“L.A. is where the future comes to happen” is one of Robert Egger's favorite sayings. The 55-year-old food activist and entrepreneur repeated the phrase several times during a phone interview with the Weekly last week and again during the May 1 groundbreaking ceremony for his ambitious
56,000-square-foot kitchen facility, L.A. Kitchen.
It's a fitting mantra for the Southern California – raised Egger, whose L.A. Kitchen represents his homecoming from D.C., where he went from managing nightclubs to founding the D.C. Central Kitchen, a meal distribution and job training program, in 1989.
It's not projected to open until early next year, but the L.A. spinoff already boasts an assortment of slogans, each more progressive than the next: “Neither food nor people should ever go to waste” was printed on the backs of T-shirts worn by staff and volunteers during L.A. Kitchen's launch party, which was strategically held on May Day to suggest its revolutionary intentions. “Revealing the power of food” and “The future of Los Angeles is in the kitchen” are other slogans plastered on L.A. Kitchen's website. So what exactly is L.A. Kitchen and how does it plan to deliver on those lofty ideas?
Egger will tell you that the nonprofit L.A. Kitchen incorporates three main components: food recovery and distribution; culinary job training; and social enterprise in the form of a for-profit, meal-delivery program called Strong Food. It's tough to digest all of L.A. Kitchen's far-reaching objectives into just one slogan or agenda, but Egger says he's been developing the concept “brick by brick” for a quarter-century, first through D.C. Kitchen and later through its offshoot, the Campus Kitchens Project, an incubator for community kitchens on college campuses.
“I was adamant that L.A. Kitchen be somewhere that I perceived as the downtown of LA. I wanted to be very much somewhere that felt like the heartbeat of the city,” Egger says. Initially he was seduced by the burgeoning Arts District (“What I do is art,” he says), but eventually he was lured to Lincoln Heights for its cheaper, more readily available real estate.
Located in a brick warehouse near the 5 and 110 freeway interchange, L.A. Kitchen will be housed within the 56,000-square-foot facility belonging to L.A. Prep. The partnering organization will provide a fully licensed community kitchen where chefs and entrepreneurs can rent space and prepare their own foods to sell commercially. The California Homemade Food Act, which went into effect in January 2013, allows only “cottage foods” – namely baked goods, nuts and other nonperishables – to be made in home kitchens and sold to the public, but Egger says L.A. Prep will liberate home cooks from those restraints by providing them with a commercial space in which to experiment, legally.
“This building is what L.A. has been waiting for, because it gives all these entrepreneurs a USDA-approved facility that's been done in partnership with the Health Department,” he says by phone.
But Egger would rather spend time talking about L.A. Kitchen's 15-week job training program, which aims to teach culinary skills to youth coming out of foster care as well as formerly incarcerated adults fresh out of prison. He compares this aspect of L.A. Kitchen to Homeboy Industries, the L.A.-based bakery and café whose employees were previously incarcerated and formerly gang-involved.
Led by a team of social workers, graduates of the program will receive food-handling certificates and might even work alongside chefs like the Bazaar's José Andrés, an L.A. Kitchen board member with D.C. roots. Erik Oberholtzer, one of the founders of local restaurant chain Tender Greens, also serves on the board. Among nearly 70 partners are Alma restaurant, Cafe Gratitude and Whole Foods market.
With Andrés and Oberholtzer on board, a legion of high-profile partners and AARP's first-ever million-dollar grant, Egger hopes that L.A. Kitchen will become not only “the biggest food-production hub in America” but also one of the largest food-service contractors.
He's referring to a meal-service program dubbed Strong Food, which seeks to obtain produce at a reduced price from local farmers and use it to prepare, package and distribute healthy meals to L.A. public schools, hospitals, prisons, charities and government organizations. Ideally, Strong Food also will employ graduates of L.A. Kitchen's job-training program.
Egger, a self-described nutritional futurist, says he learned about supply and demand while organizing shows and booking bands for D.C. nightclubs. He decided to put those business skills – along with a “punk-rock DIY” ethos – to good use after observing that local charities were ineffective at feeding the hungry.
“Historically, what charities do is they wait until food is so rotten that they give it away,” Egger says. Instead, L.A. Kitchen's plan is to reclaim fresh produce that otherwise would go to waste.
“This is a food revolution,” says Egger, although he insists that he's not your typical foodie. “To me, food is empowerment, jobs, opportunity.”
While the two-story kitchen is under construction in Lincoln Heights, L.A. Kitchen will test its pilot program, which is currently seeking volunteers, at St. Vincent Meals on Wheels in Westlake.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the square footage of L.A. Kitchen, which is housed within L.A. Prep. It also incorrectly attributed the community kitchens to L.A. Kitchen, when they are in fact an initiative of L.A. Prep. We regret the error.