A former hedge fund trader thinks centralized kitchens and sliding scale prices are going to crack the code of making healthy food affordable for everyone.
Everytable has 10 stores in California with more on the way.Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times
The chicken tinga is the same in both Los Angeles establishments: It’s a bowl of pasture-raised chicken, lentils, quinoa and black beans.
At the University Park outpost of Everytable, it costs $5.10. In Monterey Park, a 15-minute drive away, it’s $8.35.
That variable pricing — less in an area with students and working-class families, more in a spot with prime real estate — is part of Everytable’s Robin Hood-esque pitch to make healthy, fresh food affordable to everyone. It has won Sam Polk, its founder and chief executive, plaudits and millions of dollars in investment in the five years since he started the company.
By the end of the year he expects to double the number of stores in California to 20, from 10, then double again in 2022. Next year, Everytable is coming to New York, where Mr. Polk plans to open 100 outlets in three years — more than the 94 spots that Chipotle has across the city after nearly 30 years in business.
“No one says, ‘I want to kill myself with food today,’” Mr. Polk said. “They also don’t want to cook and they also don’t want to spend a lot of money. So you can see what the opportunity is.”
And yet, food that is healthy, affordable and something people actually want to eat has long been an elusive goal in the United States. For one thing, healthy food isn’t often a big seller. (Remember Burger King’s “Satisfries”? The healthier French fries, which customers named “the saddest fries,” lasted about a year on the chain’s menu.) Many lower-income communities also resist the idea of do-gooders from the outside telling them what they should or shouldn’t eat.
But the biggest obstacle is making the numbers work. Fresh ingredients are more expensive than highly processed ones and the result is grain bowls galore for those who can spend $10 or more per meal, and fast food full of salt, fat and sugar for everyone else. Over the past decade, a series of entrepreneurs have tried, and mostly failed, to find ways to serve food that is both healthy and affordable: The celebrity chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson boasted that the veggie burgers at their Southern California chain Locol would revolutionize fast food, but they closed their four restaurants within two and a half years.
Everytable’s sliding-scale pricing is one way to address the higher costs. But Mr. Polk’s real innovation is something his customers don’t see: a hyper-efficient supply chain that churns out the kind of fresh meals typically found in upscale farm-to-table chains at half the price. He is building commercial-scale kitchens and managing a fleet of delivery trucks to supply his stores and a growing network of subscription customers and smart fridges.
If this system sounds a lot like the ones used by the big food manufacturers and fast-food chains that entrepreneurs like Mr. Polk have vowed to defeat, it is — and intentionally so. Mr. Polk, a former hedge-fund trader, is uninterested in being small or artisanal, preferring instead to co-opt the strength of the fast-food industry while pushing reform.
“The question is how can you produce made-from-scratch meals for the same price as fast food?” he said. “We think it’s building out the same kind of infrastructure fast food has, with the same economies, for fresh food.”
Mr. Polk is a somewhat unlikely ambassador for the good-food movement. He spent eight years on Wall Street, first as a bond trader, then at a hedge fund, where at age 30 he quit in a rage over what he deemed an inadequate $3.6 million annual bonus. He had, as he wrote in a raw guest essay in this newspaper, a wealth addiction, a subject he elaborated on in a 2016 memoir, “For The Love of Money.” In it, Mr. Polk, now 41, describes growing up with an abusive father, followed by years of struggle with bulimia and alcohol and drug abuse. His quest for money, and through it power, was an effort to prove he was worthy.
Healthy food had never been much of an interest for Mr. Polk. (His favorite restaurant remains the Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger, a longstanding go-to for Wall Street types.) After leaving finance, he traded New York for Los Angeles. He taught writing to high school girls in a group foster home and visited jails and juvenile detention centers to speak about getting sober. He was, he said, searching for purpose.
Then, in 2013, he stumbled upon the documentary “A Place at the Table,” which spotlights the problem of hunger in America. “It was the first time I understood that there were neighborhoods that didn’t have access to fresh food and that led to a high incidence of obesity and diabetes and heart disease,” Mr. Polk said. “It was clear to me that healthy food should be a human right, not a luxury product.”
Within a year, Mr. Polk started Groceryships, a nonprofit that provided money to low-income families to buy wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and grains, along with education on how to prepare them. (It was renamed Feast in 2018.) “I had this idea that nonprofits were how you do good in the world,” Mr. Polk said. “But what I learned quickly is that nonprofits were how you spend a lot of your time sucking up to rich people.”
