If you want to do good in the world, the standard way to go about it is to start a nonprofit. So that’s what Sam Polk, then a hedge fund trader, did in 2013. He wanted to make healthy food available in poor parts of Los Angeles, but soon realized that, as it often is, the conventional wisdom was wrong. Nonprofits, he says, “were how you spend a lot of your time sucking up to rich people.” What he needed was a business model.
His answer was Everytable, a chain of grab-and-go restaurants located in both low-income and affluent areas of the county. The menu, which includes a Jamaican jerk chicken bowl, chicken Caesar salad and Thai coconut soup, is the same wherever the food is sold, but the prices are different. That curry bowl costs $6.25 in the Watts neighborhood, while patrons in Brentwood pay $7.95. The model is working: sales in Compton—where the per capita income is about $16,000 a year and rates of obesity are triple those in Brentwood—are up 42%, year over year, and they’re up 27% in South Central, another notoriously disadvantaged section of L.A. “There is massive demand for healthy food in these neighborhoods,” says Polk. “It was just a question of how to make it affordable.”
While Everytable’s varying prices have garnered the most attention, Polk is emphatic that they are not the business’s secret sauce. The key is that he was able to achieve important economies of scale by making their food in one local, 20,000-square-foot central commissary and finding all manner of ways of selling it to people. In addition to Everytable’s restaurants—there will be at least 10 by the end of the year—Polk has launched fresh-food vending machines in corporate offices and apartment complexes, and a delivery service, where for as little as $2.99, you can order up Everytable food to eat at home.
That expansion beyond brick-and-mortar stores proved even smarter when the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic shut down city restaurants, and forced millions to stay at home. Where most eateries were caught flat-footed, Everytable was able to nimbly shift its distribution to individuals at home, as well as to in-need homeless shelters, senior living communities and food-insecure students. At press time, more than 1.5 million meals had been provided to vulnerable populations. “There was a tremendous need for healthy, affordable food when the economy was booming,” says Polk. “When it came to a standstill and people couldn’t leave their homes, our mission remained the same, it just became more important to a lot more people.”