Denyelle Bruno, CEO at Tender Greens
About the Guest
Denyelle Bruno is the President and CEO of Tender Greens, recently featured in the Nation’s Restaurant News 2020 Power List. Tender Greens is a fine casual West coast restaurant concept founded in 2006 that puts an elevated spin on the comfort dishes you love. Prior to joining Tender Greens, Denyelle spent 20 years in retail leadership roles including at Drybar, Apple, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and Macy’s.
“Speed and convenience can play an equal role to quality when diners are in a hurry.” Denyelle Bruno, CEO of Tender Greens shares how to scale and differentiate your restaurant business in a rapidly evolving on-demand world.
From fake meat and robot chefs to ghost kitchens and delivery drones. The restaurant industry is rapidly evolving. Welcome to Food Fighters, bringing you interviews with the leading industry trailblazers. I’m your host, Zach Goldstein.
Welcome back to Food Fighters. Excited today to be here with Denyelle Bruno, President and CEO of Tender Greens. Tender Greens is a fine casual West coast restaurant concept founded in 2006 that puts an elevated spin on the comfort dishes you love. Prior to joining Tender Greens, Denyelle spent 20 years in retail leadership roles including at Drybar, Apple, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and Macy’s to name a few. Denyelle, welcome to the Food Fighters podcast!
Thank you so much for having me!
So, unlike many people in the restaurant industry who have been lifelong Food Fighters, worked their way up from entry level roles at a restaurant, you’ve had a lot of experience in other industries that you bring to your role as a leader of a restaurant chain. Tell us about the decision to come to be President and CEO of Tender Greens and about what drew you in to joining the food fight that is the restaurant world.
Sure. Well, I haven’t been in the restaurant industry through most of my career as you pointed out. I have been a lifelong eater and as a lifelong eater, I’m a big fan of Tender Greens. I was eating Tender Greens for multiple years before joining. And the quality of the food combined with the service and the overall environment was very appealing to me. Tender Greens was always on my radar as a business that was interesting and a place that I thought would be fun to work for.
Well, you are in your second year straight being appointed to the Nation’s Restaurant News Power List. And so, congratulations and clearly you’re doing a lot that’s catching the attention in your role as a CEO at Tender Greens. So let’s talk about Tender Greens. What does fine casual mean to you?
So I think the term fine casual was created to make a distinction between, fast casual and fine casual. And fast casual was really intended to be sort of a better for you version of fast food. So basically you would still get food that wasn’t super processed, but you’d get it very quickly. The difference between fast casual, and fine casual is we serve food that is made from scratch every day. The food we serve is sourced from the same places as five-star restaurants across the country. It’s made fresh from scratch every day by an executive chef who’s trained to prepare food in a non-processed way, so it’s maybe a little bit faster, definitely less expensive than fine dining, but it’s a premium over what I would say is fast casual.
Around competitors. You’ve said nobody’s a competitor, everyone’s a competitor. That sounds like a head spinning place to be. What does it mean for your day to day and for the brand you’re building?
Nobody’s a competitor and everybody is a competitor is a really challenging place to be. So nobody’s a competitor in that there is no restaurant in America that does exactly what we do. We serve food that is made from scratch daily, that is sourced from responsible sourcing. We have executive chefs who are making the food. Nothing in our restaurants is processed. We serve soups, salads, fried chicken sandwiches. Our number one seller is a steak plate. Nobody else in the country can say those things.
When people are hungry and there’s a line out the door, they will quickly look around them to see what else is available and they’ll make compromises. Since the world of third party delivery has become so prominent, very often people will make choices depending on the speed at which they can get their food. So, if I’m looking at my app and I want to order lunch and again, I want Tender Greens, but I see that maybe Panera, can get me the food in 15 minutes, even if I prefer Tender Greens, I still might make that decision just because I can get it faster. So I think it’s a very, very competitive environment in that speed and convenience plays somewhat of an equal role to quality when somebody is in a hurry.
