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Founder Stories

How to build a brand around principles. How to create a cult-like following. Why we need to talk about the massive gender-based funding gap w/ Ellen Chen

Ryan Pallotta
Ellen Chen

Ellen Chen is the Co-Founder of Mendocino Farms—an LA-based fast-casual sandwich chain with an almost cult-like following. Ellen didn't come from a food and beverage background. Still, after meeting her future husband, restauranteur Mario Del Pero, she decided to step away from her impressive career as a consultant to learn about all aspects of the restaurant business. 

At Skew, his teriyaki restaurant, she worked front-of-house, back-of-house, and even cleaned the bathrooms. At the same time, she became its principal investor. 

After realizing Skew's scalability limitations, Ellen and Mario created Mendocino Farms. Built around the mantra "eat happy," they immediately implemented the principles passed along to them by their entrepreneurial families. That meant hard work, transparency, and taking excellent care of every stakeholder. 

Mendocino Farms grew to several booming locations before TPG acquired the firm in 2017. Since stepping away from day-to-day operations in 2020, Ellen has worked to support female-led start-ups through mentorship and investing. 

In our inspiring chat, Ellen talks about the decision to double down on Mendocino Farms' core product, the guerilla marketing tactics she employed in a pre-social media world, and how she sought to safeguard Mendocino Farms' culture through a time of explosive popularity and growth. Ellen also describes the challenges she faced as a woman in business, asserting that doors would have remained closed to her if not for her male partner.  

She explains the importance of having conversations about the incredible disparity between male and female founders seeking investors and describes the practical steps she's taking to redress it. 

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