Written by: Diana Hembree

Before the coronavirus struck, a Los Angeles-based healthy fast-food chain called Everytable had just received funding to expand its operations. During the pandemic, it pivoted from a retail model built on storefronts and meal subscriptions toward a mobile emergency response team to tackle food insecurity. It quickly became a lifeline for city residents and isolated people in need.

In fact, working with the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging, Santa Monica College, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Everytable distributed more than 3 million emergency meals to homeless shelters, senior living centers, homebound elders, and hungry college students and families who didn’t always know where their next meal was coming from.

“We’re thrilled to see how quickly Everytable stepped up to adapt their way of working and address the growing COVID-19 crisis,” said Judy Belk of the California Wellness Foundation, which together with the Annenberg Foundation had invested $2.5 million in the franchise in early 2020. Everytable had also raised money from Acumen, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Dignity Health, and other funders, and it recently secured $16 million in a funding round led by Creadev and Kaiser Permanente Ventures.

Inspired by Everytable’s extraordinary work, the Center for Care Innovations invited Sam Polk, its CEO and co-founder, to our Colorado Health Innovation Community Catalyst group’s year-end celebration to discuss the innovative business and its partnerships with funders and non-profits like Homegirl Cafe of Homeboy Enterprises (above). After all, what better way to celebrate health care/community partnerships than one feeding hundreds of thousands of people in neighborhoods too often left behind? In this article, you’ll hear the story of Everytable’s battle for social equity in Los Angeles and the highlights from our festive discussion. 

From Wall Street to South LA: The story of Everytable

Everytable co-founder Sam Polk

Steve Jobs once said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” That applies to Everytable co-founder Sam Polk, who began connecting the dots during an epiphany he had working on Wall Street.

In a piece for the New York Times a few years ago, Polk traced the reasons he walked away from millions as a hedge fund trader at age 30. The turning point was his $3.6 million dollar annual bonus – instead of being thrilled, he was angry because he wanted more.  That’s when it hit him: “I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted,” he recalled.

Growing up, Polk’s family sometimes lived from paycheck to paycheck and he dreamed of being rich, but he was uneasy about his colleagues’ fury over higher taxes or anything else that threatened their bonuses. It was excruciatingly hard for Polk to break his golden handcuffs, but he did—walking away from his job and multi-million-dollar annual bonuses nearly 10 years ago. He attributed his ability to get out to his earlier struggle with alcohol and drugs, which allowed him to recognize his money lust for what it was: another addiction. “I am much happier,” he wrote. “I feel like I am really making a contribution.”

Although his “withdrawal” from Wall Street and panic attacks over money lasted nearly a year, he wrote, he went on to get married, give talks in the jails, and teach writing to foster system children. In 2013, Polk founded a nonprofit called Feast (it was originally named Groceryships) to combat the lack of fresh produce available in South LA.

It was work that mattered. In South Los Angeles, life expectancy is 10 years lower than that of more affluent areas of L.A., the average income is $13,000 a year, and food-related diseases like obesity and diabetes are strikingly high. Feast offered nutrition education, cooking classes, free produce, and support groups to help parents and others make healthy food choices.

A sampling of Everytable meals

What he and his crew eventually found, however, was that their participants appreciated the fresh produce, but since many families were juggling multiple jobs just to make ends meet, they often had to buy food on the run (and in South L.A., that meant fast food). That’s partly how the idea of Everytable—a grab-and-go chain featuring “nutritious, affordable food for everyone”— was born.

The other inspiration for Everytable was Taylor Branch’s series on the civil rights movement and Father Greg Boyle, whose book Tattoos on the Heart made a strong impression on Polk. Boyle runs Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based social enterprise that served as a catalyst for Everytable. “For more than 30 years, Homeboy Industries has helped people formerly involved in gangs and previously incarcerated men and women redirect their lives to become contributing members of the community,” Polk wrote recently. “If I had never met Father Greg and discovered his heart-led approach to business, Everytable would not exist today.”

But Everytable isn’t only a healthy food franchise. For starters, the enterprise bases its prices on the median income of the neighborhood where its stores are located. It makes its food from scratch. And over the next five years, it hopes to advance social equity by opening 25 franchises owned by entrepreneurs of color from underserved neighborhoods in Southern California. “We are basically busting this myth that there’s no demand for healthy food in Compton,” Polk said. 

