Personal philosophy: “Work hard, play hard.”
The sandwich: Stuff of nostalgia, epitomizer of simplicity, even — one could argue — America’s “poor man’s food.” Pull almost anything out of the fridge, slap it between two pieces of bread, and lunch is served.
And like all poor man’s foods, the sandwich has been gentrified. At Ben Friedman’s Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop, the humble sandwich comes packed with things like caramelized leeks, Meyer lemon aioli, artisanal cheese and Stumptown coffee-cayenne-rubbed pork loin. Introduce it to Seattle, and the sandwich becomes an activist, too.
“Our goal is to not just create sustainable sandwiches, but to make sandwiches sustainable themselves,” says Ben. “We set out to fill kind of a niche place in the market…You can find around Seattle several wonderful restaurants to get local, organic sustainable food. It just comes at a high price.”
For Ben and his business partner, Brad Gillis, it began with the idea of creating a socially responsible enterprise; they started out with a “desire for a more ecological way of living,” says Ben. The sandwiches are not only made with sustainable ingredients, but the restaurant uses recyclable and compostable materials and rejects that environmental misanthrope, the plastic water bottle. Ben says they look at the whole environmental picture when making business decisions so they can minimize impact. This approach is what they call “sandwich environmentalism.”
Ben and Brad grew up on Mercer Island together and opened the first Homegrown location, on Capitol Hill, in 2009 when they were just 23. Since then, locations on Queen Anne and in Fremont have sprouted up. They’ve been lauded in Food & Wine, Sunset, Seattle Magazine, Seattle Met — just to name a few.
Sure, anyone can make a sandwich. So what separates a good sandwich from a great one? “Sauce is integral,” Ben muses. And composition is key: “Every bite of a sandwich is like the Thanksgiving bite. Every bite you get a little bit of everything.”
Sandwiches currently offered at Homegrown include a leek and fennel grilled cheese, seasonal squash with snap-pea pesto, and the “Reuben revised” with a red wine sauerkraut and Beecher’s cheese.
The Reuben is among Ben’s favorite Jewish foods — it’s tied with blintzes, he says. “My biggest connection to the faith is food.”
He spent a lot of time growing up in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother.
“I come from a family of incredible cooks,” he adds.
Although Ben says his favorite sandwich (if he had to pick one — besides the “mile-high” national sandwich of Uruguay) is the very unkosher turkey-bacon-avocado, if saving the world through food is a Jewish ideal, then Ben is righteous.
“The bigger we get, the more impact we can have in terms of buying power,” he says. While he’s content with Homegrown’s rapid success, he hopes to one day influence the supply side of business with his demands for sustainability. The more immediate goal is to influence Seattleites who eat organic, local foods at home, but who throw those values away when it comes down to finding a cheap lunch.
“More and more people are eating like this at home,” he says. “It’s about voting with your pocketbook, and it’s hard to corral people to think like that.”
“For us, the challenge is providing that access in a price point people can access,” says Ben. “I think we do a good job of that.”