Authenticity, Entrepreneurship and a Plant-Based Lifestyle - a Q&A with Jeff Pandolfino of Green & Tonic

We caught up with Jeff Pandolfino, Co-Founder of Green & Tonic, in his Cos Cob store on Strickland Road. He shared his vision for a healthy plant-based lifestyle, and he served the most delicious iced coffee I’ve ever tasted. Read on to learn more.

What were some early influences?

I wouldn’t say food was a huge part of my upbringing, but my Grandmother was a tremendous cook, and my grandfather had a huge garden. He was practicing organic gardening way before anyone even heard of it. So I had a great cook and an ahead-of- his-time gardener early in my life. Sort of a farm-to-table arrangement in my family.

When it came time to choose a career, food was a natural choice. I went to Johnson & Wales (one of the leading Culinary institutions, located in Rhode Island), I’m a trained chef, I worked in white table cloth restaurants in Miami, I worked for Dean & Deluca in D.C. in 1999, and I was part of a team that brought Pret A Manger to the US from London and worked there for 4 years.

We (Jeff and his wife, Cai) started Green & Tonic in 2012. We had sold Plum Pure Foods; the food was organic, local, responsibly sourced, and tasted delicious, but it wasn’t health food. So we wanted to go in a different direction. The early influencers on the Green & Tonic brand were really how good we felt as we explored a raw, vegan, plant-based lifestyle. We lost a lot of weight, we gained a lot of energy, and we decided our next business would focus on a plant-based lifestyle.

Green and Tonic Jeff and Cai Pandolfino, started Green & Tonic in 2012 to serve mindful eaters who enjoy the simple restorative pleasures of a plant-based lifestyle. Their 5th store is opening soon in Westport. Photo credit Fairfield County Look.

So tell us about Green & Tonic.

Authenticity is super important to us. When a customer tells us they are feeling tired, or their allergies are really bad, or they’re catching a lot of colds, we offer foods that build their immune system or reduce inflammation, or the best drinks for a Spring detox, and so on.

All of our employees go thru a Green & Tonic University, which happens every other Wed, to teach them about nutrition and cleansing. And we teach our company manifesto: building communities of mindful eaters who enjoy the simple pleasures of a plant-based lifestyle.

We give the staff the tools to do the job and to focus on the customer. We have a wonderful workforce. I don’t have to tell that to customers, they can see it in the quality of our employees. That resonates with them. Our entire team is motivated to deliver a positive experience around a healthy, plant-based, and crave-able food lifestyle. A happy customer is the best sign that we are succeeding in our goals. We’ve seen grown double-digit in the business so that’s a good indication we’re meeting our customers’ expectations.

And we invest in our employees. We’ve given 5% of our co to our employees as incentive, in an equity pool, we did that right at the beginning, we want to take care of our employees all along. Hopefully someday that changes somebody’s life.

Green and Tonic Green & Tonic theme wall, at the Strickland Road store (Cos Cob)

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Wow, I don’t even really remember.... my dad was always an entrepreneur at heart. Even though he had his own accounting firm he was always an entrepreneur in addition to his main career. His clients and friends had laundries and car washes and other small businesses. He even flipped houses 40 years before that was a trendy thing to do. He’s still that way today. I’ve always been around entrepreneurs, but it wasn’t a defined function when I grew up, so it wasn’t “something I wanted to be.”

I fundamentally think entrepreneurs are born, not made. I’m sure you can go to school to learn the skills and habits, but entrepreneurs have a certain DNA they’re born with. They are willing to take a risk. Many people don’t understand risk and that’s part of the DNA of an entrepreneur.

What are some important business lessons you learned?

I could write a book about that. I think the most important lesson is to focus on the little things and do the little things well every day. Because at the end of the day, while the big things matter they are much harder to do, and if you focus on the fundamental little things every single day, the x’s and o’s, you’ll have a successful business.

We wake up every day and try to provide great customer service, a consistent product that is crave-able, and a healthy plant-based lifestyle. If we do those little things right, the consumer will want to have a relationship with us in a meaningful way, more than just buying a juice or smoothie.

We’re not really a restaurant because we’re having multiple interactions with our customers in the course of a week, whereas a typical restaurant will have 1 interaction a week with a good customer, if they’re lucky, on a Friday or Saturday night. We’re having at least 1 interaction a day with our good customers, sometimes more. So we’re more like a healthy Starbucks than a restaurant.

Green and Tonic The sleek, industrial design of the Strickland Road store (Cos Cob) is a big hit with customers.

