It’s been half a year since South L.A. got its first Everytable, a revolutionary grab-and-go restaurant concept that aims to bring healthful fast food to different neighborhoods — some in food deserts — and price the dishes based on the median income of the community. In its infancy stage, Everytable’s owners have been learning about the needs of the South L.A. community and are finding that they just might be onto something with their new business model.
The only Everytable outpost so far is located at Union Avenue and 23rd Street in University Park, which is at on the northern edge of South L.A., about a mile away from USC. Sometime early this year, the team is planning on launching their second location in the more affluent downtown L.A. The two spots will both be stocked with the same type of food; however, while a bowl may cost around $4 at the University Park location, it’ll be priced at $8 downtown.
“One of the things I love about this business is that I think that we’re in the midst of creating a system that brings an incredible financial value to everyone, by which I mean like the folks in South L.A. are buying food for like $4 or $5, which is comparable to or cheaper than fast food,” says Everytable Co-owner Sam Polk, who formerly worked as a hedge fund trader on Wall Street.
He points out that future downtown or Westside customers will benefit financially at their own local Everytable locations even though prices will be higher than those in South L.A., as the food will still be cheaper than something you’d find at Tender Greens or Sweetgreen. Plus, they’re recipes that come from Everytable’s Executive Chef Craig Hopson, who once held the same title at lauded New York City fine-dining restaurant Le Cirque. Polk says Hopson, who makes the food offsite at another location with a team, won’t know where the food he’s cooking will be going when all the other locations open, so the quality will be the same across the board.
Everytable is a trailblazer in their business model. “The variable pricing, nobody in the world — certainly in the food world — that we’ve heard of doing that,” Polk says.
The University Park restaurant is noticeably different from the mom-and-pop burger shop and Papa John’s Pizza joint nearby. The minimalistic and hip design of the store seems like something you’d find in Silver Lake. Walk in and you’ll see a refrigerated wall of perfectly stacked bowls of food, containing everything from Cajun blackened fish with a sweet potato puree and braised collard greens; or a Vietnamese chicken salad made with lemongrass chicken and mung bean noodles. There’s even smaller portions for kids, such as $3 grab-and-go bowls full of chicken nuggets crusted with almonds and pecans, and paired with creamed corn and broccoli; or a healthier take on spaghetti and meatballs with spaghetti squash and turkey-quinoa meatballs. And you won’t find sugary sodas here, just cans of La Croix, fresh-squeezed agua frescas, and bottles of water.
The color-coded labels on these bowls match the accent hues on the walls — orange for foods that need to be heated up, and teal for salads. The heartier fare, like tamales de chile rojo accompanied by roasted vegetables, have microwave instructions on its labels; you can heat them up in the store and sit down and eat at any of the handful of tables inside. There’s free WiFi here, too, if you need to get some work done while you’re dining.
Over the last six months, Polk has learned about what his customers need more of, and that’s salads. “Our menu has a good mix of stuff you might ordinarily associate with healthy food like a kale chicken caesar salad, but we also have heartier fare like a Jamaican jerk chicken, and we sort of assumed that the heartier fare would sell the best by far,” Polk says. “And it actually sells really well, but the salads sort of sell like crazy, which is a surprise to us, so I thought that was a really good sign. Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, is there really a demand for this because all there is [in the area] is fast food restaurants, and do people really want healthy food?’ And in our experience, there is just a tremendous, pent-up demand for healthy food as long as it’s affordable.”
He says that business has been a “huge success,” referencing the 100 reviews they’ve received on Yelp, and their average 4.5-star rating. Polk will notice that some customers will just come in for lunch, while others will grab 10 meals for the week and just stock their fridge with the bowls. “The sales here have been terrific as has been the community response and excitement around this,” Polk says. “I think some people are starting to believe that this can be a solution to things on a big scale.”
Contrary to popular belief, he doesn’t think that opening a grocery store in a food desert is a solution because he says they’re “capital-intensive businesses that work at really low margins, so it’s hard to really make them work unless they’re in a more affluent area.”
What he thinks he and his partner David Foster are doing right is that their model allows their stores to operate at a low cost, and be small and operational with just one or two employees. Their upcoming downtown location will be even smaller than their South L.A. one; while it won’t have any room for tables, there’s an outdoor courtyard where customers can dine. Because of the low-cost buildout, they could open Everytable stores in every neighborhood, especially food deserts where people don’t have access to healthier fare. “It does feel like we’re at the beginning of something that has the potential to get really big,” Polk says.
Each store is designed to be individually profitable in their own ways. While the downtown location may charge more for its food, the profits don’t subsidize the other outposts that are located in areas with lower income; it’s meant to provide growth for the business in general. “[The South L.A.] store is not meant to generate a ton of cash for us, but it is meant to be self-sustaining and that’s what we wanted,” Polk says.
