fresh&co CEO on 'how to get the most bang for your buck' at a salad bar

fresh&co CEO and cofounder George Tenedios.
Courtesy fresh&co

When George Tenedios opened his first fresh&co in March 2010, people didn't even know how to pronounce "quinoa." "Customers were calling it 'keen-oh-ah,'" Tenedios says. (It's more like "keen-wa.")

Tenedios, who often visited California, noticed how many fast-casual restaurants offered high-quality, inexpensive food during his trips. The East Coast, however, lacked on-the-go options that included antibiotic-free meat, organic produce, or sustainable protein alternatives. He was determined to introduce new and "clean" foods on the East Coast that were locally sourced.

His instinct about the growing desire for healthy options proved spot on: In 2011, a week before opening a location near New York University, fresh&co decided to change its pasta bar to a quinoa bar, which Tenedios says was "a huge gamble," but ended up becoming a hit with customers.

Restaurant management is in Tenedios' blood. His father, Steve Tenedios, got his start by making doughnuts with his brother-in-law in Brooklyn. By 1982, he had created a quick-serve mini-restaurant chain called Cafe Metro in Manhattan. Growing up, Tenedios spent his Saturdays working the register and prepping food at his father's business.

With the help of his family, George modernized the Tenedios family's food legacy. His passion for sustainability and sourcing food responsibly has helped fresh&co grow from one restaurant to 19 locations and counting. The company employs 1,100 people and, according to Tenedios, earned $55 million in revenue last year.

Inside fresh&co.
Courtesy fresh&co

The CEO and cofounder spoke with Grow about how "responsible eating" doesn't have to be expensive, and shared a recipe for a healthy, protein-packed keto bowl.

'Avocados don't have to cost extra'

With all the options, salad bars can feel overwhelming. It's easy for what's supposed to be a $9 salad to turn into a $20 one if you don't choose ingredients wisely. To keep your tab low without sacrificing nutrition or taste, Tenedios says to start by substituting expensive animal proteins like chicken for sustainable proteins like kidney beans that are just as nutrient-dense.

Choosing an egg as your salad's protein is another way to save money. At fresh&co, a hard boiled cage-free egg is $1. Adding in Freebird antibiotic-free chicken, by comparison, costs $3.

To ensure your salad is tasty and cheap, Tenedios says to follow this formula: "Add two to three basic ingredients like tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli; add something crunchy like Parmesan crisps; and keep your protein choice simple by adding beans or eggs."

While you might be tempted to add an avocado to your salad for an extra $1, there are ways to sidestep the added cost. "Avocados don't have to cost extra," says Tenedios. Many restaurants offer dressings that are made with avocado, so you can get that creamy taste without upping the price of your salad.

We tried meal prepping and buying lunch to determine which method is best

'In-season' food is worth the investment

At fresh&co, the menu changes four times a year to highlight ingredients that are in season and grown within 100 miles of the restaurant's locations. The chain also partners with local farmers and has even established its own farm.

While buying ingredients that are in-season and organic isn't always inexpensive, Tenedios says eating seasonally is worth it: "When a vegetable is in its peak, it might cost a little more, but you're getting more for your money, because you're getting that product when it is the freshest and tastes the best."

He wouldn't necessarily be able to tell the difference between a sustainably farmed tomato and mass-produced tomato by looking at it, he says. Still, "knowing where your food comes from, and the impact you can have on a local farmer, and the environment means all the world to me."

Eating sustainable, healthy food can save you money

In 2010, fresh&co was ahead of its time and already serving the plant-based protein alternative Beyond Meat. Plant-based protein alternatives are an easy way to save money while helping the environment, he explains: "We're trying to educate our customers and show them they don't always have to choose animal proteins."

Studies support Tenedios' claim. Eliminating meat from your diet can save you at least $750 per year, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. And, according to a new study in the journal Scientific Reports, if everyone in the U.S. were to reduce meat consumption by a quarter and eat substitutes like plant proteins, it would save 82 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions each year.

"Eating responsibly makes sense given the global warming crisis," says Tenedios, and the fact that it can save you money is a bonus.