Sam Polk, the founder of an innovative new business, Everytable, that brings nutritious food to underserved areas, would never have found his calling if not for the Great Recession.
Polk was a young hedge fund trader in the go-go years of the housing bubble, when greed reached its vertiginous limits. Then everything imploded in the fall of 2008. For Polk, it was a blessing in disguise.
“I was climbing up the ranks, and by 30 I was the senior trader for one of the largest hedge funds in the world,” he recalls. “I was there during the crash, watching Wall Street freak out over losing a lot of money.”
It was a moment of reckoning for Polk. “I didn’t like where I was in the world, and I was reading Taylor Branch’s books about Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders. I had a desire to do something other than make more money for rich people.”
Even as a child, Polk wasn’t completely unaware of America’s class inequities. “I grew up in Glendale. My mom was a nurse practitioner and she used to take us down to Skid Row to give us some perspective.”
He also vividly remembers the unrest following the Rodney King trial in 1992 and the devastation that changed the face of South L.A., robbing it of many grocery stores and other vital retail services.
In 2013, Polk started Groceryships. “It was a nonprofit that helped parents living in food deserts get themselves and their families healthy,” he says. The holistic, community-led program addressed health issues in myriad ways: cooking classes, nutrition education, emotional support groups. “There’s a direct relationship between depression and childhood trauma and unhealthy eating,” Polk points out.
In 2014, a private equity trader named David Foster was pulled into Polk’s orbit. Like Polk, he was looking for a way to give back to his community. “He had left his private equity job and had read my writing,” Polk recalls. “He volunteered for Groceryships and that went well, so he came on board full-time.”
It was an excellent fit. “David has one of the smartest financial minds I’ve ever seen,” Polk says.
The two launched Everytable in 2015. “We wanted to test a simple but revolutionary for-profit model that makes it possible to create healthy food from scratch for roughly the same price as fast food.”
All of the Everytable food is prepared at a central kitchen by veteran chefs, then packaged in grab-and-go containers and distributed to its five stores in downtown L.A., South L.A., Baldwin Hills, Century City and Santa Monica (there will be five more within the year). The restaurants are small, typically 500 to 1,000 square feet, with no in-house kitchen. “They cost $200,000 to build out, versus $1.5 million for a typical restaurant,” Polk says. This stripped-down approach requires only two employees per shift.
Working with local growers and suppliers, Everytable creates nutritious and tasty meals for about the same price per serving as fast food: as little as $4.50 to $6 in areas where families earn well below the citywide average salary. In other locations, prices are higher, set by the financial demographics of the neighborhood.
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In the South L.A. location at 1101 W. 23rd St., one of the most popular items — Jamaican jerk chicken with coconut rice and beans, kale, carrots, plantains and a spicy barbecue sauce — sells for $4.95.
Polk imagines his model being duplicated wherever there’s a need. “Everytable could be replicated thousands of times. Healthy food is a human right. In some places, you get hungry for lunch and there’s nothing healthy to buy.”
Even investors more motivated by money than empathy are impressed with Everytable, Polk says. “It’s easily franchise-able and inexpensive. We are able to access capital from major restaurant investors and several foundations. This is an incredibly scalable model.”
Underneath it all, though, the desire to do good is inevitably a big motivator for everyone. “It’s a deeply social mission–driven business,” Polk says. “People identify with that.”