Bryan Gerber of Forage Kitchen

Discovering your passion and standing behind a company’s values can make you love your job every day, and Bryan Gerber embodies this philosophy at Forage Kitchen. As the Growth Manager, Bryan has been instrumental in expanding Forage Kitchen from its humble beginnings on State Street in Madison to its current locations, including the vibrant Campustown at UIUC. Let’s dive into our conversation with Bryan to learn more about his journey and what makes Forage Kitchen special.

Tell us a little about yourself and role at Forage Kitchen .

For sure. I started with Forage almost 6 years ago when we had one location in Madison on State Street, similar to Green Street in Champaign. Since then, I’ve grown into my role as a new restaurant opener and have also handled regional management due to our small team. My main responsibilities include keeping new stores on track, hiring key positions, training staff, and then moving on to the next location.

I’m originally from Wisconsin, so I knew a lot about Madison and visited as a kid often. I originally went to school to be an educator and then a nurse but found those roles weren’t for me. I worked various jobs in the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago before moving to Madison, where I fell in love with the city. I kind of reset myself and tried to figure out what I had a passion for because all the other jobs I had taken prior to this one didn’t give me that passion, and I got sick of not enjoying work most days.

I had no prior restaurant experience but started as a cook, became a chef, and then applied for an assistant manager position at Forage. I was drawn to Forage by its concept, culture, and growth plans, which reignited my passion for work.

What is your official title at Forage Kitchen and what do you like most about working there?

I am the growth manager, I believe. It’s kind of fluid, and I wear a lot of hats, but technically, it’s growth manager. The responsibilities that fall under that can change daily. What I love most about working at Forage Kitchen is the concept behind it and how they care not only for their customers but also for our planet. It’s a great fit with like-minded people. The owners are close to my age, which is nice, and the main owner is incredibly thoughtful and active in the business. I’ve learned a lot from him and my coworkers. Forage Kitchen truly offers a work-life balance, which is rare in this industry. It feels like we’re trying to reset the service industry a little bit, and that’s amazing.

What sets Forage Kitchen apart from other restaurants in UIUC's Campustown?

I think what sets Forage Kitchen apart in the quick-service restaurant industry is our commitment to making almost everything in-house. Unlike many places that rely on pre-processed foods, we prepare our ingredients fresh. We source our bread locally from Central Illinois Bakehouse and purchase ready-made pita chips, but everything else is made from scratch. We create our own dressings, roast our own chicken and tofu, and make our marinades. This dedication to fresh, scratch-made food ensures that our offerings are both healthy and flavorful, showing that good calories can taste great.

Another significant differentiator is our customer service. We place a strong emphasis on compassion, kindness, understanding, and humility when dealing with our customers. We know we’re not perfect and might make mistakes, but we strive to handle them with care. Our training focuses heavily on delivering exceptional service, and while we may not always hit the mark, it’s a big priority for us.

Additionally, we offer our employees a work-life balance that’s almost unheard of in the service industry. Our prep cooks and general managers typically work a Monday through Friday, an 8 to 5 schedule, allowing them to have evenings and weekends free. This conscious decision helps us attract great talent as many people in the industry value this balance. It’s important to us that our staff come to work energized and ready, having had ample time to enjoy their personal lives.

Bryan Gerber (L) and Forage Kitchen Founder and President Henry Aschauer (R) PC: Forage Kitchen
PC: Champaign Center Partnership

How do you engage with both your local community and your customers?

We engage with the community through the excellent work of our Director of Marketing, Darlene, who actively reaches out to see how we can be present and visible within the community. This includes supporting various community events, providing gift cards for volunteers, and hosting in-store fundraiser days. Our goal is twofold: to support and uplift the community while also attracting customers to our restaurant. It’s important for us to foster a helpful and supportive vibe, which we believe is the right thing to do.

For our customer base, we’ve recently introduced a system where customers who order through our app or website receive a notification asking for feedback on their experience. This allows us to address any issues quickly, often within an hour or even 30 seconds, and to apologize and understand what went right or wrong. This direct engagement helps us learn and improve, and most feedback we receive is positive. Our customer satisfaction rating with this system ranges from 4.6 to 4.8 stars ( out of 5), showing that many appreciate what we bring to the community and value our prompt and caring response to their concerns.