“Healthy food is a right, not a privilege”

Physicians and others from Northeast Valley Health Corporation, the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, and other health care centers in California and Colorado were intrigued by the Everytable forum. After Polk’s talk, participants peppered him with questions.

One question some Catalyst members had voiced before the gathering was a simple one: How can Everytable offer fresh, healthy food for $5 or $6 a meal and still turn a profit? The answer, Polk said, could be traced to its central kitchen – something that was also key to getting food out to hundreds of thousands of residents in need during the pandemic.

Dorcia Whitebrake, Everytable’s first franchisee, in South Los Angeles (Everytable)

“I was working in South LA with all of these moms on a daily basis and came to understand that there was very real demand for fresh food,” Polk told us. “That’s when my nonprofit background of sorts and my Wall Street background started to intersect. I started to wonder, you know, ‘Why, if there’s so much demand for healthy food, is there no supply in underserved neighborhoods? I mean, there are a million reasons — structural racism and poverty among them — but as far as food businesses go, the reasons all have to do with underlying business models and perishability.”

The reason fast food companies are so big, Polk said, “is because they’ve figured out how to sell foods so cheaply using a structure of centralized production and national distribution. And if you start thinking about a Sweetgreen or really any fresh food restaurant as a food production facility, it’s completely inefficient. If Sweetgreen is going to have 20 restaurants around the city, they’re going to have 20 kitchens, 20 teams of people, 20 sets of equipment, and their rent is going to be in the most high-rent areas. And all those reasons are why the costs creep up and up and up. And so Everytable had to rethink everything about its business, starting with our kitchen model.”

Instead of each store making its own food, Polk explained, all Everytable meals are made in a central kitchen, then distributed across the city. This cuts the cost of opening each new store by 75 percent. “So if you happen to be in a zip code of a neighborhood, that’s below the average household income in the city, you’ll get a $5 price point,” Polk said. “And if you’re in a more affluent zip code, you’ll get a seven or $8 price point. This lets us offer an $8 meal in Brentwood, which is a great value there, but also a $5 or $6 meal in Compton, which is an even better value…We feel healthy food is a right, not a privilege.”

During the discussion, Catalyst members voiced excitement over the possibility of Everytable partnerships with their clinic or hospital, the enterprise’s battle against hunger in the pandemic, and its plan for social equity franchises, part of its mission to support entrepreneurship among people of color, who make up only 4.7.percent of franchise owners. Here are some highlights of the exchanges:

EverytABLE on health care partnerships

Catalyst member: “This is amazing, amazing work. Our organization – safety net providers in low-income communities – are striving to have some of these fresh fruits and vegetables at a good price. We’re currently doing food distribution and have a CalFresh grant, but this is taking it to a higher level. So I’d love to hear ideas about partnering.”

Polk:  “Well, great — thank you for asking. There are a few things that come to mind initially. One, if there is a hospital or a clinic with a certain amount of people, we can build in an Everytable store in that facility. We’re doing that a lot with Kaiser these days. We also have this network of SmartFridges, which are basically like healthy vending machines. So we can put smart fridges throughout those same facilities so that not only your patients, but also your providers and staff can have access to fresh, healthy food at all times, literally where they’re working. We also have a subscription delivery business, where we will drop a box of these fresh meals on your doorstep at the same pricing it would be in the stores.

“Also, what’s interesting about CalFresh – we’re working on that pretty hard right now – is that our restaurants can take the EBT cards for the restaurant meals program, but they can’t accept full SNAP. We’re working to make that happen. The funny thing is, something is wrong with the system where you can’t get a salad made by us with SNAP, but the center of a grocery store is all prepared food. Corn pops didn’t come out of the ground like corn pops; they were made somewhere into a thing. Same with Pop Tarts, same with hot pockets; it’s just that they’re shelf stable. And we’ve got all this federal regulation supporting processed and unhealthy food.

“So we’re working on that. But meanwhile, Everytable is expanding across Southern California, including everything from medically tailored meals to food as medicine partnerships. So we are definitely open for business for partnerships, if anybody wants to talk to us.”

