When a new grab-and-go cafe called Everytable opens in a South Los Angeles food desert this week, it will be possible to buy a healthy entree—say, a kale chicken Caesar salad or Cajun blackened fish, made from scratch—for the price of fast food.
When the same cafe opens soon in downtown L.A., the prices will be a little higher. The new chain plans to use variable pricing—based on geography—to make healthy food affordable in every neighborhood.
Founders Sam Polk and David Foster (one a former hedge fund trader, the other a former VP at a private equity firm) also run a nonprofit called Groceryships, which gives low-income families gift cards for fresh produce along with nutrition and cooking classes. But as they worked with parents, they saw the need for more food options when people didn't have time to cook.
"We kept hearing, for example, 'I'm a single mom with four kids and two jobs, and sometimes I need to eat on the go,'" says Polk. "In South Los Angeles, what that means is McDonald's or other fast food. David and I basically started thinking about a concept that would provide healthy, convenient, delicious meals to the families that we were serving, at prices that were competitive with anything else in the area."
By using a grab-and-go model—all of the food is prepared each day at a central kitchen, so each location will need less equipment and staff—the cost structure is low, and the restaurant can pass the savings to customers.
For someone struggling to pay rent and other bills, it's cheap enough to be a viable alternative to fast food. "For that parent, whether a meal costs $3.50 or $4 is a big difference," Polk says, "where the people in more affluent areas are used to paying $12 to $14 for their healthy food. We basically decided that we could create a model that was competitive in every location, and was affordable for both the parents in South Los Angeles and also in other areas of the city."
The cafe's chefs, who previously worked at New York's Le Cirque and L.A.'s A-Frame, worked with mothers in South L.A. to create a menu that reflected what they might want to cook themselves if they had more time. Dishes range from a pork pozole to a Vietnamese chicken salad. For kids, one option is a "spaghetti" and meatball dish made with spaghetti squash and turkey-quinoa meatballs.
Each location is designed to be profitable on its own, whether it's in a low-income or high-income neighborhood. But because the cafes in higher-income neighborhoods will have higher margins, those customers can feel like they're supporting the startup's broader mission.
Everytable plans to open a total of three or four locations in Los Angeles this year, and to have 10 to 20 by 2017. Then they hope to expand to other cities.
"We really started digging into this problem of food deserts, and we believe we've created a model that has the potential to bring healthy food to every neighborhood in the country," says Polk. "We're excited to do that as quickly as we can."
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