Tavis Smiley (235344)

Sam Polk is a problem solver. When he could no longer sit back and watch Black and Latino neighborhoods across Los Angeles go without the benefit of having ready access to healthy food, Polk and his business partner David Foster pooled their resources and opened Everytable in downtown LA, a counter-service restaurant dedicated to providing its customers with nutritious and delicious food at a low cost. If you have several mouths to feed, phone Everytable’s catering service (the landline varies depending on location).

It seems cynical to say, but two White guys peddling pre-packaged meals to financially-impaired residents of the inner-city has all the makings of a corny, self-important Lifetime movie. Never-the-less, Polk’s endeavor may be just what the doctor ordered to counteract South LA’s notorious landscape of burger joints, taco stands and liquor stores populating almost every street corner.

Polk, who in his spare time moonlights as a health and wellness advocate, recently spoke to a crowd of patrons at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, where he and a team of his employees celebrated the grand opening of his newest Everytable location in early March. To kick things off, Polk spent roughly an hour glad-handing members of the community as they waited—in a line that wrapped around the entire food court—to receive a complementary sample of Everytable’s signature dish, Jamaican jerk chicken (smothered in coconut rice, beans, kale, carrots and plantains). This ode to Caribbean cuisine is less expensive than you’d think. At $5.50, it ranks as one of the highest priced items on the menu, though it costs less than a burger and fries at McDonald’s or Carl’s Jr.

Everytable’s wide-ranging spectrum of culinary offerings also includes Cajun Blackened Fish ($5.50), Yucatan Chili ($3.95), consisting of chickpeas, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, red bell pepper and baked tortilla chips, and if you’re partial to seafood, mixed-vegetables, or a merging of both, then you might consider exposing your taste buds to a helping of Everytable’s Salmon Japchae salad ($6.95), which features a blend of sweet potato noodles, kale, cabbage, pineapple, corn, cucumber, pickled ginger, and a zesty Gochujang Vinaigrette.

The menu is rounded out with a number of salads and culturally-inspired dishes, along with a few simple options for kids (spaghetti and meatballs, chicken nuggets, cheese pizza). However, if your interest in dessert is multi-faceted, then you might consider bypassing Everytable’s paltry selection of Chocolate Banana Pudding and Spicy Fruit Salad (both $2.50) for a more extensive offering.

In 2013, Polk launched a nonprofit called Groceryships to address the dearth of wholesome food-options in South LA, where the average income is $13,000 a year, according to a recent census report. Through his organization, Polk began helping families make better dietary choices by providing them with nutrition education, cooking classes and free produce. The following year, a chance encounter at one of Polk’s seminars spawned a business relationship between he and David Foster, who joined Groceryships full-time as a public outreach rep. Their partnership blossomed, but eventually the rigor of executing a two-man operation drained them of time, energy and capital. To avert these issues, the pair co-conceived Everytable and they’ve steadily grown since then.

“Instead of a big restaurant that has a lot of square feet of space and 10-15 employees, and a fully built out kitchen, our stores are usually in the mall and/or small with only two employees,” explained Polk regarding his business model. “That allows us to make these incredible meals but have a lower cost structure than a regular restaurant so that we can sell them at affordable prices. We have one central kitchen that sends the food to all of our locations.”

Polk continued, “In the Baldwin Hills mall, there are very few healthy options and that is true for many areas across Los Angeles. That’s why we started this company—to help families living in food deserts to get healthy. The core belief of this company is that every life and every neighborhood is valuable. Healthy food is a human right and should not be a luxury product available to only a few. This business is structured to make sure that we sell healthy and incredibly delicious food created by some of the best chefs in the world.”

Everytable’s business model drastically reduces the costs of the standard restaurant model, assures Polk. “Chefs at our local kitchen turn fresh, wholesome ingredients into delicious meals, which we sell through our small, grab-and-go storefronts. We want to make sure everyone can afford our meals, so we price them according to the neighborhood where each store is located. By having locations in economically diverse communities, we’re able to serve those living in food deserts whose current options are only low-quality, over-processed fast food chains, as well as those in more affluent communities who are sick of overpaying for healthy meals on-the-go. And because our prices differ from location to location, we’re ensuring everyone has access to wholesome, delicious meals at a price they can afford.”

Polk added, “We’re not out here to maximize profit, we’re out here to make sure that everyone has access. We aren’t going to sell $12 meals in Baldwin Hills and South LA where some people can’t afford that. Everytable is grounded in an ethos of non profits, it’s all about community service.”

Given that diet is linked to many health conditions, one consequence of diet-related disparities is that groups on the lower end of the economic spectrum tend to have higher incidences of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, Type II diabetes, and obesity.

In Santa Monica, Everytable ups it’s prices by roughly $3 per entree. This disparity may seem unfair to some—or even discriminatory to some degree—but Polk isn’t concerned about the potential backlash, especially from those who reside in a town that’s known internationally for its plush clothing boutiques, inflated housing costs, and ritzy, beach front hotels.

“If anyone has a problem with the difference in pricing, that person needs to take a deep look in the mirror,” Polk explained. “This is a world where there is deep structural inequality. A huge swath of our population is left out of a functioning food world, a functioning healthcare system and a functioning education system. All these things that should be human rights have become luxury

products. I won’t stand for it.”

To earn the trust of his African American customers, Polk wisely enlisted the assistance of a familiar face within the community—acclaimed journalist, television personality and activist Tavis Smiley, who currently serves as a boardmember for Everytable.

“Sam [Polk] and I have been doing anti-poverty work together for a lot of years,” explained Smiley. “The restaurant is the next step in the evolution of making sure that communities of color have access to food that’s healthy and affordable.”

He continued, “One of the tentacles that offshoots poverty is lack of access to high-quality, healthy, affordable food. When the opportunity came to be part of a solution that addresses this particular problem, I provided my services.”

Smiley’s professional exploits have more or less overshadowed his decades-long advocacy of clean-eating and physical fitness. He’s confident that consistency and quality will be the keys to Everytable’s success within a market that often views wholesome food to be flavorless and thereby unappealing.

“Going into more communities of color we want to make sure that the flavors and spices are right,” Smiley said. “Black people don’t even take free food if it’s stuff they don’t like.”

He added, “It’s a simple solution—if you build it they will come. People choose from the options they have available to them. We’re traveling around the community making presentations at churches and community centers to let them know about our stores, and we’re raising awareness about the fact that we have to take better care of ourselves. The store itself is just one of a multipronged approach, and as the weeks roll out we have several things that we plan to raise the level of conversation about the issue.”

Everytable has locations in South Los Angeles (1101 W. 23rd St.), Downtown LA (700 S. Flower St.), Baldwin Hills (3650 W. MLK Blvd.), and opening next month in Santa Monica (Third Street Promenade, 1315 3rd St.) Store hours vary. For more information, visit www.everytable.com.