What compelled you to start Garden Bar?
Every time I hear myself tell the Garden Bar story, it confirms why I had to do what I did.
There was a time in my life when I was going through a pretty restricted diet. I found myself not knowing where to get healthy food on the go. When we’re starving, we make decisions that are not so good for us. We choose the route that is either the pizza or the burrito or the burger.
I went to Chipotle a lot. I know, Chipotle is burrito-land, but they do offer salads. One day, going through Chipotle and looking at a salad and realizing that I was eating the same exact salad every day, I thought: Why can’t I have this same delivery but in a salad format?
This would be good for anybody who needed to eat on the go and not feel guilty about their choice. I had the Garden Bar idea right then and there and started to develop it. And here we are.
How did your childhood dream turn into this one?
I’ve always wanted to be a professional ballerina. As a dancer, I lived a healthy lifestyle with exercise and food. I also grew up in a different country. By default, we had a great diet growing up.
When I decided to go to college, I had to give up dancing. But I never gave up a healthy lifestyle. Throughout college and my career, I taught fitness and I always wanted to merge health and fitness into a business. When the Garden Bar idea came to me, I thought that was exactly the crossroad I needed to combine my business experience with a healthy lifestyle.
Tell us about Garden Bar.
Garden Bar is a chain of fast-casual restaurants that specializes in salads. The food is made to order right in front of you. You can choose from an array of different ingredients, but you can also choose something that we design for you.
Our mission and intention are to make healthy eating on the go an easy decision. We really promote convenience. We want to be close to our customers and promote access to healthy choices. Today we have nine locations in the Portland metro area.
During the early stages of Garden Bar, what was the impossible challenge?
Everything seemed impossible when I started, because I didn’t even know where to start. I had been in business management for a very long time but in a different industry. When the idea came to me, I knew I did not have experience in the restaurant industry and wondered if it was possible to translate my skill set to that industry.
All it took was the first step. When I took the first step toward that idea, the next steps started to unfold. Then I started to create the path that led me to where I am today.
Share an “aha” moment from your first year in business.
The “aha” moment is when I realized we’re not really a restaurant. We are a lifestyle brand. Restaurants are finite experiences where guests go in and choose to have good food, experience, service, and atmosphere. They get what they need and they go.
With Garden Bar, we go a step further in that experience. We provide the feeling after your meal of being happy with your choices. We align with the lifestyle of our guests, and we infuse into their lifestyle. If someone wants to watch a Timbers game, and they want to have a salad instead of a burger, we are there for them.
We want to make the product accessible to align with the lifestyle of our guests. So, we are a little different than a restaurant. And to me, that was an incredible “aha” moment, because we have to run our business differently.
Any rituals that help you stay healthy and productive?
To do the work I do, I need my mental sharpness at all times. One ritual I have is to rise very early, usually around 5:00 in the morning. I take that early time to meditate and prepare for the day. This way, I don’t start the day in a rush or frazzled.
The combination of meditation and exercise and eating well is what keeps me going through the day, along with ensuring that I take the time I need to recharge and be able to pump ahead.
It’s very important to be disciplined about taking time for yourself. It’s not a natural thing for entrepreneurs. We tend to burn the candle on both ends, and we tend to work 24-7. Which means that we let go of family and friends. You have to take time for loved ones, because that won’t happen naturally.
What challenges do underserved entrepreneurs need to overcome?
Access to good education is a big one for underserved communities. When you don’t have access to as good an education as the privileged communities, it automatically affects your confidence level. You think you don’t have what it takes compared to people who had access to Ivy League schools or a school that prepared them a little better to be able to start a business.
That alone is a deterrent, because underserved communities don’t feel like they have what it takes. When you don’t have something like Elevate Capital, you automatically feel like you are competing with the majority. You don’t have exposure to that same set of resources that privileged communities have.
The idea of having a fund that is willing to listen to what we have to say and what we have to offer gives us more confidence and peace of mind. It helps us believe we can present our businesses, and people will actually listen to us.
Describe your venture capital experience with the Elevate team.
I love what Nitin is doing. I love the passion he brings to this cause, the fact that he is making a difference in this community and working so hard to support underserved entrepreneurs.
Nitin’s reputation and Elevate’s mission are what made that experience seem attractive to me in the beginning. It gave me the motivation to keep pursuing my business.
Nitin has been not only a mentor but also a sounding board. If I have an issue, I can pick up the phone, and Nitin will answer and talk to me. He wants the portfolio companies to succeed, and he’s willing to give them a lot of support.
In what ways does Nitin Rai’s mentorship guide your success?
Funding alone does not take everybody there. The journey is one that most entrepreneurs can’t envision when they begin it. You just find your first step, and the next steps will come in front of you. But you also don’t know what’s going to happen and how you’re going to handle it.
Having Elevate there to give you support and confidence that what you’re going through is natural for an entrepreneur is priceless. Elevate provides an array of different support mechanisms.
We have founders’ meetings. We have people who come in and speak to us on different topics. We are encouraged to all meet and talk about what we’re going through. We learn from one another.
Nitin is always there to help us directly with questions and issues. We may be in different industries, but we share the same journey. Elevate is very good about letting all of us know that they’re there for us whenever we need them.
How has networking in Portland helped your business?
Networking is the main driver for the success of my business. When I network, not only do I meet more people, but also people now know who the face of Garden Bar is. That helps create awareness for the brand, and it helps the community know what we are about.
Networking is a give and take. I meet a lot of people who can help my business. It’s also an opportunity for me to show the community how we can help them and what we are trying to bring.
What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur in an elevator?
I would say do not worry. There are moments every single day that you just don’t know what to do. You have to breathe and sit back, then you will figure it out and take the next step. Whatever you’re going through, it’s a path that has been walked before.
You are going to know what the answer is. You will figure it out.