Los Angeles, CA – Up until recently, Rickey Smith sold his organic foods at 10 different farmer’s markets around the Los Angeles region. Then the Tennessee native learned something that disturbed him and forced the former Proctor and Gamble executive to take a hard look at what he was doing.
“Some of the ones we were in were not true certified farmer’s markets. A lot of the farmers coming weren’t growing their own food. They were going downtown getting food grown in Mexico and repackaging it and going to the farmer’s markets and selling, and the managers of the markets knew it.
“I had to make a value judgment about who I was, and who the company was; whether we wanted to live the integrity we (talked of),” continued Smith, who went on to make the tough decision to dropping five of the farmer’s market sites including his biggest money-making venue.
Then a higher power stepped in, believes Smith who is a firm believer in God and the power of faith, and replaced what he had lost.
“What happened was that USC came in; Whole Foods came in and the state of California called me,” said Smith, who founded his company in an illegally converted Venice garage with only $36 in his bank account, after losing his job, his girl friend and his home in the historic Lincoln Place apartment building in Venice, Calif., in a one month span.
Now Urban Green, which its founder and CEO calls a hospitality and lifestyle company dedicated to the expansion of sustainability, has some pretty high-powered projects on its plate.
These include rolling out its products–organic sweets and salads–in Whole Foods Market. This will take place at the end of this month first in Pasadena, then Venice and then the nation. Urban Green is also serving as one of the preferred catering companies at USC; and is now working with the State of California park system to help renovate and reclaim a brownfield at 1245 N. Spring St., which is the Chinatown stop of the Metro Gold Line.
The brownfield was the western terminus for the transcontinental railroad and since 1876 has been either a train station or rail yard.
Smith won the two-year contract in a manner similar to how he has garnered many things for his company. The entrepreneur met Sean Woods-a supervisor of the Los Angeles region of the state park system-at a city event he was catering nearly two years before receiving the contract.
“I said give me your card, I know we’re going to work together some day, I just don’t know how or when,” recalled Woods, who said it was Smith’s delicious food and philosophy of leaving as small a carbon footprint on the land as possible that prompted awarding Urban Green a two-year contract to create a pilot program to create a raised-bed urban farm at the site which in 2006 was opened as the Los Angeles State Historic Park.
“We’re going to be restoring a place called Millie’s,” explained Smith about a historic, decade’s old structure that was initially Sam’s Lunch Stand and fed railroad workers for more than 60 years. Millie was Sam’s daughter and operated the business until 2001.
In addition to serving organic Mexican coffee for a $1 a cup, Smith said he and his various partners including Farm Lab, will grow as much of the food used in the cafe as possible; recycle 100% of the kitchen waste; create a composting program, where children can learn hands-on and offer Yoga classes.
“Everything we do is going to be community oriented. The yoga classes will be free, and we’ll be teaching about permaculture . . . which is a set of core principles–earth care, people care and fair share.”
Urban Green which formally began in 2001 just days before the 9-11 attacks, actually stems from Smith’s upbringing in the rural, segregated Tennessee town of Wartrace.
There he, his family and his neighbors grew their food and practiced the permaculture–which Smith calls the common sense approach of being frugal, not taking more than you need and always giving back to society and the earth.
The 45-year-old Mt. Washington entrepreneur expects his work with the state to be the start of an ongoing effort and projects that the cafe will begin operating in stages with the coffee going on sale starting in spring.