Q&A with Erik Oberholtzer: His transition from Tender Greens to a creative agency

Written by Antoinette Marie Johnson on February 11, 2019

We are honored to announce Erik Oberholtzer’s partnership with Cohere as an advisor for founders in the food space.

Having Erik join our team is both a privilege and a no-brainer. Food is an essential part of bringing people together, and it’s been a space that Cohere has built expertise.  As an agency we are evolving into not just branding client projects but now advising them in their growth opportunities. Erik’s partnership helps us speak the same language as the food world, bringing our unique value of uniting stakeholders from the local to the global level.

However, this announcement may come as a shock to some, so we wanted to address it head-on with an exclusive Q&A with the man himself.

A brief background

Erik Oberholtzer was born and raised in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, with roots in Philadelphia where he went to Temple University and worked at the Four Seasons. But he truly made a name for himself in the fresh food capital of the world, sunny California. As co-founder of Tender Greens, Erik brought faster, healthier food options to the culinary landscape before “fast casual” was even a term.

Tender Greens represents Erik’s voice; chef-led, craveable menu items served with a genuine smile and authentic brand experience. He and his team grew to 29 locations, earning one of the best partners in the business when they did a deal with Danny Meyer in 2015. Most recently he stepped aside from the CEO role to focus on food system innovations at scale.

Q: WELCOME TO COHERE. WE’RE IMAGINING THAT SOME PEOPLE MIGHT BE SHOCKED THAT YOU CHOSE A CREATIVE AGENCY FOR THE NEXT PART OF YOUR JOURNEY. TELL US HOW THAT DECISION CAME ABOUT.

A: Building Tender Greens from an idea to a national brand absorbed the past fifteen years of my life. With the company now in the capable hands of a new leadership team, I have time to guide the next generation of entrepreneurs through the headwinds of growth. My focus is to help conscious entrepreneurs achieve their holistic goals at scale. Cohere’s strength in aligning stakeholders around a common vision and relating that vision to key audiences is a perfect complement to my skills and experience. My life’s dedication to using food as an agent of positive change in the world lives organically with Cohere’s world view. Together, I believe we can make an incredible impact on the lives of founders, their teams and everyone they touch.

Tender Greens NYC interiors, photo courtesy of Domino Mag

The timing is perfect for both parties to merge and help solve some of our client’s problems at a higher level.

 

Q: ONE OF THE THINGS THAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT YOU IS YOUR PASSION FOR SUPPLY CHAIN INTEGRITY AND FOOD JUSTICE. HOW WILL WORKING WITH OTHER BRANDS HELP YOU DEEPEN YOUR COMMITMENT TO YOUR INTERESTS IN SUSTAINABILITY?

A: We built Tender Greens on the premise that good food, whole food, real food should be available to everyone, not just the one percent. Fifteen years later we have helped influence a category that changed the way people eat.

By working with young brands led by conscious founders, I believe we can help transform people’s relationship with food towards healthier lifestyles and a better planet. If I can help brands align their values with their everyday practices, then we all win. At scale, initiatives like Rodale Institute’s regenerative organic farming or the Food Forever initiative in preserving plant diversity become possible missions rather than moonshot goals. By thinking globally and acting locally, we become guides to a better way for the restauranteur and their consumer.

 

Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROJECTS YOU’RE WORKING ON? WHAT MIGHT WE EXPECT TO SEE FROM YOU IN 2019?

A: As the founder of Tender Greens I continue to advise the team on how to leverage scale, supply chain innovation and menu design to lead the market thoughtfully. At Cohere, we are working with The Butcher’s Daughter in LA and NY to help this amazing team prepare for growth as a plant-based lifestyle brand.

Founder of Butcher’s Daughter, Heather Tierney, photo courtesy of Butcher’s Daughter

I am inspired by Heather’s view on food as medicine and design to hug us with each visit. Another project we are excited about is the collaboration between the Rodale Institute and Pocono Organics in Pennsylvania.

Pocono Organics is an upcoming 93-acre farm adjacent to the Pocono Raceway will be the largest certified regenerative organic farm in the country. With a planned discovery center, event space and studio kitchen we believe this could be a transformational experience for the 120,000 Nascar and Indy fans visiting on race weeks along with the thousands of tourist vacationing the Poconos throughout the year.

 

Q: SOME OF THE ENDEAVORS YOU ARE INVOLVED WITH SEEM LIKE MOONSHOT IDEAS. HOW DO YOU HOPE THESE INITIATIVES HELP INFORM THE BRANDS YOU’RE WORKING WITH?

A: When John F. Kennedy announced America’s intention to put a man on the moon it was a call to action. When the United Nations designed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals they challenged the thought leaders of the world to align around 1 goal in a pledge of action. It is in this pledge of action that I will look to influence the company I founded in 2006, Tender Greens, along with the brands we advise to build their business into responsible action agents of global change.

Recent partnerships include The Crop Trust, a global nonprofit focused on preserving crop diversity and protecting food security.

Each brand added to the list of change agents draws us closer to the moonshots necessary to change the world.

No matter how big or small, every business has a role to play in the future of our planet and the 9 billion people on it. I am here to do my part by working with the most enlightened young entrepreneurs in food to guide us towards better.

 

Q: YOU’RE KNOWN FOR CRAFTING YOUR “TEN YEAR PLAN”, EVEN NAMING YOUR BUSINESS TYP AND CRUSHING THE GOALS YOU AND YOUR CO-FOUNDERS OUTLINED FOR YOURSELF. WHAT ARE SOME WAYS OUR COMMUNITY CAN LEARN FROM THAT?

A: TYP or Ten Year Plan is another way of “taking the long view”. For Tender Greens, we were clear from the beginning that we planned to build a 30 unit California brand over the course of a decade. A brand founded and lead by chefs. Chefs with an intense commitment to local ingredients aligned with our sensibilities. Chefs who honored the lessons of refined technique to create craveable food for daily enjoyment. As I contemplated my next TYP I wrote it in the form of a New York Times article. In ten years what would I want a New York Times profile on me and my work to sound like? When a person or brand has clarity on this “true north,” then it all comes down to tactics and execution. That is the hard part.

Among the founders we’re working with,  Michelle Gauthier of Mulberry & Vine, photo courtesy of Inc.com

When I begin work with founders I ask two questions. The first is – “What would you like the New York Times headline on you and your brand to say?”

By writing this article on your future successful self/brand you set the intentions of your WHY? or true north and HOW? or the Google Maps to get there.

I then ask for a journal entry. This is a founder’s mind dump. What keeps you up at night? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What plays over and over again in that monkey brain of ambition, fear, anxiety, passion and impulse during your commute? All of that shared in a cathartic journal entry to gauge where you are at today. Then we link the two with strategy, tactics and what I call founder’s therapy. The rest is execution.

 

Q: ANY OTHER QUESTIONS WE SHOULD ASK?

A: Coming back to “Why Cohere?” Antoinette and her team are filled with youthful energy, digital nativism and a clear connection to the culture now emerging with intense influence. I represent the tail end of the previous class of influence. My wisdom, experience and analog romanticism married to Cohere’s talent in story, connection and stakeholder cohesion fills me with optimism for a better future. Together we can help brands and institutions achieve their full potential and build healthier communities along the way.