Absolutely. And I mentioned your recognition on, on industry publications like the Power List. There’s a couple things that stand out in those profiles. One is you’re bringing a different approach to restaurants that come directly from your experience outside the industry. So you are a part of a very small team that created the retail experience at Apple opening, I think 20 to 30 stores. You opened 55 locations at Drybar in just three years. What are some of those key elements to scaling those organizations and in completely different industries, in many ways, that you’re bringing to Tender Greens and that, in your opinion, are standing out as a different way of doing business to from what most restaurants are doing.
I grew up in the position of operations. So looking at a business and how the business operates and how to make it more efficient and how to scale it and looking at the systems and the process that get the product from, you know, its original source to the customer is something I think about all the time. That said, I have had the great opportunity to work for some amazing brands and what distinguishes an average brand from an amazing brand is that the best brands are really best at what they do and they don’t compromise. So some people will make the mistake, if they’re looking through the lens of an operator, of compromising some of the things that can be very integral to the, to the brand itself.
If you compromise those things for the sake of scaling the business, you lose the things that make the business special.
And it’s hard in restaurants because the brand is tied to the quality of the product you put out and the consistency of that product and the controls on that consistency come down at the end of the day to, to your people and your systems. How do you think about maintaining and then ultimately growing and transforming your brand at Tender Greens? Because that’s what it sounds like. You want to be the preeminent brand, not just in your space, but in an industry overall and yet you start out when you took over at a very regional store footprint. How are you putting in the culture and the systems to make that leap and decide when is the time to really scale?
At every company I’ve joined in the last 10 years, the company has had the desire to grow across the country. The things that I look at are, what are the nonnegotiable things that can’t change about the business or the product that make the business unique. And I basically set those things aside and they’re not touchable. Then I look at all of the things about the business where there might be opportunity to leverage or optimize. And often those things come down to systemization. Sometimes they come down to technology, sometimes they come down to different types of training because where we don’t want to cut costs are things like the people that are going to be interacting with the customer. We don’t want to be cutting costs on the product itself. So, I either have to look at things like raising the price of that product to make it more optimized or I have to look at different ways that product could be prepared or I have to look at how much of the product we’re buying and find a way to, without compromising the product itself, get more out there at a more profitable price if the unit economics aren’t where they need to be.
And what are those untouchables at Tender Greens? What have you rallied the team around? We have to do these things exceptionally and so these are not places that we’re looking at cutting costs, in fact, we’re leaning into these things.
So I mean in terms of the food quality, we can’t compromise on the food quality. It’s the number one thing that distinguishes us from everyone else.
So that means we are going to continue to buy the highest quality ingredients, which is fine as long as we’re not doing things like wasting the ingredients, which means we’re not making things multiple times, which means that we are doing things in the right quantities, which means that we are preparing the food the way it’s meant to be prepared. All of those details can really add up because if you don’t have the training, if you’re not looking at how much food you’re using or serving, those things all end up in the bucket of food costs, which some people might think, well then you just need to find food that costs less. In my opinion, it’s, you just need the process and systems to make sure you’re maximizing the quality and the cost of the food. So that would be one.
Another is the customer experience. You know, one way of looking at it is if you’re trying to cut labor because it’s expensive, you can cut the number of hours of people that are working. Another way of looking at it is, you can make sure you have an excellent training program so that people don’t leave because it’s training people that costs a lot of money. So instead of cutting hours where somebody might be interacting with the customer, I’m going to cut the hours that I would be using to retrain people.
Yeah and they become self-reinforcing over time. Your people become a strength that reinforced, the food quality becomes something that’s core to your brand. It becomes easier over time, but it’s probably really hard at getting that going at the beginning.
It’s really hard and I’ve learned over the years working in so many consumer-facing retail businesses that the quality of the employee is probably the number one distinguishing factor between a business that’s going to be successful and one that’s not. And again, I’m not just talking about customer service in the way that most people talk about it. I’m talking about getting loyal people, who love what they do, who become good at what they do. Customers get used to seeing them. We don’t have to retrain people over and over again and those kinds of things really end up having a lifelong value associated with them.
So talent is another big thing that I want to get to because you’ve been an outspoken leader on the topic of inclusion in the workforce. You even set a goal that by the end of the year to reach gender parity in the organization and close the promotion gap. This is incredibly important to you, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s actually an advantage to the company. Talk about that and how you set those goals and how you’re putting them into practice and why coming from out the restaurant industry, you felt that it was so important to make that one of your key priorities in the first couple of years of your role.
