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Originally published August 9, 2013 at 12:14 PM | Page modified August 9, 2013 at 12:27 PM

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Homegrown pals create sandwich shops with a conscience

Not bad for a couple of guys who hatched a business plan at 22, opened their first shop in Fremont in 2009 and expect to employ 75 by year’s end.

Seattle Times food writer

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THEY’RE HOMEGROWN, all right.

Brad Gillis and Ben Friedman. Born months apart. Met in Mrs. O’Neill’s kindergarten class on Mercer Island where (bet you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) they were the kids most likely to succeed.

Their fourth Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop makes its debut this month in downtown Seattle at Second Avenue and Marion Street. The fifth opens this fall near Whole Foods South Lake Union — walking distance from Homegrown central.

That sprawling year-old headquarters houses offices, a catering and commissary kitchen, and a commercial bakery run by a former middle-school classmate — Stephanie Shephard, hired to put the “homemade” in Homegrown’s custom-baked rolls and sweets.

Not bad for a couple of boys who hatched a business plan at 22, opened their first shop in Fremont in 2009, expect to employ 75 by year’s end and see $5 million in sales in 2014.

Don’t know Homegrown? Imagine a sandwich shop with a social conscience. A very green machine: certified organic ingredients when available, local when possible, packaging that’s recyclable or compostable.

Yeah. These guys grew up here, apples falling from fruitful trees.

“Both our dads were entrepreneurs,” in real-estate development and biotech, explains Friedman. “We grew up around startups, risks. That was always the discussion around the dinner table.” Ditto for nonprofit work and philanthropy.

Senior year at New England colleges (Friedman got his marketing degree from Boston University, Gillis graduated from Bowdoin in environmental science), they saw their future — between two slices of bread.

Why wait until you’ve made your fortune in the private sector to do some public good, they pondered. Why not do it now?

They call their calling “sandwich environmentalism.”

Sure, some might balk at paying 12 bucks for a (carefully sourced) ham and (locally produced) Beecher’s cheese sandwich, but they’re convinced the payout is big. And not just for themselves and those who’ve invested in their vision.

“Our market is not an economic market, it’s an idealistic one,” says Friedman. And Seattle idealists are voting with their pocketbooks.

In our corner of the globe, “people buy expensive organic food, and they have a newfound education about pesticides, animal treatment and their own health. Asian fish farms are disastrous.” Yet even stalwart “Save the farmland!” stewards go out for pad thai or dim sum, downing Big Ag produce and farm-raised shrimp. “I do,” Friedman admits, “but when I eat at those places now, I believe more and more in what we’re doing.”

So does Gillis, who oversees Homegrown’s finances and business development and, with his buddy and marketing mastermind, keeps a keen eye on the Eastside for future opportunities. “We’re built to grow,” Gillis says. And, at 27, they’ve got the enthusiasm to make that happen. Youth has its advantages, says Gillis. “We can work around the clock if need be.” As does inexperience. Looking back at their first year, fraught with trial, error and an ever-morphing menu, “It’s not as scary if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

But clearly, they do.

Ask Mrs. O’Neill, who often stops by to check up on her former students with her friends, Debra Vandegrif and Ingrid Stipes — their third- and fifth-grade teachers.

It’s been 20-plus years since the boys were in her classroom. And though she misses seeing the sandwich environmentalists working the counter at Homegrown now that they’re busy building a brand, “We’re still keeping tabs on them!”

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8838. On Twitter: @nancyleson.

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