POP QUIZ, COURTESY OF THE ENTREPRENEUR SAM POLK: “Why does a burger and fries cost six bucks and a salad at a fancy chain cost 15 bucks?”
Easy: It’s the ingredients, right?
No. “It’s not the ingredients,” he says.
In fact, it’s all about overhead. Fast-food restaurants run at hyperefficiency; actually, they are not restaurants, Polk says, so much as giant P.O. box freezers where frozen food is dropped off and then quickly fried. Meanwhile, the modern pricey salad joint is just the opposite: “It’s like one guy chopping fresh chicken. That’s too inefficient in terms of labor and real estate and capital costs to be able to charge anything less than $15.”
Polk saw the flaws and effects of this system, which makes nutrition and affordability mutually exclusive, up close in his hometown of Los Angeles. There, cheap fast-food chains are abundant in low-income neighborhoods, but healthy options are beyond most people’s means. The result is a crisis of public health: Across L.A., nearly one in three households earning less than $70,000 is food insecure, and the majority among them are Latino. Food-insecure residents are more likely to suffer from obesity, depression, diabetes, and other ailments.
Polk, a former Wall Street trader, knew a better model was possible. So in 2017 he launched Everytable, a restaurant chain that keeps overhead low by preparing healthy meals in bulk at a central hub. Each restaurant is then able to adjust price points based on local neighborhood income. (In Compton, for instance, the average meal costs about $6.50.)
But Polk quickly found that a business lowering its prices on purpose made for a tough sell to venture capitalists. By the middle of Everytable’s inaugural year, he was unsure whether payroll checks would continue to clear. That’s when Acumen America came on as an investor. “They saw the business model, but they invested for the social good,” he says. “If not for them, we would not have made it.” In three years, revenue jumped from around $2.5 million to $30 million. Still, Polk believes his mission to deliver food justice won’t be complete without addressing wealth inequality, too.
“The purpose of this company is to create a more just and equitable world,” Polk says. “We start out with the pricing and availability of food, which is super important. But the other way to look at that is, ‘Okay, so now you can eat fresh meals, but you still have no opportunity.’”
For Everytable, the holistic fix was a social equity franchising program. Introduced in 2020, the initiative puts budding entrepreneurs from disenfranchised communities on a track to own and operate their own Everytable storefront. Candidates work at Everytable to learn on the job and attend Everytable University for training. The company then provides a loan so that no up-front money is required to open a new storefront. Franchisees are also guaranteed a baseline salary for three years. “I feel like this is really going to give me some financial stability—not just for me but for my family,” says Dee Adimora, a leading franchisee candidate who has spent 30 years in the food service industry.
In the coming years, Polk plans to boost Everytable’s footprint from eight locations to at least 65, and he wants Everytable University grads to run virtually every store. As he envisions the future, he hums with the confidence and buoyancy of a trader.
“We’re just on the vanguard, pressing the limits and seeing what’s possible,” he says. To Polk, Everytable is not merely a chain of fast-casual restaurants. Give him a little time to open new storefronts, to grant new opportunities, to prove out his business model. Let him scale up once, twice, again and again—and poof. “All of a sudden,” he says, “you’ll have a new system that really works for people.”