Agents of Impact | June 7, 2024

Sam Polk, Everytable: Bringing healthy fare to food deserts via franchises

Roodgally Senatus
ImpactAlpha Editor

Roodgally Senatus

Before Sam Polk discovered a passion for creating access to healthy food in impoverished communities that are official “food deserts,” he was a hedge fund trader on Wall Street with a serious addiction to making money. When a $3.6 million bonus during his final full year on the trading floor made him angry because “it wasn’t big enough,” he realized his life was all wrong.

In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, he wrote that at the time,“I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.” The piece was a preview of his 2017 book, For the Love of Money, in which he reflected on what he called Wall Street’s toxic culture — and his pivot to the world of impact.

More than a decade later, Polk, now 44, tells ImpactAlpha, “I have two loves in my life, and it’s my family and Everytable — in that order.” Everytable, the Los Angeles-based healthy fast-food chain he co-founded in 2015 with entrepreneur David Foster, has served more than 10 million nutritious meals to customers in healthy-food deserts across southern California, including more than 5 million to people experiencing homelessness and four million food-insecure seniors. A food desert is an area where at least 20% of residents are in poverty and one third of the population lives more than one mile away from a supermarket selling fresh produce. Nearly one in four Los Angeles county households live in a food desert, according to USC Dornsife.

With 38 restaurants in low-income neighborhoods in cities including Los Angeles, San Diego and Compton, the company offers fresh, nutritious meals that typically cost less than standard fast-food alternatives. For example, Everytable serves culturally-inclusive, chef-made dishes such as Jamaican jerk chicken with coconut beans and rice that costs between $6-$8, depending on the location; for comparison, a Jack in The Box Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger, fries and soda ordered online at a South Central outlet costs $12.58, plus tax. Everytable also has a restaurant in affluent Santa Monica, but it charges more.

The company has raised more than $100 million from investors including Kaiser Permanente, Desert Bloom Food Ventures, South African chef Kimbal Musk (the brother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk), and the Dohmen Company Foundation’s Dohmen Impact Investment Fund. During Everytable’s early years, Polk and Foster pitched the business on the popular reality show Shark Tank, securing $1 million from shark Rohan Oza in exchange for 10% equity.

“We’re sort of out of the crazy startup days where it feels like a single person quitting could wreck the whole thing,” Polk said. The financial commitments have allowed him to focus on further building Everytable while also spending time at his Los Angeles home with his wife, board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Kirsten Thompson, and three children, all under the age of 10. The business is key, but so is family time — his wife was diagnosed late last year with a rare blood disorder.

Multi-unit franchise ownership

Access to healthy food is a big shift for someone who once traded debt and credit default swaps for Bank of America and distressed debt for King Street Capital Management. Now Polk is focused on growing the Everytable Social Equity Franchise initiative, which pairs paid training programs with loans from its Social Equity Franchise Fund to convert the company’s 38 restaurants into franchises owned by people of color. Everytable opened six restaurants in New York City last year, but pulled back to maintain profitability. The company plans to expand to 300 franchise stores over the next four years.

The fund, managed by San Diego-based impact investor Mission Driven Finance, has raised $14 million from investors including Reinvestment Fund, and the W.K. Kellogg, Annenberg and California Wellness foundations. It’s seeking to raise a further $6 million. It offers low-interest loans averaging $500,000 apiece to franchise trainees, including Dorcia Whitebrake, an Everytable store manager and Black mother of three in South LA.

(See, “With inclusive loans and business support, franchise ownership offers a path to wealth for entrepreneurs of color.”)

Polk said that employees who have gone through the program can become franchise owners of multiple Everytable stores if the economics make sense for them. He added that two franchisees currently own multiple outlets and another six will this summer.

Polk’s long-term vision is to have a fleet of tens of thousands of Everytable franchises in the US that are owned and operated by franchisees of color. “Our only real limitation,” he said, “is how fast we can open stores, but also how fast we can raise capital from our philanthropic and impact investors to capitalize on these tremendous entrepreneurs.”