Interview: Tender Greens CEO Denyelle Bruno

An attentive, passionate leader on a mission to achieve gender parity by 2020

Over the last two decades, Denyelle Bruno developed, scaled and enhanced retail operations for Apple, Drybar, Peet’s Coffee & Tea and others. For the tech giant, she conceptualized and launched their first 25 stores; for the hairstyling company, she opened 55. Today, Bruno helms the Los Angeles-based fine-casual restaurant brand Tender Greens. As CEO since mid-2018, she’s helped with strategic expansion and crossed milestone earnings. But for Bruno, it’s not just about balancing numbers, it’s about balancing culture. Bruno aims to reach gender parity among Tender Greens’ executive chefs and store leadership by the end of 2020. It’s among many goals that shake up a food industry forever in flux—one in which Bruno has already formulated many deep insights.

One might not pick up on the through-line between Bruno’s professional background—but it’s what has equipped her to push forward with fervor. “What is the same about all of the places is the consumer,” she says to us. “The same person who would buy an Apple computer would eat at Tender Greens and drink Peet’s Coffee or get a blow out at Drybar. This is a discerning customer who takes pride in their choices.” Bruno considers herself this customer—and that was a motivation in making the move to Tender Greens, where she was already eating two or three times per week when she got the call. “It was a progressive company that had just received an investment to grow. I love scaling brands. It checked all the boxes for me,” she says.

Bruno was quick to learn a hard truth, though. “From a technical standpoint, the restaurant industry is significantly behind others. Whether it’s about customer data or general in-house technology, it is slower.” Regarding customer data, the industry’s greatest development—third party delivery services—actually inhibits restaurants from learning about their consumers.

“I’ve never in my career had someone intercept my customer,” Bruno says. “How do I even deal with that? I know the hotel industry went through this but I was totally not expecting it in food. I became a student of third party services and then quickly realized I knew more about it than anyone else in the industry. People in the restaurant industry were so used to picking up only the information that was provided. It has been a huge disruptor in the business. It’s put a lot of people out of business because of the huge cost associated with it and there’s a dilemma here because many third parties aren’t making money yet.” From margins rising up to 20% and data swapping only occurring if a restaurant promises exclusivity, blockades rise every day.

Perhaps refreshing to hear, however, is that all of Tender Greens’ big investments have gone toward food and food quality. “We are, in the first place, a food company and tech is not even second. We are still working hard to learn about our customers but we are doing it the old fashioned way—by seeing what’s popular. If we launch certain items, more people show up. It’s a little less scientific but it works.” Based on sales growth and new market expansion, this seems to be working just fine.

Tender Greens holds a unique position in the restaurant world. “If you imagine that there are four types of food places—fast food, fast casual, casual dining and fine dining—we sit right in the middle,” Bruno says. “We have the efficiencies of fast food; we’ve got the better-for-you quality of the fast casual out there. But we are also the only ones with a diverse menu that mirrors traditional dining. And we have culinary experts. We have an executive chef at every location. Nobody is our competitor—and everyone is our competitor.”

From inside, the culture flourishes—the hope is that everyone’s voice is heard and Bruno attempts to play to the role of “referee among the brightest minds.” As she explains, “The kind of culture that I hope to create, it is not because I am a woman, it’s because I am trying to think differently about leadership. Until we create cultures that challenge the dominant paradigm—which might be about women or people of color or diversity in age range or sexual orientation—until we have that kind of environment in the market not only are we not going to have the kind of cultures we need, we will not have the products, services or innovations we need.”

“If you do not have people at the table representing the consumer base, you are limiting what the company will do,” she continues. Bruno is targeting leadership and executive chefs because of the present disparity—but her ultimate goal is to remove this as a conversation. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The only way to disrupt it is to create a force greater. Until there is parity, people are going to do what I call ‘casting bias.’ And women will self-select out. Because of these things there’s already an imbalance. I would love to not even have this conversation but we will continue to do so until we’ve reached parity.”

Bruno foresees parity in pay, as well. As far as initiatives to achieve this, Tender Greens will support women in the organization already. “The job here is hard. It requires culinary training and an executive chef, but it’s also a fast-paced environment so finding someone who can handle all of these things is easier through recruiting internally. We have made a concerted effort to focus on, train and develop women who are interested in this. Through voicing our intentions, we’ve already found women who are interested. By saying ‘this is something we are interested in and will be doing’ created interest from women who may have otherwise self-selected out.”

“There are still not enough women CEOs. There are still not enough women executive chefs. There are still not enough women in private equity,” she continues. “We are still zero for 45 on presidents. We have a long way to go.” That said, Bruno is inspired by the number of powerful women who finally feel like they have the voice to express themselves in a way that is not apologetic. And with that she’ll press onward, hopefully into more markets beyond California, Massachusetts and New York, so that others can benefit from what Tenders Greens is up to.

Images courtesy of Tender Greens