It’s safe to say that, in recent years, health has been a bit more top of mind for the vast majority of us. There’s nothing like a pandemic (it would seem) to bring wellness to the forefront of daily thought. So what better time to open a healthy dining option—like, say, a salad-centric fast casual spot—in downtown Cincinnati?
“The pandemic made people re-evaluate anything in life in general,” says Jordan Doepke, Newport native and Green District CEO/co-founder. “It really made people evaluate what’s most important to you. [It] has made everybody very aware and very health conscious. It’s been really good for us honestly. Not the pandemic part but the awareness.”
While the salad chain was founded in 2016 in Louisville’s St. Matthews neighborhood, Doepke’s interest in healthy eating stretches back decades. A former pro soccer player, he started looking at the athletes he admired and noticed they weren’t eating like he was.
“I never thought about what I ate,” he explains. “It wasn’t until I got older, and my metabolism started to change that I started to realize nutrients are important. As I started to follow high-end athletes, I realized that their diets are crazy good.”
(One of the company’s mascots, Broc Ali, embodies this observation. The body of Louisville native Muhammad Ali with a broccoli crown head, the character carries the blessing of Ali’s widow, Lonnie, who told Doepke, “This is how my husband ate. The world needs to eat more like this.”)
Family business interests brought Doepke to Louisville, where he eventually moved back into insurance, a field he’d worked in off and on since college. And it was during this time that he noticed the food his company commonly catered for clients was, by and large, lacking in health benefits. He asked his food industry friends what was up, and they confirmed his suspicion that, indeed, there was an unmet demand for produce-centered dining, so he decided to start Green District.
“After researching, my wife and I decided we were going to start the concept up,” he says. “We sold off all of our rental properties and used up all the little money we had. We went to two other friends and they said, ‘We’re in.’ Fast forward four and a half years later, and I guess I’ve got a new career.”
The original founders—Doepke, Chris Furlow, Matthew Petty, and Joey Mascaro—all put in full-time hours getting the store open while holding down day jobs. But once the first location opened, serving a wide range of salads, wraps and grain bowls, the business’ trajectory seemed set. And in 2021, the company secured private equity for aggressive expansion.
Lance Little, Green District’s Midwest market president, came on board at that time, as did Chef Rob Rice, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate with past experience working alongside Wolfgang Puck. And then came the new locations.
“Overall, we have six total open right now, just in the Midwest,” explains Little, a Winton Place/Finneytown native and University of Cincinnati grad. “We are excited for this opportunity in Cincinnati, where we easily think we’re going to put 10 to 15 restaurants in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area.”
The company plans to have 30 to 35 locations around the country by the end of the year.
While the move into Cincinnati is a matter of bringing a quality product to a vibrant, neighboring dining scene, the Queen City has gotten some special menu tweaks to honor our culinary tastes. For instance, “The 513” features chicken cooked in Grippo’s barbeque sauce.
“It’s really good with Grippo’s potato chips crumbled all over that salad,” Little says. “Might not be the healthiest thing for you, but it’s a really good salad!”
We can expect additional Green Districts around Cincinnati in the near future, as the company expands nationally, and the company expects every location to find a passionate clientele.
“Cincinnati—we love it,” Doepke says. “We’re from there. My family lives in Mason/Montgomery, my sister lives in Blue Ash. And Lance’s family is all over the city. We think Cincinnati is poised for growth but, selfishly, if Lance and I have our druthers, we’re going to put as many in Cincinnati as we can so we have an excuse to be there all the time.”