Interview: Ben Friedman and Brad Gillis

The Sandwich Environmentalists

Childhood friends Ben Friedman and Brad Gillis, co-founders and co-CEOs of Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop, are on a mission: Change the food system for the better. Forbes recently took notice, landing Friedman a spot on the esteemed 30 Under 30 Food & Wine list. Homegrown serves up sandwiches made with organic produce and hormone- and additive-free meats and cheeses. The flagship store opened in Seattle in 2009, and now there are locations in Bellevue, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Sammamish Plateau, and Redmond. On the Eastside, the business is growing, literally, at Sprouting Farms in Woodinville, a small-acreage organic farm owned by Gillis and Friedman that supplies seasonal produce for menu items at the shop’s 10 locations.

20140903_FarmtoTable-Homegrown_291Their fast-casual, environmentally conscious message is spreading: In June, Homegrown will open four new locations in the San Francisco Bay area. To celebrate, Gillis and Friedman are hitting the road, packing up a VW van and driving down the coast, stopping to visit local producers and purveyors on their way to San Francisco.

Friedman and Gillis shared a bit about what they stand for, how they operate the restaurant, and what they love about the 425.

Q. What is your overall food philosophy?
Friedman: Our philosophy about food is obviously emphasizing the importance of local. I think that local is super important, but I think that most produce is as local as it can be. Obviously there are food items (on our menu) that aren’t grown in Washington. We want to deliver the tastiest, most delicious sandwiches and soups we can. We want to be additive-free.

Gillis: Organics are also stressed throughout our menu… including the produce that comes from our farm on the Eastside.

Friedman: Our mission from day one has been to affect positive change on the food system … a phrase that we use is “growing with purpose.”

Q. What is your model for sourcing ingredients?
Friedman: Our sourcing model has really been crafted around transparency — we know what is in our food. We know for sure there’s no pesticides or herbicides used in our food. Beyond human health, there’s animal welfare as well. The health of us as eaters, the health of the environment, and there’s what we describe as farm health.

Brad: We don’t want the farm workers to interact with those nasty chemicals.

Q. How do you find producers to work with?
Friedman: We have a culinary director (Steve Corson). He’s out there every day tasting local food, tasting local products. Once we’ve established a brand and presence like we have, farmers are knocking on our door.

Q. How did you get into the restaurant business?
Friedman: We wrote the business plan for Homegrown during our senior year of college, so we just jumped right in. It’s funny to think about, but we 100 percent credit our naiveté for giving us the confidence to think we could change the food system.

Q. What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
Gillis: Smoked ham, egg, and cheese.

Q. You strive to stock recyclable and compostable items; what is the importance of green living?
Gillis: I think it goes back to healthy people, healthy Earth, healthy farms. We’re trying to be stewards of the environment as much as we can. It doesn’t get talked about as much, but it’s definitely a tenant of our brand. It can really impact what products we carry. It definitely goes into product selection.

Q. What advice do you have for people just getting started in the restaurant industry?
Gillis: Understand your target market, and seek as much market validation for your product as you can before opening.

Q. What do you love about the 425?
Gillis: It seems like there’s a lot of really distinct communities. We think of our stores as part of the community, rather than just a retail outlet.

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