Mr. Polk realized he needed a business model.
Despite his very public exit from the financial world, Mr. Polk still thinks — and talks — like a Wall Street veteran. He’s “bullish” on New York’s comeback and obsessed with the “elasticity of demand” (how rising prices affect the volume of purchases). Unlike many reformers, who are keen to tear down what they see as a fundamentally flawed food system, Mr. Polk is single-minded about efficiency, often mulling aloud how Everytable is, or can be more like, Amazon.
“We think of Amazon as a website, but its power comes from its operational and logistical efficiencies and scale — that’s where they win,” Mr. Polk said. “Honestly, I think Everytable is in a similar place for food as Amazon was in 1997.”
Call it pluck or hubris. Either way, Mr. Polk’s vision of how to make fresh food affordable is a departure from the way fast-casual restaurants usually operate.
In the traditional model, pioneered by Chipotle in the 1990s, each burrito, salad or bowl is prepared in house. That means that for each location the company needs to build a kitchen, deliver ingredients and train staff. Because these restaurants are generally located in urban centers, they are more expensive than an industrial facility, where one set of workers can produce thousands of meals for multiple locations, as well as for delivery.
In contrast, Everytable’s meals are prepared in a kitchen with pots big enough to cook 50 gallons of chicken tinga at a time. Its stores are small, usually 500 to 700 square feet, just big enough to house a wall of refrigerated cases, a microwave and two employees to stock shelves and work the checkout. Mr. Polk also assembled a fleet of refrigerated trucks to deliver food to stores and to customers at home. These decisions, he explained, allow him to sell meals at whatever price a neighborhood could afford.
This setup, Mr. Polk noted with pride, is vastly different than, say, the one deployed by Sweetgreen, the upscale salad chain worth about $1.8 billion, which he both admires and resents for its success. On a trip to New York last spring to scout locations for Everytable, Mr. Polk went out of his way to buy a Sweetgreen salad, just to see what his custom bowl, packed with quinoa, sweet potato, broccoli, chicken, avocado and more, would cost. “I paid $21.50 for a salad and a drink,” he announced to an entourage of real estate brokers (who had chosen a New York slice instead). “Their food is extremely well done. But I was a hedge fund trader and I can’t afford a $21 salad.”
Sweetgreen is known for its locally sourced and environmentally friendly ingredients, but Mr. Polk argues that its prices have as much to do with its model as with its food. Everytable serves dishes that look a lot like the ones you’d find there. A sample shipped to this reporter included a $6.55 carnitas bowl with a generous portion of rice and braised pork, brightened with pickled onions and tangy feta and a $6.95 turmeric chicken salad with curry-yogurt dressing. It had fewer greens than a $10-plus salad from Sweetgreen, but was as fresh and full of flavor thanks to tart diced apples and a sweet-and-salty seed-packed granola. (Sweetgreen, which in June filed to go public, is clearly aware of its high labor costs: Last summer, it acquired a company that developed a robotic kitchen that can turn out salads and bowls without human intervention.)
Michael Kaufman, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a partner at the Astor Group, an investment and advisory firm to the food and beverage industry, said Everytable’s centralized model allows it to do what other restaurants cannot. Specifically, it “can populate underserved areas or wealthier ones with retail outlets or subscribers and create efficiencies that are significant.”
Ghost kitchens, the latest fad in the restaurant world, are chasing these same efficiencies. Essentially commercial kitchens for rent, they allow multiple restaurants to prepare food for delivery in the same space, and they have taken off during the pandemic: The celebrity chef Guy Fieri, for example, is serving up his famous Donkey Sauce at outlets of Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen in 33 states and the District of Columbia. But unlike Everytable, ghost kitchens usually serve specific neighborhoods, rather than a whole city, and they generally rely on third-party delivery services to get food to the customer. Services like DoorDash and Grubhub reportedly charge anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the order total.
“Success here is about integrating the chain,” said Gad Allon, a professor of operations management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Sam understands that when you do it all, you enjoy the economies of scale.”
Everytable’s financials bear this out: The average cost to produce and package an Everytable meal is about $3.25 — still a 35 percent margin if you sell a meal for $5. Company models also show that preparing all its food in a central commissary reduces the cost of building out each store by 75 percent.
In 2020, an apocalyptic year for most restaurants, Everytable sold 5.3 million meals and saw its revenues jump to $36 million from $6 million a year earlier, even though it was forced to temporarily close five of its 10 Los Angeles stores. The rise was fueled by home-delivery subscriptions as well as contracts with city and state agencies that were keen to find ready-to-eat meals for the swelling ranks of food-insecure: older adults, college students and the homeless. Last November, the company raised $16 million from investors.
