To travel to her job at the Walnut Creek casual restaurant Tender Greens, Caridad Johnson commutes by BART and by bus from her Hayward home, an hour and 45 minutes each way.
That’s a long way to go for a restaurant job, but there’s a reason that Johnson makes the extra effort. She is part of what’s called the Sustainable Life Project, a program to help former foster kids gain experience and skills in the food service industry.
“I grew up in and out of the foster system in the Bay Area,” said Johnson, 19. “And I was getting in trouble.”
Instead of getting in trouble on this day, Johnson, who goes by Cari, was blanching spinach to make ravioli filling with English peas, mint and feta. She had already made the dough which was resting. Later she would roll it out and fill it.
“This program caught my attention because I had worked with food before,” she said. “My family cooks and it’s in my blood to do it. I grew up cooking whatever was being cooked.”
According to Sean Eastwood, executive chef at Walnut Creek’s Tender Greens and Johnson’s boss, there’s a large gap that exists once foster children age out of the system at 18, and before they turn 21.
“At age 18 there’s often nothing for these kids to do, they have no structure,” said Eastwood. “Having a place to live is first and foremost and then food.”
Having a steady job, of course, helps, especially when one is learning a skill that can help them going forward. “We are providing them with an environment where they can succeed,” said Eastwood, “where they start dishwashing and learn how to show up on time and how to integrate into the systems we have.”
As a successful restaurant group, the Tender Greens management was often asked to donate to charities, and rather than do that, they developed this program.
“They didn’t want to give money to allow charities to do what they wanted to do, they want to engage with people directly, by offering them a vocation and a way of life. Not just simply providing them with funds, but teaching them a skill they can take and use,” said Eastwood.
So far, about 30 people like Johnson have gone through the Sustainable Life Project, with a few not completing the program. Eight graduates now have full-time jobs with Tender Greens.
Johnson says she hopes to parlay her time at the restaurant into a full-time job, and then perhaps open a café of her own some day.
Tender Greens has 23 locations and there are six more in the works, most of them in Southern California, with two new ones in San Francisco, one on King Street and one in the Financial District. Like many of the chefs running Tender Greens restaurants Eastwood has a fine dining background. The native Englishman is classically trained and has worked in such places as Kokkari in San Francisco and the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay. While working with Chef Laurence Jossel of Nopa, he fell in love with Mediterranean food, and he now brings that influence to Tender Greens.
“The cooking of Northern California is synonymous with that style, and it’s found in the identity of Tender Greens,” said Eastwood. “I bring a lot of Mediterranean influence, since that’s my passion.”
As for why he gave up fine dining for a restaurant where most entrees are under $12, he said, “I think every single person is entitled and should be exposed to fantastic food at an affordable price.”
That’s a mission that he shares with the company’s founders: serving “great food prepared with passion and skill, and great quality ingredients at an affordable price,” he said.
The business model works, Eastwood said, because the restaurants are located in high-traffic spots; each one serves up to 600 people a day.
Tender Greens is a pioneer in the new movement of fast food chains using high quality ingredients. Most of their produce comes from local farms in the Walnut Creek location. Large photographs of farmers who grow the food they serve decorate the walls with short anecdotes from the farmers in their own words – and all the meat is humanely-raised without antibiotics.
Johnson plans to attend Lainey College in the fall and she also intends to keep working at Tender Greens.
In her short time there she has learned about new vegetables like Romanesco. She is also learning about marketing via social networks. The restaurant posts photos of its specials on Instagram and Johnson’s photos are often those that get posted.
Eastwood asks employees to research new dishes or specials on the menu and share that information with other employees so everyone will be informed if customers have questions about the dishes.
“Cari does a lot of research and tells everyone what it’s about,” said Eastwood. “By educating others about it she’s also educating herself.”
Bay Area Tender Greens are at 1352 Locust Street in Walnut Creek, and at 30 Fremont St., and 266 King St., both in San Francisco.