In order to keep costs low, they have to run a tight ship, making sure there’s not a lot of waste and that that they’re disciplined in efficiency. Polk credits Foster, who has a background in private equity, for being on top of this. While they’ll still buy good and tasty ingredients, at the same time they’ll pick items that don’t break the bank. They open and close on time, and make sure they don’t incur too much overtime with employees.
In many ways, Everytable is similar to chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s LocoL restaurant in Watts, which aims to offer more healthy food options to underserved neighborhoods and hire from within the community. On a recent visit to Everytable, two youths were managing the store, cheerfully chatting with customers about their products and mission, and handling the cash register and stocking supplies. They were hired from youth organizations: one was from the RightWay Foundation that helps transition foster youth, and another from RootDown LA, a nonprofit run by youths to support healthy food and nutrition education in South L.A.
“We’re basically sourcing from the community and nonprofit partners to really give employment opportunities to folks who might otherwise be marginalized when it comes to looking for a job,” Polk says.
The challenges Polk and Foster do face are the usual growing pains of a business. “Running a business is hard and as an organization grows you have to learn how to manage groups of people and that has been sort of challenging, but overall it’s been an incredibly successful experience,” Polk says.
“I’m a guy that believes that healthy food is a right and healthcare is a human right. There shouldn’t be places [where] a kid born there has on average a 10-year lower lifespan than someone born somewhere else.”<br> - Everytable Co-owner Sam Polk
Polk and Foster first came up with the idea behind Everytable while they were running Groceryships, a nonprofit that helps families in food deserts gain the resources to get their families and themselves healthy. (Polk is still the head of Groceryships.) After spending most of his 20s on Wall Street, Polk realized during the crash how everything was connected and what he was doing was part of a larger system — and he didn’t like his role in it. He left the hedge-fund industry, and in 2013, while Netflix binge-watching documentaries like Forks Over Knives and A Place at the Table, he learned about food deserts and the intersection between poverty and food health-related illnesses like obesity and diabetes.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and I was still unaware [at that time] that there were neighborhoods where per capita income is $13,000 a year and life expectancy was 10 years lower [than somewhere] like Pacific Palisades, for example,” he says. “That just seemed like — for lack of a better word — too hard.”
According to the L.A. Times, the median household income in University Park was $18,533 in 2008, which is low for the City and County of Los Angeles.
As an example of what it’s like to live in South L.A., Polk compares it to the feeling of being on a road trip and eating so much fast food that you can’t wait to get back home and eat healthy again. But for the people in these food deserts, fast food is all they have. “The level of disease in these neighborhoods, the amount of people that we meet on a daily basis who have kids who have cancer and parents that are on dialysis, it’s just across the board,” Polk says.
“I’m a guy that believes that healthy food is a right and healthcare is a human right,” he says. “There shouldn’t be places [where] a kid born there has on average a 10-year lower lifespan than someone born somewhere else.”
At his nonprofit Groceryships, mothers will meet once a week for a couple of hours over a course of six months, where they’ll have discussions with community leaders about nutrition and learn healthy food cooking skills. They also discuss other typically unaddressed issues like stress, depression, and childhood trauma, which add an emotional support component to these meetings. In addition, they get $30 worth of fresh produce per family per week. Last year they ran 20 groups, and they plan on doing 30 this year.
Polk and Foster noticed while running Groceryships that they had a number of single moms raising four children while working two jobs in their program. That’s when the seed for Everytable was planted in their minds. “This produce is great and cooking…but there are studies that show that it is theoretically impossible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget,” Polk says. “It just requires 14 hours of cooking per week. Living in poverty isn’t just about not enough money, it’s also about not enough time. That’s not just poverty, that’s all of us now, right?”
For a busy parent, even waiting in line for Tender Greens could take 20 minutes going in and out, time that they don’t have, he says. Polk and Foster realized there was a clear need for healthy food that was convenient, fast and affordable, so they broke down business models, and came up with Everytable. The team got investors and raised money from different people, including venture capital and social enterprise firms — and the rest is history.
The University Park location is situated in the original headquarters of Groceryships. Just like with the nonprofit, which gained popularity through word of mouth and community outreach, customers have heard about Everytable in a similar fashion. Since Everytable already had a deep network of nonprofits, clinics, churches and community groups from their work with Groceryships, word spread. For months before opening Everytable, Polk and Foster had meetings with the groups and did taste tests with them, and got feedback from them for their menus. They would go to the middle and high schools nearby and offer free food days to educate students about their service, and would go to churches and speak there on Sundays. “It’s a ton of community work, basically,” Polk says.
When they open their downtown location, they plan on letting their customers know in some way or another that they’re paying higher prices for a societal reason and know that Everyships is “first and foremost a mission-driven social enterprise that is really trying to solve an issue on a societal level,” Polk says. He wants people to start associating the brand as being one that offers incredible food at an affordable price point with a social justice tag on it.
It looks like we’ll be seeing many more Everytable stores throughout L.A. in the future. Polk doesn’t go into details about their upcoming locations, but says with a smile, “Let’s just say we have very aggressive growth plans.”
Top photo: Courtesy of Gina Cella