What makes the Forage Kitchen located in Champaign standout from your other locations?

Our Champaign store stands out for several reasons. Firstly, as the area manager, I’m still heavily involved with the Champaign location, visiting every 2 to 3 weeks. This has allowed me to become very familiar with our staff and the city, which has been an enjoyable experience since I hadn’t been to Champaign before we opened the store there.

When we opened in Champaign, we didn’t have the benefit of our Director of Marketing, Darlene. It was just our owner, Henry, and me, and neither of us are marketing experts. We opened the store using the same approach we used in Madison, but without an established customer base. Despite this, we quickly noticed that people who tried our restaurant became regular customers, often visiting multiple times a week, indicating that we were doing something right.

This past spring, things really clicked for us in Champaign. The word-of-mouth about Forage Kitchen has been phenomenal, and we’ve seen the business grow as a result. Another standout factor is our general manager in Champaign, Breannah. She started with us as a shift leader when we opened, moved up to assistant manager, and is now the general manager. We’re incredibly proud of her growth and the work she’s done.

Champaign itself is quite different from Madison, particularly with its significant international student population. This diversity has challenged us to think about more regionally based menus that better serve the community while maintaining the core essence of Forage Kitchen. Overall, it’s been a lot of fun and a great learning experience to adapt to and grow within a new market like Champaign.

PC: Champaign Center Partnership
PC: Champaign Center Partnership

Can you give me the lowdown on the Kombucha that is for sale at all of your locations?

Our Kombucha is brewed just about one hundred feet away from where I sit right now. It’s a fermented beverage made from tea, so it is caffeinated. We also brew kombucha’s decaf cousin, called Tepache. It is a fermented pineapple drink that originated in or around Oaxaca. It’s similar to Kombucha but more like a water kefir probiotic, making it more palatable for some people (and for all the legal-age readers out there, it mixes really well with Mezcal). We also offer Refreshers like ginger lemonade, raspberry Arnold Palmer, and oolong tea. We prefer to make these ourselves so we can ensure the quality of what we’re giving to our customers.

What would you recommend a first time visitor at Forage Kitchen order?

For a first-time visitor, I’d start by asking a few questions to gauge their preferences—how hungry they are and whether they like spicy, sweet, or savory flavors. If they’re super hungry, I’d recommend one of our filling grain bowls, like the Fiesta Bowl, which is a top seller across all our locations. It offers great flavors and good calories.

If they prefer something lighter, I’d suggest the Cultured Cobb, which features clean and bright flavors with a punch. Alternatively, for those who like to customize, the Make Your Own option is popular, though it can be overwhelming due to the variety of ingredients.

Finally, if they’re looking for something more like a sandwich, we have a delicious Chicken Bacon Caesar Wrap that’s been introduced recently and has become quite popular.

What is on the horizon for Forage Kitchen?

Well, there are a few exciting things on the horizon for Forage Kitchen. Firstly, we’re focusing on our partner farm, Flynn Creek Farms, just west of Madison. We’re currently working on land remediation to prepare it to support our kitchens. This allows us to tell the full story—from the organic seeds we use to how we care for the land, to how we prepare the food for our customers.

Additionally, we’re eager to expand into the Milwaukee market in Wisconsin. Building out this new market is a significant focus for us and presents exciting opportunities for growth.

Lastly, we’re thrilled about the momentum we’ve gained in Champaign. We had a successful last few months of the school year and are looking forward to welcoming back the students, who are a vital part of the community and our business. We’ve started catering services, including for university staff and sports teams, and the positive response has been encouraging. It’s particularly exciting for me, as one of the stores I opened, to see the Champaign location thriving and meeting the need for quick and healthy food in the area.

, you can donate it to us. It provides a nice item for somebody to purchase, and again, all that goes directly into funding our mission

Main P/C – Forage Kitchen