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The Same Healthy Food, but It’s Cheaper Across Town

When a new restaurant called Everytable opens on Saturday in the poverty-stricken area of Los Angeles known as South L.A., a grab-and-go Jamaican jerk chicken bowl with coconut rice, beans, plantains and carrots will be the most expensive meal on the menu at $4.50.

But this fall, when a second outpost of Everytable opens just two miles away in more affluent downtown Los Angeles, the same Jamaican jerk chicken bowl will cost $8.95.

The big price difference represents an unusual experiment to address the persistent issue of limited food choices in poorer neighborhoods around the country. The higher prices at the downtown store are effectively meant to offset smaller profits at the other location, making the lower-priced restaurant more economically viable.

Just don’t call it a subsidy. “We don’t love the word subsidize because each store is designed to be individually profitable,” said Sam Polk, co-founder and chief executive of Everytable.

Rather, he said he hopes customers in affluent neighborhoods will understand they are helping to underwrite sales of the same nutritious meals they are eating in neighborhoods where such food is typically unavailable because no one can afford it.

“I think it’s similar to Toms, where you buy a pair of shoes knowing that someone else in some needy part of the world is going to get a similar pair of shoes for nothing,” Mr. Polk said.

Many other businesses, including restaurants, charge different prices for the same thing. A McDonald’s in Midtown Manhattan, for example, is more expensive than one in Dayton, Ohio.

But rarely is the price for the same food nearly double the price just a jog away.

A growing number of chefs and business people are working to bring fresher, healthier food to neighborhoods where KFC, Popeyes and McDonald’s have long reigned as the closest restaurant options.

The chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, for example, opened LocoL, a fast-food restaurant selling burgers, noodle bowls, sides, sweets, drinks and breakfast items made from fresh ingredients, in Watts, a section of South Los Angeles, last fall. A second location opened in Oakland, Calif., in May, and nothing on either menu costs more than $7.

A Cheeseburg, LocoL’s version of a cheeseburger, is made of 70 percent beef and 30 percent grains with a jolt of seaweed to give it umami. The buns were developed by Chad Robertson, the bakery wizard at Tartine, a popular spot in San Francisco, and the $2 sides are items like a vinegary coleslaw or hot flatbread — no mayo in the dressing and no French fries.

In the case of Everytable, which will serve a variety of cuisines, nothing on the menu will cost more than $4.50 at the South L.A. location. More than 40 percent of households in the area, which encompasses some 28 neighborhoods, earn $20,000 a year or less.

David Foster, the other co-founder of Everytable, said the company had made several decisions to make the model work financially. For one, all of the food sold in Everytable stores will be prepared in a central kitchen, eliminating the need for an expensive scratch kitchen on the restaurant premises.

The rent in the downtown location will be more than in South Los Angeles. But because of the central kitchen, the stores can be smaller, 500 to 700 square feet, and need less staff — each Everytable will have just two people working per shift. (The workers will be paid the same wages in both locations.) And ingredients, while fresh and nutritious, will not be exotic — peanuts, not pine nuts, for instance.

“We started by taking cost out of the model so that we’d be able to serve meals at a price point comparable to the fast food, which is the only thing available in many of these less affluent neighborhoods,” Mr. Foster said.

Everytable grew out of Groceryships, a nonprofit that Mr. Polk started after becoming disenchanted with his life as a trader on Wall Street. Groceryships provides families in South Los Angeles with fruits, vegetables, seeds, grains and other fresh health foods for six months, during which they attend group sessions where they learn cooking and shopping skills and work on techniques to change eating habits.

“One of the things we learned through our nonprofit experience is that bringing produce into a neighborhood is great and needed,” Mr. Foster said. “But living in poverty is not just about not having enough money, it’s also about inconvenience.”

The company has raised a small amount of capital from friends and family and the Toms Social Entrepreneurship Fund, a private investment fund created by the founder of the Toms shoe business, Blake Mycoskie. Mr. Foster said the company hoped to have at least four stores open by the end of this year and to expand to as many as 20 next year.

Michael Kaufman, a partner at the Astor Group, a boutique investment banking and advisory firm with extensive experience in the food and beverage industries, said Everytable might pull off the price differential if the prices it charges are competitive in the communities where it has stores.

In the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, for instance, it would compete with Tender Greens and Cava Grill, where the average meal is around $12. But in South Los Angeles, the competition might be Popeyes or KFC, where prices are lower.

To make it work, he said people would need to understand why prices are higher in one neighborhood than in another.

“I think the key to it will be how they tell their story,” Mr. Kaufman said.


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