On food and cultural sensitivity

A physician and Catalyst member who works in Los Angeles: “I’ve been to one of your stores here in downtown LA two blocks from us, and I’ve never actually known the story behind Everytable. So I’m really appreciative of the work that you do and your mission. My question is, in a predominantly Hispanic community like South LA, how do you make your meals culturally appealing?”

Polk: “Great question. I would say a starting point for us was that we knew that we couldn’t come into South LA carrying a wheat grass salad with lemon vinaigrette [laughter]. So we’ve basically designed the menu celebrating the cuisines of Los Angeles. The truth is that all cultures had cuisines that were basically healthy and delicious. And that’s how humans have evolved. It’s only in the last 50 years that we’ve gone to this crazy madness of prepared or processed food and junk food. So for example, some of our best sellers of all time include the Pueblo chicken tinga, which has been on our menu since the very beginning.

“Also, our best-selling dish of all time is actually something called the Trap Kitchen Chicken Curry, from two Compton chefs who started the Trap Kitchen soul food delivery business out of their grandmother’s kitchen. We partnered with them to make a chicken curry dish that is out of this world — super healthy, delicious, and filling, and it’s sort of beloved. So we trust that if we can make super-healthy food that folks in Inglewood will like, Brentwood folks will like it as well.”

On social equity franchising

Catalyst member: “Can you also talk about your social equity franchise program? It’s fascinating to think about how you use this to actually build up the skills and a community and provide opportunities to run a business. Are you really early in, or have you learned anything that you could share yet?”

Polk: “Well, we’re early in only in that we got all these program-related investments from the foundations and then coronavirus hit, but now we’re launching our first one in Hollywood this month. We’ve got plans and funding to build 30 next year and then another 30 the following year, all around Southern California. And we’ll start doing the same thing in New York City as well. And for us, it really is about ownership. Over the long run, we feel that we’re pushing against structural inequality, both through the pricing and locations of our restaurants, but also through economic ownership.

“And franchising is a great way for businesses to grow — Domino’s is all franchise, McDonald’s all franchise. But the problem with franchising is — like so many industries that perpetuate privilege — you’ve got to have money. You got to have capital basically to get into it. And so opportunity is not evenly distributed, but talent is. We’ve found really incredible entrepreneurs from historically marginalized backgrounds. We’ve gone to these large foundations so that after we train these folks and they go through what we call Everytable University, we can lend them the money to build their own franchise. We are big fans of sort of a push to raise the minimum wage to $15. At the same time, it doesn’t really change the racial wealth gap. But if you’ve got an entrepreneur who’s able to make a hundred, $200,000 a year with one of these stores and build it up and and then maybe take on a second store and a third or fourth or fifth store, that’s when you’ll really start to see change.”

Other questions involved sustainability (“We’re using recycled plastic at the moment because the pandemic interrupted our supply lines, but we will be back to compostable packaging soon”), personal protective equipment (“We have been successful in getting PPE but it’s expensive”), and partnerships with dieticians (“We do work with dieticians, especially on the medically tailored meals”). One participant also asked how a fast-food enterprise might encourage meals as a place of comfort and gathering (“We do offer some family-style meals, in which people can get four to six pieces of salmon or roast chicken and then sides of sweet potato mash, green beans, and whatever, so you’re basically creating a family-style meal with very limited cooking”).

The franchise has established a Helpline – (323) 458-6487 – so foundations, nonprofits and health care organizations can reach it directly. Polk also provided his direct email to Catalyst members.

“During the pandemic, all of a sudden you had vulnerable populations where the elderly and other [people at risk] who didn’t want to leave their homes,” Polk recalls. And so the question was, okay, now how can you get the food to the people? And that’s why Everytable’s structure – in which we control the production of food in a large central kitchen and also have our refrigerator delivery vehicle fleet – was able to move quickly across this large urban city. We can go anywhere people need us.”

  • Diana Hembree of the Center for Care Innovations adapted part of this article from an earlier story she wrote about Everytable for Inside Philanthropy. Quotes from the transcript of our Catalyst year-end celebration and forum were also edited for length and clarity.



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