Mendocino Farms founder Ellen Chen shares her story with HW Venture

Lily Lee

Mendocino Farms co-founder Ellen Chen (Joe ’23) spoke to HW Venture students sharing her story of opening a restaurant and working in the food industry April 26. She discussed how to use the best ingredients in a sandwich while also valuing a friendly, happy restaurant environment.

Chen founded the southern California-based restaurant chain restaurant with her husband Mario, who introduced her to the food industry. She worked at his previously owned restaurant, Skew’s, where she learned how to own a business from him.

“If you have been to our restaurant, you will see the words ‘eat happy,’” Chen said. “[That phrase]  is so important to us. We train our team members that our product is not selling a sandwich or salad, it’s actually selling people ‘happy.’”

Chen discussed her philosophy on customer service 

Chen spoke about being a female in the food industry and the struggles that have come with her experience.

“The restaurant industry is very male-dominated,” Chen said. “I was fortunate that my husband was my business partner. As I look back at my career, it’s very disappointing to realize that being female I probably wouldn’t be sitting in the same place I am today, had I not had my partner who was male next to me.”

Chen said she calls the people who walk into her restaurants “guests,” rather than “customers.”

“We have better food with better ingredients, but we also invested in a culture that reflects what that food is about,” Chen said. “We do not call them ‘customers’ because we feel that customers are a transaction, whereas a ‘guest’’ is truly someone that you care about, take care of and they feel the love. For us it was really important to create that level of hospitality.”

Venture students were given the opportunity to ask Chen questions about her business

Chen gave advice to future entrepreneurs about having a purpose behind their vision. She discussed what sets Mendocino Farms apart from other restaurants.

“If you are looking to start something, figure out not just why you are doing it, but what is the purpose behind it and grow your brand around that,” Chen said. “A lot of people choose Mendocino Farms not just because it has a great sandwich, but they really believe in the purpose behind it.”

Co-lead of Venture, Sophia Rascoff ’23 admires the way Mendocino Farms has created a strong brand and a community that lives up to its core values.

“The key lesson to take away is that no matter the venture, you’re always selling more than a product – you’re selling an experience – and so it’s important to have set core values and beliefs for everyone involved in your company to look up to,” Rascoff said.

Marketing co-lead of Venture, Ava Weinrot ’23 enjoyed hearing about Chen’s perspective of women in the workplace.

“I learned to not be afraid to put yourself out there and make it known that you are a valued part of the team because there are men who don’t see the value of women in a leadership position,” Weinrot said.