It’s definitely something that’s always been important to me. Coming into the restaurant industry, I was pretty surprised by the disparity between men and women in the kitchen. In traditional retail, it’s not quite as dramatic. But in a market like the market we’re in today with unemployment at an all time low, labor rates an all time high. If there’s anything as an employer that we’re doing that’s preventing the majority of people from wanting to join the business or to want to be promoted in the business, then we’re eliminating our options for having the best people enrolled. And what I would say in terms of inclusion is, if you have an environment where women feel included and feel like they have the opportunity to grow, not only are you potentially opening up 50% of the population to tap into, but you’re not creating an environment where men don’t want to grow.
And, and I think that’s, that’s the thing that a lot of people don’t get is this isn’t promoting women and including women at the exclusion of men. There are a lot of men who don’t like working in the kind of environments that can be oppressive to women. So the kind of environment where everybody feels like they can thrive and grow, creates a lot of loyalty and creates a bigger talent pool. It’s just economics.
Absolutely. And frankly on the tech side of the business, we see similar gaps that become problematic, not just culturally or because it’s the right thing to do to invest in diversity, but because you are missing out on talent that your organization can’t grow if you don’t have access to that talent. So we see it a lot in our world as well. And I would agree that in the restaurant world, there aren’t as many people shining the spotlight.
You’ve made progress here. So maybe talk about the progress because you’re putting effort against it and you’re actually making an impact. What’s the change that you’ve seen?
Yeah, so at the beginning of 2019, we set out to have gender parity at all management levels in the restaurant. So we have three management levels in our restaurants. We have sous chefs, we have restaurant managers, and we have executive chefs. Our goal was to have 50% parity by the end of 2020. It’s January of 2020 and we’ve already hit that number. And I’d say the primary thing we did was, a year ago, we explained to the whole organization why this was so important, why it was important for the growth of the organization, why it was important to the health of the organization, why it was going to be good for the overall culture of the organization. And everyone got behind it. So it wasn’t a matter of going out and trying to find women versus finding men for roles. It was creating an inclusive environment where more people would raise their hand and the more people who raised their hand and the more people that got promoted, the more people raised their hand, the more people got promoted. I mean, they’re more than 50% of the population is female and I started feeling like, wow, if you know, if you look at culinary school, at least 50% of the graduates are women. So if your organization is primarily employing culinary talent and 50% of your population isn’t female, then there’s a good chance you’re doing something wrong. In a healthy environment, your organization should represent the population as a whole or it should at least represent the population of people who are graduating in that field. It’s not about trying to get more women, it’s about trying to understand why there aren’t already more women in those roles. The fact that it moved so quickly for us indicated to me that it wasn’t about a talent pool. It wasn’t about how do you go out and find these women? It was about creating an environment where they would seek us out and where they would stick around. Like I said, we were able to achieve the goal almost a year early and just as a result of everybody getting on board.
Yeah. I mean I want to focus on one thing you said, which is creating an opportunity for people to raise their hand. And that means finding those leaders who can take the next step within your organization, the ones that are already there. And when people try to solve diversity and inclusion issues, they often look outside their organization. What prompted you to look inside the organization and what are the types of things that allow strong performers to raise their hand comfortably where they may not have done that before?
Tender Greens model is unique in that we have an executive chef who runs every single restaurant, but we are fortunate in that Tender Greens started with a culinary backbone. The business was started by three people who were really deep in the executive chef world, who spent their life at five star restaurants. So they spent a lot of their time with classically trained chefs and when they created Tender Greens they brought people over from five-star restaurants to run the restaurants. Not all of those people are still here, but the amount of culinary talent and capital that we were able to build on as a result of having all of those executive chefs allowed us to develop our own internal training program where if somebody wants to become an executive chef and learn how to make all of the food on our menu, we can teach them within about a year.
So in that year you would go from a sous chef to a restaurant manager to an executive chef. So we’ve already created the technical skills. So if somebody just has the desire, we can help somebody get to that role. So, it’s pretty easy for us to say, look, if you’re passionate about this and you want to learn it, raise your hand and we’ll help you get there. I mean, not a lot of companies can necessarily offer that, but that absolutely allows us to take anybody who’s interested, regardless of who they are, to create an executive chef out of them.
