and is embarking on an East Coast expansion. “Now there are so many brands out there that are trying to do what we’ve been doing for a long time. In many cases their names are similar. We wanted to differentiate ourselves through design as an opportunity to provide a different window into the brand, but not changing the brand.”

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Recently, Tender Greens hired branding guru Paula Scher to update the company’s visual identity. She did away with the company’s original logo–a wordmark of its name rendered in a free script font with an illustration of arugula–and created a bright-red symbol based on the letter “G.” She also pinpointed what the brand as a whole should revolve around: chefs. Each Tender Greens location is chef-run and they have control over the daily menus. Go to one Tender Greens for lunch and you’ll find different daily specials than the one across town.

[Photo: Bethany Nauert/courtesy of Tender Greens]
A year ago, Tender Greens hired its first in-house interior designer, Brooke Spreckman, who is overseeing the company’s expansion. The Century City location–done in collaboration with L.A. designer Kelly Wearstler and architecture firm Ware Malcomb–is the first complete project of hers to open and the first new location since the rebrand. “She just turned 26 and she brings this amazing, youthful, millennial-design point of view,” Oberholtzer says. “It’s almost like having your kids come home from college and tell you what’s cool. I credit her with the design migration and only credit us with having the discipline to stay out of her way and not squash her creative juices. We have a point of view, but we try not to stifle her.”

Each Tender Greens location is designed to fit into its context–the neighborhood, the building, the local culture–through the artwork it hangs on the walls, the finishes it uses, and its configuration. While there will be consistent moments in every restaurant that ties it back to the main brand–like the strategic use of its colors–the rest is at the discretion of Spreckman and the local designers she hires.

[Photo: Bethany Nauert/courtesy of Tender Greens]
When Tender Greens first opened, customers waited in two lines to get their food. First, to place their order verbally, and second to pay. “It was a trainwreck,” Oberholtzer says, pointing out that customers were willing to wait 20 minutes in lines 70 people deep. These days, that type of patience on the part of customers doesn’t exist. At Century City, customers can walk in and order, or place their orders ahead of time online or through a new mobile app. They can also place orders with a third-party delivery service, like Postmates. To streamline service, the to-go customers and walk-ins have two separate lines. This division extends to the kitchen as well: One line of cooks handles walk-in orders and the other handles order aheads. The company wants you to see how everything is made, so the space is visually open and diners are usually within eyeshot of the chefs.

Tender Greens is just as popular at dinner as it is at lunch, which poses a conundrum. At lunch, customers tend to want something fast, while dinnertime guests want a more relaxed experience. Oftentimes, restaurants that are open all day but receive lunch rushes are designed to accommodate lines, not sit-down diners. “We can’t design spaces for huge queues at lunch that look like empty, uninviting rooms at dinner,” Oberholtzer says.

[Photo: Bethany Nauert/courtesy of Tender Greens]
At the company’s forthcoming El Segundo location, the architects took advantage of a chef’s table experience. During lunch, it can be used as counter space to place to-go orders and at dinner it becomes a bar area where people can sit down and converse with the chef. “The magic and the energy of the restaurant is centered around the kitchen,” Oberholtzer says. “There’s a sense of community and it’s personalized. I think that’s one big design element that, if it works according to plan, will be the hottest seat in the house. With the right personality, a chef can command an audience and serve delicious food, like any good bartender or old-school guy at a deli.”

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For its inaugural New York location–which will also have a chef’s table experience and is set to open next year–Tender Greens is working with the Brooklyn firm Carpenter & Mason, who’ll tailor the space to the city’s style while also ensuring it can keep up with a customer volume far higher than what the company has had to accommodate thus far. This space will have two separate lines, a 14-foot-long shelf for grab-and-go orders, and a new online ordering system.

Tender Greens is also opening its first Boston location next year, and is eyeing locations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Oberholtzer also wants to expand to Texas and Chicago. The brand has recognition in Southern California, but it faces a steep road ahead in regions that are already saturated with fast-casual options. However, he’s confident the brand’s approach–impressive and unique interior architecture, different menus at every location, impeccable graphic design, outstanding experiences, and no cookie-cutter formula–will sustain growth in an uncertain industry. “Because we’re chefs, we get bored with ourselves,” Oberholtzer says. “We just want to blow peoples’ minds.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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