Free Range

Dishing Tender Greens and smart farming with Manhattan Beach’s Matt Lyman

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  • Written by
    Kelly Dawson

After a childhood spent raising chickens and growing corn, Tender Greens cofounder Matt Lyman has made a career of championing freshly farmed food. As Tender Greens marks a grand opening in the South Bay, Matt discusses how his upbringing continues to influence the way he views what he takes from the land. 

You grew up on a farm in Maryland?

Matt Lyman: I did. I moved there when I was 6 and lived there for about 13 years. It was every bit a real farm as what people’s perspectives of a farm would be. We raised a cow for beef every year, we had chickens almost every year, grew corn … all of those things.

How did that influence your view of food?

ML: Growing up on a farm, I had a connection to all the food that we’d see year after year. It was a ritual every evening in the summertime to pick corn, shuck them and throw the husks over the fence so that the cows could eat them. Then we’d go inside with the corn so that my mom could cook dinner. I have many of those types of childhood memories. 

Your first jobs out of culinary school were at high-end restaurants, like at One Pico where you met the other two founders of Tender Greens . What did you guys want to accomplish when you came up with the idea?

ML: We were looking for a place to go that would offer us the same experience we had at our jobs without the cost and inaccessibility. We wanted a casual place, where you didn’t have to have someone come to valet your car. 

At the time, was a locally sourced menu considered out of the box?

ML: Completely. It’s always been our tradition to partner with small farmers or fishermen at every opportunity. I don’t believe that thinking was applied to the fast-casual space before, and it made perfect sense to us. Certainly our partnership at Scarborough Farms left some people scratching their heads and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” 

Yeah, I think it’s much more common to think that way now.

ML: I think that the food industry in general is caring more about where the food comes from and who is growing it. People want to know, “Are you using fertilizer or are you not? What are your practices when it comes to water consumption?” People care about the story behind their food, and what they’re putting in their mouths. 

Do you think Tender Greens has also evolved since it first opened in 2006 in that regard?

ML: Our offerings haven’t necessarily evolved. The challenge is when you start to open five or 10 or 20 of these locations. Farmers aren’t built for that kind of volume. Maintaining those relationships and having farming models keep up with our growth is our biggest challenge. 

What is Tender Greens doing to minimize its impact on the land as it grows?

ML: We have a lot of conversations with our farmers about what they’re growing for us. We used to say that living in California was a bonus, because you could grow things year-round. But without much water, that’s a challenge unless things start to turn around. We’re giving some thought to going out of state and how that can potentially involve a seasonal location. But how do we maintain freshness? So what we’ve started to explore is indoor—or aeroponic—growing methods. About five of our locations have aeroponic towers, which use about 90% less water than traditional farming methods. I have one at my house, and my kids and I will go on the roof and we’ll pick peppers or my daughter will pull lettuce leaves off and eat them. Growing up on a farm and trying to create that experience for my kids is not quite the same as when you live in the city. But for my daughter to learn that these things are living feeds her mind. 

With those towers, customers can see what they’re eating too? 

ML: Absolutely. There’s probably a three-week turnaround for the plants. They grow pretty fast, and it’s very cool. It’s rewarding for the chefs too, that they can grow some interesting things for specials on the menu. We’re growing everything. There’s peppers, cucumbers, watermelons, tomatoes, lettuce, herbs … it’s limitless. 

Will the towers be at the new Torrance location?

ML: They will. There’s going to be about 15 towers. 

I know that you’re a South Bay resident, and you’re probably well aware of the fact that locals here are enthusiastic about sustainable eating. Do you have any suggestions for people who want to eat well at home—and not just at Tender Greens? 

ML: I struggle with that too. I’m busy, and I have two kids. Replicating Tender Greens at home is a challenge. I still cook three or four nights a week at my house, and I make the most of vegetables. I have a lot of conversations with my kids about where plants come from and that animals have value. I want them to respect what’s on their plate, and that’s a learning process. At the same time, I think people are going to be excited about a new type of food that’s close to home in the South Bay. Tender Greens’ focus is going to be on families who need to eat a fast, healthy meal.