There’s a second element to this, speaking of the role of women in restaurants, which is that women across the country control something like $16 trillion in annual consumer spending power. They play a primary role in decision making for meal time, for themselves and their families. As you think about that, and the importance of the female consumer in your long-term growth, those two things are obviously connected. Having a balanced workforce and serving a balanced population of consumers who are choosing to come to Tender Greens. How have you adapted, or have you…maybe the answer is by having your labor a balanced workforce you naturally adapt, but how do you think about that when you think about women controlling a huge portion of the spending that your business needs to thrive?
It’s kind of mind boggling to me when I imagined that there’s anybody out there selling products without having people as part of the decision making process who are included in that same customer base. I will not go into it now, but being in the beauty industry at different times in my career, it was always shocking to me that there were so many industries that were led by men and where decisions were being made by men when the predominant customer was women. I think you’re seeing a big change to that and if you look at a lot of entrepreneurs these days in the beauty world, a lot of them are women, but that wasn’t always the case. And I think when you’re talking about creating a variety of different kinds of food for different kinds of people, you have to be including those people in the decision making process.
Right. And that’s why I think it is such an important point too to acknowledge the importance that women play in the meal decision criteria because that is actually a business justification for the investment you’re putting into these initiatives around inclusion right there. It is not just the right thing to do. It is your business justification that will be your platform for growth.
Absolutely. It always has been.
So the last topic I want to talk to, is some of the challenges that I think we just hit on one of the major eye-openers coming into the restaurant industry, that there are opportunities to improve the diversity of the people working in industry. Another is that it’s an industry that’s been fairly technophobic — scared of implementing technology and that is not the case obviously in many of the other categories where you, where you’ve spent time. So what’s holding restaurants back from a technology standpoint and what do you think is changing or perhaps needs to change if you were to call out the industry over the last couple of years and over the next several years?
Yeah, I think coming in from outside the restaurant industry was really challenging in a lot of ways because there’s a lot to learn. The restaurant business is really hard. It’s a very technical business on the day to day basis. Coming in from outside the restaurant industry also was beneficial to me, in that, I think I’ve asked some questions that not everybody thinks to ask. Part of what made restaurants amazing historically had nothing to do with technology and so I think the foundation of the restaurant business is, it’s an entrepreneurial business with people who are incredibly creative, who love making great food. Those things are not necessarily consistent with technology and so I think when most of the restaurants out there were mom and pop, there was no real need to focus on technology.
Yeah. If you had great food and you chose your locations fairly well, and you did all of those things with passion, you could build a great brand and doing just those things now might not get you there.
It probably won’t get you there because the restaurant world is incredibly saturated and the customer base is very, very different in terms of their desire for things like convenience. One outcome I think that has resulted in the restaurant world being technophobic is there are a lot of people who, because they’re smart technology people came in and were focused completely on technology and built things like third party delivery. Third party delivery was built by some people who understood there’s a market for people who really want their food delivered at their homes. There’s an entire millennial population that is going to be looking for new restaurants based strictly on convenience. And I don’t think that most restaurateurs saw that coming because again, especially if they’re good, they were focused on the food. And so what ended up happening is, now there’s a bit of a disconnect between things like what people are looking for on their phones in order to order food and what the restaurants are supplying.
At the same time, there’s a handful of restaurants that came out specifically with the intention of being technology companies that made food. There’s a handful of them out there that started growing pretty rapidly and with the combination of people who we know, who know how to build technology and who understand the consumer base of people who want convenient food, that created a competitive environment for the typical restaurant that the typical restauranteur was totally unprepared for. There’s a catch up period happening, but I think it caught it caught folks really off guard. And I think people in the world of technology or even traditional retail executives know a lot about their consumers. They know a lot about the behaviors of those consumers. They know how to get in touch with those consumers, whether it’s social media or building a loyalty platform, etc. but these concepts are all really new to the restaurant world. And so I think there’s definitely pros and cons associated with that, but it’s an incredibly dynamic time. And I think there’s a lot of restaurant operators who are really trying to figure out what to do right now.
