Life skills with a side of kale: Helping homeless youth one salad at a time

Why We Wrote This

For homeless youth, employment is critical to independence, but the barriers are incredibly high. Restaurant chain Tender Greens offers opportunities for at-risk youth and a model for other eateries. 

Laura Cluthé/The Christian Science Monitor
Erik Oberholtzer (far l.), co-founder of Tender Greens, stands with regional chef Todd Renner (center l.) and two employees at its Chestnut Hill, Mass., location. The chain offers an internship program that teaches culinary skills to young homeless people.

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At first glance, Tender Greens is like any other health-forward, fast-casual restaurant: trendy industrial-chic décor, a hip red logo, and a menu laden with of-the-moment ingredients like ancient grains, pickled golden raisins, and baby lacinato kale. But behind the counter, things are different. Since 2009, Tender Greens has operated Sustainable Life Project (SLP), an internship program that teaches culinary skills to homeless people, many of whom have aged out of the foster-care system. The program offers a path to full-time employment, and it gives participants, like Josh Saurbier, a sense of family and belonging. Mr. Saurbier lived on the streets and in shelters for much of his life. He met Tender Greens CEO Erik Oberholtzer at a shelter event that would change his life. Saurbier has now been with Tender Greens for almost six years. “Erik was literally one of the first people who was there for me after my mom died, and I can’t put into words how grateful and thankful I am for that,” he says. “I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him.”

When Josh Saurbier’s disabled mother died in the hospital six years ago, he didn’t know what would come next. They had been homeless, sometimes living in motels, sometimes at the side of a Los Angeles freeway.

Now he was all alone.

At the hospital, a social worker handed him a number for a shelter that offers young people who are homeless a safe place to sleep. So he checked in.

At an event there a few months later, he met Erik Oberholtzer, at the time chief executive officer of the restaurant chain Tender Greens, who would soon give him an opportunity that changed the trajectory of his life.

“Erik was literally one of the first people who was there for me after my mom died, and I can’t put into words how grateful and thankful I am for that,” Mr. Saurbier says. “I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him.”

Saurbier is a graduate of the Sustainable Life Project (SLP), an internship program at Tender Greens designed by Mr. Oberholtzer that teaches culinary skills to young homeless people, many of whom have aged out of the foster care system. The program also offers a path to full-time employment, but maybe even more important, it gives the young participants a sense of belonging and family.

Scope of the challenge

Since it began in 2009, SLP has helped 56 young people gain traction and employment. This may sound like a small total, considering that the number of unaccompanied homeless people between the ages of 18 and 24 in the United States last year was about 36,000, according to an estimate by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Still, Oberholtzer’s vision and the commitment of the staff to the program are notable, especially given the myriad obstacles that stand in the way of young adults who are struggling to find and keep a foothold in life.

“One of the most important factors in preventing young people from returning to the criminal justice system or continuing to face additional barriers is employment,” says Lisa Small, a former senior manager of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce’s Smart Justice program, which addresses challenges for at-risk unemployed youth. “In addition to that, we see how successful mentorship is, and the [Tender Greens] program is really that one-on-one mentorship while giving hands-on, real world work experience.”

At Tender Greens, a six-month paid internship starts with dishwashing or busing. If an intern continues to show up on time and works hard, he or she might graduate to food prep or another integral station in the restaurant. At the end of the six months, if an intern is up to standards, an offer is extended for a full-time job.

Oberholtzer co-founded Tender Greens in California in 2006 with two other fine dining chefs. They shared a vision for creating a fast-casual restaurant with a seasonally inspired menu, affordable to the masses. In food-conscious California, the restaurant – with dishes featuring ingredients such as ancient grains, pickled golden raisins, and baby lacinato kale – was an immediate hit.

Today there are 26 Tender Greens restaurants in California. The business now has its sights on East Coast development with a location in New York City and two in the Boston area – one newly opened and the second poised to launch in November.

Not part of the plan

Developing an intern program for young homeless people wasn’t part of the restaurant’s original vision, says Oberholtzer, sipping a green smoothie on the patio of the Tender Greens restaurant in Chestnut Hill, Mass. But when he volunteered for an organization that provides mentoring and life-skills training for homeless youth, he realized he could offer them structure, focus, and connection at his restaurant.

“I made a commitment to try and break cycles, not just feed the symptoms. And as I got to know these kids a bit more, it became clear that there were a few that were just on the verge of getting off the streets. They just needed a break,” Oberholtzer says.

Figuring out a program that got results took some doing. At first, the interns were excited to learn new skills and earn a paycheck, but they stopped showing up.

“One by one we’d see them finding their stride, weaving into the restaurant culture, and then something would get in the way – sometimes it was mental health, whatever led them to the streets in the first place – that pulled them back,” Oberholtzer says.

After several iterations, including a stint where Oberholtzer mentored as many as eight interns at a time through a kind of culinary school, Tender Greens has forged what it believes is a successful approach: Partner nonprofits first vet potential interns, and then a full-time intern manager, who is available 24/7 to help if someone has a crisis or simply needs a lift to work, monitors their progress.

“When I heard about Tender Greens giving at-risk kids an opportunity to have a paid internship to learn how to work in a restaurant, and if they handled it, hired them into a job full time, I was like ... this is just what the world needs,” says Kevin Faist, who manages the SLP program. Mr. Faist left a job in a youth program for Homeboy Industries, one of the largest gang rehabilitation organizations in the country, to join Tender Greens.

One of his first steps was to scale down SLP to ensure that each intern had enough attention and support.

“People need to remember that there are tons of people in this world who are one opportunity away from being successful,” Faist says. “Erik saw a need, and he grabbed it. I think if more people had that attitude, we could do some really wonderful things.”

Saurbier was used to doors being closed when he was homeless with his mother. Shelters wouldn’t take them in because his mother was in a wheelchair and unable to care for herself. Nursing homes also didn’t work out. When she died when he was nearly 20, he was too old for the foster care system, but years of caring for her full time had kept him from earning a high school diploma.

Today he has been with Tender Greens for almost six years, working his way up to sous-chef/assistant manager in California, New York, and now Massachusetts. He acknowledges he still has “personal challenges” but is quick to add that his work training new managers and sharing his story to inspire others is immensely satisfying.

“I love that feeling when you see that someone has learned something from you.... They are sustainable now, because you helped them get through a hard time” and now they are in a better place, Saurbier says.

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[Editor's note: In July, Oberholtzer stepped aside as the restaurant chain's CEO, though he still has the title of executive chairman.]

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