For Everytable, the big question is whether Americans will embrace grab-and-go restaurants at the speed Mr. Polk needs to open them to achieve his Amazon-ambition efficiencies.
Grab-and-go options were popular during the height of the pandemic, when they were seen as a safer option. But as Americans creep back toward some kind of normal, they may revert to their preference for fully customizable food. “A lot of marketing dollars have been spent on the idea of ‘have it your way,’” said Mr. Kaufman of Harvard Business School. “Is this going to be perceived, particularly in disadvantaged communities, as a second-best way of having restaurant food? We can’t afford Sweetgreen so they’re giving us grab-and-go?”
LaToya Meaders, the president and co-founder of Collective Fare, a cafe and catering company in Brownsville, Brooklyn, says it all comes down to the marketing. In Brownsville, the main thoroughfares are a parade of fast food, fried chicken, seafood and soul food restaurants, and national brands like McDonald’s have cachet.
Collective Fare has thrived, Ms. Meaders said, by integrating into the community — serving a vegetable-rich cauliflower macaroni and cheese alongside the must-have fried chicken sandwiches — and hiring from the neighborhood. “People don’t want to be told what you think they like,” she said. “In these communities, they get that enough.”
Still, Ms. Meaders is optimistic that with the right marketing, Everytable can overcome that sort of skepticism. She might open a franchise through the company’s social equity franchise program, which is in the process of raising a $20 million debt fund to support and train Black entrepreneurs and put them on a path to owning and operating an Everytable store. She is also in talks to collaborate with the company to create a signature New York dish, similar to Everytable’s Trap Kitchen Chicken Curry, which was developed by Black chefs in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles. “There’s a risk of a white guy coming in and saying, ‘You got to eat that way,’” she said. “But we can say, ‘We rocks with him.’”
Another concern: whether Everytable’s food is actually affordable enough for the poorest Americans. Adam Drewnowski, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington and a leading researcher on social disparities and health, said he was encouraged by Everytable’s model, especially its focus on prepared foods, which aid those who are time- as well as cash-poor. But he noted that, even with a recent increase in food stamp benefits, the federal government’s Thrifty Food Plan, an estimate of the cost of a minimum, nutritionally sufficient diet, allocates just $6.89 for a full day’s worth of calories.
Ultimately, though, Everytable’s fate will probably be decided by the public. And predicting what people will embrace at mealtime is a tricky proposition. For Katrina Barber, at least, a 31-year-old photographer, Everytable works. She discovered it during the pandemic after she lost her job in Austin, Texas, and moved to Los Angeles. Money was, and remains, tight. Since Ms. Barber isn’t much of a cook, she finds herself ordering the chicken tinga or carnitas bowl at the Everytable in University Park as much as twice a week.
Ms. Barber is enthusiastic about Everytable’s mission, but her loyalty is cemented by its low prices. “I love spending $6 for something that tastes like a $10 meal,” she said. “Instead of going to Burger King or Taco Bell and spending the same amount, I can get a nutritious meal that actually tastes good.”
Mr. Polk acknowledges that Everytable’s food may not be affordable to everyone. But over time, he plans to bring prices down, just like — you guessed it — Amazon. “When Amazon started, they were selling books for the same price as Barnes & Noble,” he said. “What Bezos intuited is that if he lowered the price, even though he wouldn’t make as much margin, it would create a massive wave of adoption.”
Of course, Amazon went on to sell a lot more than just books — and Mr. Bezos has never embraced a social welfare mission like the one Mr. Polk envisions. But Mr. Polk is following the Bezos playbook by keeping his costs fixed and rapidly expanding his offerings. Everytable now offers cut fruit, smoothies and pressed juices (which sell for $5 versus $9 or more at boutique juice bars). The company also is trying out a program to sell medically tailored meals to serve patients with chronic diseases. Mr. Polk is optimistic that Everytable’s meal prices can fall to $4 to $6, depending on the neighborhood, from $6 and $8.
“Then you see the whole world start to change,” he said. “You’ll get a fresh salad for as much as Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”
Everytable Is Trying to Make Healthy Food as Accessible as Fast Food – The New York Times
A former hedge fund trader thinks centralized kitchens and sliding scale prices are going to crack the code of making healthy food affordable for everyone.