Yeah, I completely agree with that. And I think one of the challenges that we have seen is, it’s a margin challenge to business and so immediately people look at costs and technology costs money. And so it’s a scary investment. And historically you’ve been able to buy technology in the restaurant category by just checking the box. I’ve got that thing. But the leaders in the industry are investing heavily, tens of millions of dollars in technology while others are still in that check the box mentality. And I think that’s creating a bigger and bigger gap where historically everyone was kind of in the same boat. Now that’s two roads diverged. You either lean into technology and recognize it costs money and it’s one of those things you can’t cut or you decide it’s not important at, at, at your own peril at this point.
That’s a scary decision for people who spend their careers focusing on the quality of food. If you have a thin margin and you’re looking at what you’re going to be spending your money on and you want to grow your business, the margins are thin, so you’re gonna either spend it on real estate or you’re gonna spend it on food costs or you’re gonna spend it on labor. And in a market with labor at an all time high, there’s not really a choice there. So you’re going to spend a big chunk of it, probably mostly on labor. So then the second thing that most restaurateurs spent it on would be the cost of food. So then this other component comes in that is very, very difficult for them to understand, which is technology. And for a lot of people it feels like they’re placing a big bet. They’re placing a big bet on something that they don’t feel like is improving the quality of the food. And I think that’s, that’s really scary for a lot of people.
Yeah, I think that makes sense. And we have to collectively treat it as, success is defined as a revenue driver, meaning that you are actually delivering better experiences to customers through the use of technology so that they want to come back and long term increase lifetime value, then you can justify the investment but if you think about it as a cost, it’s really hard to think long-term enough.
Well, and at this point it’s table stakes where it isn’t really a choice. Have to hope you can do it all really well.
So last question, cause the, the podcast is called Food Fighters. You bring a perspective that hopefully you’re, you’re still new enough to the restaurant industry that we can consider your perspective, at least partially informed as an outsider, but you’re quickly becoming a restaurant insider. What is the food fight, or the challenges that restaurants are facing today that you think we need to be spending more time thinking about and that is still an unsolved problem in your mind?
I think the biggest challenge for restaurants historically, and even more so today is margins. There’s only so much spending and cost cutting that a business like a restaurant could be focused on. I think if I were to draw out something more controversial, it would be around the customer’s willingness to pay for their experience. If the consumer doesn’t learn more about the impact of these costs on their favorite restaurants, whether it’s, you know, buying the highest quality ingredients or hiring the best people in providing great training or creating a place where people can get their food delivered to wherever they are, as long as the customer stays kind of unaware of those details, we could end up at risk of being in a business with a lot of mediocre restaurants. So in order for great restaurants to stay in business, they’re going to have to start raising prices.
And I think that’s what it’s going to come down to because costs are going up across the board and the only way those costs go down is if you start cutting the food quality and then you end up with a bunch of really average restaurants. So I think the food fight for me would be, especially coming in from outside the restaurants because it’s not something I ever thought about, the food fight for me would be about really being willing to spend money on the kind of food that you want to eat. Don’t get too caught up and you know, promotion codes cause I’m promotion coded every single day. And I think there’s a huge risk to restaurants who are really making group food. They’ll go away and we’ll end up back where we started with, you know, Chinese food and pizza.
I think that’s very insightful and, and it’s hard. It’s a change of pace and it is a look forward as opposed to a look backward. But it is the defining criteria for what will make restaurants successful going forward is doubling down on the stuff that we as consumers want at the end of the day. Truly differentiated dining experiences.
Denyelle, this was great. I very much appreciate the time. We are excited to watch Tender Greens grow nationwide over the next couple of years. So, congrats on all of your progress to date and keep on with your own personal food fight.
Thanks, Zach. Thanks for fighting the good fight.
You’ve been listening to Food Fighters with me, Zach Goldstein. To subscribe to the podcast or to learn more about our featured guest, visit thanx.com/food-fighters. That’s Thanx spelled T H A N X .com/food-fighters. This podcast is a production of Thanx, the leading CRM and digital engagement solution for restaurants. Until next time, keep fighting Food Fighters.