It’s pretty normal to see customers buying three or four pre-packaged meals at a time at the South L.A. location of SoCal restaurant chain Everytable. That’s what first-time customer Davian St. Clair is doing.
“I got a little bit of everything. I tried the Jamaican jerk chicken, the cajun blackened fish, the ensalada fresca and a couple of other things as well,” he said.
And he didn’t buy all of that food just because it looked good. It was also pretty inexpensive. Each meal at this location of Everytable is around $5, but that isn’t because the restaurant is skimping on the quality or amount of food.
“I just love that everything is kind of healthy,” St. Clair said. “The portions are really nice and I can definitely come back here and eat all the time and try something different.”
Since opening this location in 2016, Everytable has opened four more restaurants in the Los Angeles area. The twist is that the same meals St. Clair bought in South L.A. would be about $8 each at the Everytable restaurants downtown or in Santa Monica because the chain’s meals are cheaper in areas where the average income is lower and healthy food is not as easily available.
“The idea is to make food really accessible wherever it is from an affordability standpoint,” said Everytable co-found David Foster, “to price it basically as low as we possibly can in these underserved communities so that we make it possible for people to access really great, convenient, healthy food when they previously have been kind of left out of the functioning food system.”
Everytable’s key to maintaining such low prices? All of their meals are made in one central kitchen.
Seven days a week, Everytable’s commercial kitchen receives thousands of dollars worth of produce that chefs whip up into healthy meals that customers can either heat up and eat on the spot, or take home.
The kitchen is busy 20 hours a day. In the morning, the chefs and meal prep team come in. At night, the packers put the food together. The resulting pre-packaged meals get dropped off at each Everytable location every morning before the stores open.
Everytable co-founder and CEO Sam Polk explained that because all the food preparation happens in one place, it’s much cheaper for the chain to open new locations.
“Your average restaurant costs $1.5 million to build, and it’ll be 25,000 square feet of space and employ 10 or 15 people,” Polk said. “But for us, our locations are 500 to 900 square feet, and because they don’t have a kitchen, they’re much less expensive to build out. And because everything’s already ready to go in grab and go packages, we only need one or two or at most ever three people in the location.”
Polk and Foster have been working in the food space for a few years now. Polk’s nonprofit Groceryships works with parents living in so-called food deserts who want to learn to make healthier meals for their families. It was actually while he and Foster were working at Groceryships that they came up with the idea for Everytable.
“When we were working in South L.A., we were talking to folks and parents a lot who would say things like, 'There’s McDonald’s, and it’s fast and convenient and affordable, and we need something like that that’s healthy,'” Polk said.
Veronica Flores is the CEO of the South L.A. nonprofit Community Health Councils, which focuses on health education and policy. She said restaurants like Everytable can definitely play a role in increasing food access in underserved communities.
“Having small restaurants that can provide healthy options at affordable prices will help those families that many times are working and tell the kids, ‘When you get off school, here’s some money, go get you some food. Because I’m not going to be home and I’m not going to be able to cook.' Or it’s not going to be fresh produce,’” Flores said.
Her colleague Sadio Woods has lived in South L.A. her entire life. She remembers how grocery stores in the community started disappearing with no notice after the 1992 civil unrest. Even though South L.A. always lacked an abundance of fresh food options, it made finding healthy and affordable food even harder.
“The store was there one weekend and the next weekend you went to get your groceries and it was gone,” she said. “They just left.”
Still, Woods emphasized that food deserts are created by multiple elements compounding together – not just a lack of grocery stores.
“There’s also overconcentration of fast food,” she said. “And then populations of folks that don’t have food security, that don’t have enough money in their pocket to purchase food at all, let alone healthy food.”
This is why Woods agrees that even though Everytable is not a one-stop fix for food inequality, it fills a specific need in underserved communities.
“Think about the life of a busy person, trying to feed a family, living in a food desert. It’s helpful when it’s convenient and it’s at a price point you can afford. It takes the guesswork out of it,” she said.
But the best part is that the communities Everytable is trying to reach actually like the food.
“I know a lot of locals and neighbors that have tasted this food and they’re surprised because they have this stereotype that salads are just like lettuce,” said Everytable employee and South L.A. native Jailene Miranda.
But healthy food isn’t like that at Everytable. Take the ensalada fresca with chicken, for example. “That has corn, black beans, bell peppers, pickled onions and the dressing is a salsa verde which is still a Hispanic type of flavor,” Miranda said. “They are very surprised when they try our food.”
And that’s not even because the menu is designed by big-name gourmet chefs like Johnny Yoo, who previously served as the executive chef at Roy Choi’s A-Frame before joining Everytable. It’s because Everytable asked the communities they wanted to serve what they liked to eat.
“Early days, we did taste tests that were with the Groceryships participants,” Foster said. “We’d bring in some food and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? Can you rate it? Why do you like it? Why do you not like it? What can we do better?’”
If you ask Davian St. Clair what Everytable could be doing better, the answer is: not much.
“I love it. I was already telling my friends about it and I’m gonna bring some of my friends, back for sure,” he said.
In June, Everytable will be opening a location in Compton – and next year, Polk and Foster are looking to expand beyond L.A. They’ve spent the last few months gathering money from investors and even made an appearance on the ABC hit TV show “Shark Tank,” where they made a deal with guest shark Rohan Oza for a $1 million investment. They’re also thinking about franchising.
But even though Polk and Foster have their eye on a few other markets in the United States, they’re not jumping to leave the golden state just yet.
As Foster said, “There’s a lot of blue sky right here.”