You recently raised funding in a Series C round. Will customers notice anything diff after the investment?

Customers will see a new store in Westport (opening very soon). We’ll use the funds for new product development, so new items on the menu. We’ll also upgrade our tech and customers will see a new mobile app, mobile ordering, web site upgrades, better e-commerce options. We’re really excited to grow our footprint and enhance customer experience across our brand.

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

I’d have to say it’s “the Universe has a plan.” Stay focused and let the plan unfold. And it really has.

Many of our neighbors commute to their jobs. What’s it like living and working in the same town?

We’ve been doing it since 2003 and it’s great. My wife, Cai, grew up here so she knew the town and when it was time to leave NYC we came here. We love it here. For my business, I’ve invested heavily in building our network of people in the community; what I call my personal Board Of Directors. I recommend it for any entrepreneur. Greenwich is rich in entrepreneurial experience and I’ve found most are more than willing to help, give back, advise other young entrepreneurs. It’s a great community to live and work in.

We love living here, what do you like about our town?

I love the beach, being outside; this town has tremendous resources, and there’s always something happening in this town. I’m an Eagle Scout and my boys are very involved in scouting. We have a huge camp here (Camp Seton, on Riversville Road) which is a special place for our family. We’ve made great friends here. I love that you can still get lost in Greenwich, spend time outside biking, hiking on the water, and just recharge.

Favorite Local Businesses?

We like to support local business. We try to make an influence with where our dollars are spent. We love Diane's Books, the last local bookstore. We’ll go there and get birthday presents and books for our kids. It’s important to keep local businesses thriving.

I love McArdle's Florist, they’ve done a great job of staying relevant, and fresh, and they’re active participants in the community. I like their product a lot and I like their business a lot. They make everyone feel special. We’ve done events with them in the past and we’ll look to partner again.

We love and support the Back 40 Group: Mercantile in OG, the Kitchen on Greenwich Ave, Mill Street Bar & Table, and the Farm. They’re all great business and integral to keeping our community interesting, special, and unique.

I love Fleishers Butchery (across the street) they’re super supportive of our business. While I don’t eat a lot of meat, when I do I want to know where it comes from. If I’m going to have a steak or hamburger every now and then I’m going to get it at Fleisher’s because I know where it’s from. It’s a similar story with Back 40 Kitchen, all their food is responsibly sourced. I love what

Fjord’s has done, an amazing job with their brand, all their fish is responsibly sourced. It’s super fresh. They have a great business too. Our business is plant-based, but same concept, know the source and how it was grown, raised, etc. The authenticity is super important to us.

In this 2-block area of Cos Cob we have a butcher, a fish monger, a cheese shop, and our vegan place here. Cos Cob is like Brooklyn now! Our town has really grown up. We’ve got the Water Club, beautiful new houses; Cos Cob has really evolved and matured in a way that hasn’t lost it soul. Cos Cob is the hub of the Greenwich community, after all you have to pass thru Cos Cob to get the other side of Greenwich!

Green and Tonic The best iced coffee ever; Jeff poses next to the Rise Coffee tap, a delicious nitrogen-conditioned iced coffee served at Green & Tonic.

Go-to place for family with the kids?

Our kids love Bartaco, and Pizza Post is great too. With an 8 week-old baby at home we’re not going far!

Is giving back part of the Green & Tonic mission?

Of course yes. We try to do our best to participate in all of the local charities. It’s always been a dream to go deeper in our charitable efforts, we’d like to start a foundation but we first need to define our mission and align it with our brand. What should the Green & Tonic foundation do? We need to spend more time on that; a deeper charitable piece, perhaps helping children with chronic diseases that can be helped with food and diet, would be great.

Which charities do you admire, support?

We’re very involved as a family with the Yerwood Center in Stamford. As Green & Tonic continues to grow, its super important for us to stay involved in the communities we’re in. Each store should reflect and represent the community they operate in. We are sensitive to the needs of the town we’re in. We try to meet the community where they need us to meet them.

When we open in Westport we want to make it as if that was our 1st store and everybody in Westport invented us. Brands that do that, win. We don’t want to just be a Greenwich brand. We will hire local, support the schools, run in the races, support the community and be as involved as we can.

Green & Tonic locations:

  • Cos Cob, 7 Strickland Road
  • Greenwich, 85 Railroad Avenue
  • Darien, 1098 Post Road
  • New Canaan, 5 Burtis Avenue
  • Coming Soon: Westport, 40-44 Post Road

Visit Green and Tonic online at: greenandtonic.com

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