Green & Tonic Defines Health Casual Dining
By Eileen Weber
Catering to “mindful eaters of a plant-based lifestyle,” Green & Tonic bridges the divide between fast casual restaurants and juice and smoothie bars. With five different locations, you can rest assured that healthy eating is close by in Fairfield County.
Owners Jeff and Cai Pandolfino began their journey together in Cos Cob as Plum Pure Foods & Catering. In 2011 they sold the business to open the first Green & Tonic, with plans to expand to other towns. They eventually branched out to Darien, New Canaan, and Greenwich.
This “health casual” chain opened its latest outpost in Westport this past June. With such a good base of customers already coming from Westport to their Darien shop, it was a no-brainer to open a location across the street from the Westport Public Library where customers enjoy ample parking in the municipal lot. And, their Series C funding ensures this successful business model will continue to scale quickly.
While Green & Tonic is a plant-based establishment, the owners never want you to hear the word “vegan.” Organic, sustainable, healthy and locally sourced whenever possible is more to their liking. They’ve been in the business long enough to know that when people hear the word vegan, they think tasteless, and possibly unsatisfying, especially if they’re die hard meat and potato eaters.
“We just talk about plant-based food,” said Cai. “We are looking to define a universe of healthy eaters.”
That often includes the person who needs to change her diet for health reasons. “Friends are buying our food to feed sick friends in the hospital” said Cai. Or, it may be someone who already eats healthy and wants another convenient option that supports their lifestyle. It may simply be for weight loss. The customer’s reason for stopping in is less important than his willingness to make that kind of eating a lifestyle choice.
“We have a woman who comes in regularly who has lost close to 200 pounds,” said Cai. “She’s been coming in for about the past year or so. She came in the other day and I almost didn’t recognize her.”
You can take out or eat in and even order online. Green & Tonic also has a delivery service, which many local businesses take advantage of at lunchtime. Most menu items retail between $6.95 and $9.95. But how does that compare to all those meal kit delivery operations like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh?
“There are too many players in the field right now,” Jeff explained. “A lot of people try those services out, but they’re not getting the foothold they need to survive.”
In other words, he believes consumers want a place where they can go – a destination rather than a box dropped on their doorstep. However, both Jeff and Cai agreed that the average home-cooked meal isn’t really cooked at home. What most families seem to be doing these days is getting prepared foods to take home, where they’re supplemented with a piece of grilled meat or fish and a salad. The purchased item often becomes a meal enhancer rather than a meal replacement or meal ready to eat.
Westport is not the last stop for this duo. Having spent their earlier careers building businesses for top consumer food brands, it’s not an overwhelming or scary proposition to do it for themselves. They plan to spread their wings in Washington D.C. and maybe even further south where the growing season is longer. It can be pretty difficult to source local produce during a New England winter.
Yet, they do just that. With a “food is medicine” mentality, they are non-GMO and focus on superfoods and sustainable produce. They source honey and maple syrup locally, and produce and fruit from the Back 40 Farm in Washington, Conn. as well as Mother Earth Farm in Waynesburg, Penn., Marolda Farms in Vineland, NJ, and Hepworth Farms in Milton, NY. Satur Farms on Long Island frequently supplies their greens. Baldor Specialty Foods and Ace Natural make it easy for Green & Tonic to buy in quantity from farms within a 150 mile radius and present a diverse, seasonal menu appealing to a broad clientele.
“It’s gotta be craveable,” Jeff said of the food they serve. They pour over their recipes and change with the seasons. First, they consider what’s going into the recipe. Then, how does it taste? Next, what’s the nutritional information? They estimate about three to four pounds of fresh produce go into each juice, which is the equivalent of six salads.
“People don’t understand why it costs so much,” said Cai. “Go ahead. Buy a juicer and do it yourself. You’ll see. It’s messy. It takes so much food just to make one juice. So keep the receipt and I’ll see you in three weeks.”
Fairfield Green Food Guide had the pleasure of dining at the spacious, well-stocked Westport shop recently. Here’s what we tried: two cold pressed juices, cucumber gazpacho, pumpkin chia pudding, an Asian summer roll, the quinoa rotini bowl, a Mylky Way bowl, and an Açai Berry bowl.
Great for after a workout or just a quick juice on the go, the Melon Cooler was filled with fresh watermelon and a hint of tart lemon juice. But it’s pure sweetness comes from pineapple. The Green Monster is a crisp, clean drink made with cucumber, spinach, celery, kale and spirulina and a whisper of apple, ginger, lemon, and parsley. Juicing produces a lot of fruit and vegetable waste, but it doesn’t go into a landfill. Local gardeners and pig farmers come and pick it up, or it’s taken to a commercial composting facility in Danbury by City Carting.
The cucumber gazpacho and the quinoa rotini bowl were the two big hits. The gazpacho was a perfect summer heat quencher and a nice foil to its tomato-based cohort. Plenty of fresh mint to offset the punch of garlic; it was clean and bright. The rotini bowl had a nice blend of pasta, peas, sautéed greens, and quinoa to make it taste creamy without actually having cream in the recipe. And was that a touch of smoky paprika? Oh my, yes!
The Asian summer roll had a medley of nicely julienned veg—carrots, cucumbers, shiitake mushrooms—along with black bean noodles and a good helping of cilantro and mint all wrapped up in a brown rice paper round. We liked their use of mint, actually. It’s an often underplayed herb, like a forgotten toy. The tahini sauce was a great accompaniment, and the taste was spot on with traditional summer roll dipping sauces. This dish, found in the grab and go case, would make a refreshing afternoon snack.
The pumpkin chia pudding was a delightful surprise. Soft in texture, it had a light pumpkin and spice flavor, not a spice latte with enough pumpkin punch to stop traffic. The mouthfeel from the chia was a little like having tapioca pudding. And the pumpkin seeds on top were a cute touch that added a crunchy contrast. We’ve tasted a lot of chia desserts and this beats them all on flavor, texture and eye appeal.
The ice cold, granola-topped açai bowl was welcome on a hot and sunny day, and the fresh blueberries and bananas gave it a jolt of fruit happiness. The Mylky Way bowl’s base of almond milk and almond butter with a touch of cinnamon was naturally sweetened with dates and cacao. These snack cups are the antithesis of the sugar bombs disguised as healthy drinks you typically find at chains, so expect to be satisfied and fueled for hours while avoiding sugar overload.
Green & Tonic has retail locations in Darien, Cos Cob, Greenwich, Westport and New Canaan and delivers to homes and businesses.