Avocado and quinoa with roasted corn and jicama succotash. Roasted free range chicken with herb aioli and pickled red onions on toasted ciabatta with a side of chipotle BBQ sauce. Local kale, crispy wheatberries, and grape tomatoes with a lemon parmesan vinaigrette. Vegan Banh Mi with marinated tofu, housemade sweet chili sauce, pickled daikon & carrots, cucumbers, jalapenos, and cilantro.

We know. It’s lunchtime, you’re starving, and if you’re lucky there’s a Mendocino Farms nearby where one of these menu items is easily within reach. As soon as you enter one of Mendocino’s Southern California locations, however, you’ll immediately notice that you’re about to get more than just a sandwich. You’ve walked into a company that values people with as much attention as they put into their pickle and dill potato salad. Which you should definitely do yourself a favor and try.

We had the chance to sit down — over lunch, of course — with Mendocino Farms co-founder Ellen Chen. Below she sheds new light on the term “customer service”, as well as offers some encouraging insight as to what women can uniquely bring to the hospitality industry. Ready to break some bread with us?

Darling Magazine: What prompted you to go into the food industry?

Ellen: The last company I worked at was acquired by Electronic Arts and it provided me with the freedom to take time off. I knew after leaving Electronic Arts that it was time for me to venture out on my own. I have always had a passion for food and during my time off, I was fortunate to meet my husband, Mario, who had a fast casual Teriyaki restaurant, Skews. I started working with him and after selling Skews, we created Mendocino Farms together.

Meet Mendocino Farms | DARLINGMeet Mendocino Farms | DARLING

DM: Why sandwiches?

Ellen: After selling Skew’s both Mario and I knew that we wanted to stay in the Fast Casual space. We identified 12 years ago that there was a gap in the sandwich space. There was Subway’s and Quiznos’ on the lower end, and then some that were doing it a notch better (ie. Jimmy Johns, Jersey Mikes and Firehouse Subs).

The only high end players were the gourmet marketplaces like Dean & Deluca and Joan’s on Third, who had great sandwiches but only made up 10-15% of their menu. We wanted to fill in that gap and open up a place that focused on chef driven sandwiches at the $10 mark.

DM: Tell us about the company culture at MF. Why have you chosen to build it in this way?

Ellen: In the hospitality industry our core purpose is to be of service, and that means continually and proactively thinking of new ways to better serve the interests of our guests, our team members, and our vendors. It’s great to just open your doors and sell delicious sandwiches, but we think a restaurant can do so much more than that.

By performing even ordinary tasks at an extraordinary level in every aspect of the business, we believe we can create amazing value for our guests, invite our vendors to grow with us in new ways, and develop a strong team that derives joy from their work.

It’s great to just open your doors and sell delicious sandwiches, but we think a restaurant can do so much more than that.

DM: How do you see this benefiting the communities you’re a part of?

Ellen: Our goal is for Mendocino Farms to enrich the lives of all it touches, whether that’s the farms and food artisans we partner with to source ingredients for the menu, the team members we rely upon to provide exceptional hospitality every day, or the guests who choose to seek us out. With that as our central mission, we feel it elevates our restaurant into a resource.

Meet Mendocino Farms | DARLING

DM: What do you hope a customer leaves an MF location with? (Besides a full and happy belly!)

Ellen: We strive to constantly stay on the culinary vanguard and push the limits of what a simple sandwich or salad can be, but that’s really just part of the intention behind Mendocino Farms.

The larger idea is to create community gathering places where friends, families, and coworkers can come together over a good meal, and maybe even learn something new about a local farm or a special seasonal ingredient. We hope our guests leave with the feeling that we’ve fulfilled more than just their hunger, and the desire to return for more than just the food.

DM: How do you approach the customer-service industry with your employees?

Ellen: We invest a lot in training and want to make sure that our Team Members understand our core values. We train them on how they can “Wow” our guest at each point of contact and we empower them to advocate for our guest. If a guest comes to any team member with an issue, they are able to take care of a guest right away without having to get a Manager. You will see in our stores the Eat Happy sign and it’s important that our team members understand that they aren’t just selling our guest a sandwich, but they are “Selling Happy”.

DM: As a woman, what unique challenges or obstacles have you faced in the restaurant business? 

Ellen: The restaurant industry is a male-dominated industry and I have found myself doubting myself at times and not wanting to speak up. It was a challenge that I had to overcome and still continue to work on.

DM: Do you think more women are needed in your industry? What unique skills or traits do women bring to leadership positions?

Ellen: I think more women are needed in all industries and would love to see more women in the restaurant space. Women are better listeners and better at building relationships, which are important qualities for a leader to have.

Women are better listeners and better at building relationships, which are important qualities for a leader to have.

Meet Mendocino Farms | DARLING

DM: What do you see next for MF?

Ellen: We are really focusing on strengthening our supply chain, but with a slightly different approach than many restaurant groups take. Instead of beating up our farmers, we have hired a consulting farmer that shares with our stakeholder farms how they can approve their productivity, environmental impact and their ability to better sell to us.

We have really taken a lot of inspiration with the Whole Foods business model. We believe that our suppliers are as critical stakeholders in our company as our team members and our guests.

DM: What’s your favorite menu item?

Ellen: That’s a tough question — the one that I always default to is our Pork Belly Banh Mi. It’s made with caramelized kurobuta pork belly, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro and jalapeno on toasted ciabatta.

Find out which Southern California Mendocino Farms location is nearest you by visiting their website, here. You can also stay updated via their blog, as well as check out their stellar customer reviews on Yelp!

Images provided by Mendocino Farms; Sandwich image via Life & Thyme

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