Evergreens buys Portland rival

Above: PR photo of the folks behind Garden Bar, which is being taken over by Evergreens. But Before I tell you that story, I’m going to tell you the story of Homegrown.

If you’d asked me even a couple of years ago about the future of “local” and “healthy” and “fast-casual” restaurants, I would have pointed to an ambitious chain called Homegrown, which had big plans to leap-frog Oregon and expand into the Bay Area.

They were longtime friends from Mercer Island, attending college in Boston. Ben Friedman was getting a degree in advertising and marketing at BU, Brad Gillis in environmental studies at Bowdoin, and in their conversations about what they wanted to do next, one of the things that kept coming up was Seattle’s particularly keen awareness of environmental issues. But that sensitivity didn’t seem to extend to restaurants.

“We saw that people were committed to buying local and organic at the grocery store,” says Friedman, “but it was harder to keep that commitment when you went out to eat.” Says Gillis, “You shouldn’t have to give up your food ideals when you leave your home. Even for something as simple as a sandwich.”

Sandwich! That was it. They would open sandwich shops, but sandwich shops with an environmental conscience, made with sustainably grown, locally sourced ingredients. Not yet 23 years old, they rounded up some funding over spring break, and, in 2009, opened the first store in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. They called it Homegrown. (Note: I wrote a book in 2013 titled Home Grown. No relation.)

Before long they had more stores than they could supply from trips to local farmers markets, so they launched their own sustainable farm along the Sammamish River, about half an hour northeast of town. They called it Sprouting Farm, and it now supplies the seasonal produce for all the stores, ten in Seattle, and, thanks to a $2.5 million round of fund-raising last year, three more in the Bay Area. Not bad for two guys who just celebrated their 30th birthdays.

But I have to say, alas, that their $11.95 seasonal sandwich was just awful: “Uncured ham, blasted Brussels sprouts, roasted apples, white cheddar, dijon mustard, roasted garlic aioli & farm greens.” (I get nervous when I see Brussels sprouts on a menu; they’re the new kale, “good for you” but tough and bitter,) What the menu-speak doesn’t admit to is the tsunami of astringent dijon mustard on the bottom layer of the sandwich, the bitterness of the thinly-shaved Brussels sprouts (raw, not “blasted” at all, which might have brought out some of their natural sweetness), the utter tastelessness of the cheddar, the mushiness of the apples, and the timidity of the aioli. Ah, for a crisp bite of apple in the middle of all this! But it was not to be. If you could somehow avoid the mustard, the best part was actually the bread roll. Harsh? Probably, but if you’re going to stake your company’s reputation on its environmental purity, it’s gotta taste better than this.

So, in the months since this review first appeared (in the Belltown Messenger, which, alas, is no longer publishing), Homegrown has shuttered its flagship location in Fremont but has opened two Bay Area locations.

But Homegrown has not grown as fast as Evergreens, another Seattle-based fast-casual chain of sandwich shops. They have 15 locations in Seattle, one at SeaTac airport, and two at PDX. Now they’re leaping forward by taking over Garden Bar, a nine-unit chain in Portland.

Evergreens and Garden Bar have always had similar missions. They’re committed to “community” and to providing healthy, fast meal options in the Portland and Seattle metro areas.

The Garden Bar locations will transition to “Garden Bar by Evergreens” outposts, with all employees becoming Evergreens employees. Garden Bar’s CEO and founder, Ana Chaud, will remain part of the team, leading as Vice President of Brand Development. “I could not think of a better outcome for sustaining our commitment to our guests, our team and the overall community,” she said, adding, “I am excited and honored to be joining the outstanding leadership team at Evergreens.”