I had two goals on my visit to Everytable at Cal State LA as the spring semester began: I wanted another of those tasty “Salmon Superfood” salads. And I needed an interview with Sam Polk, the restaurant chain’s founder.
I scanned the busy space, situated near the entrance to the campus library, looking for the former hedge-fund superstar; a man who used to frequent haute restaurants and grumble that the millions he earned each year weren’t enough.
What I spotted, to my surprise, was a scruffy guy in a denim jacket and checkered Vans, hunched over an ancient MacBook at a lunch counter crammed with hungry college students.
The new restaurant was crowded with newbies. The music was on the blink, silencing Everytable’s signature playlist. Gridlock had consumed the space where the trendy tables were supposed to be. And there was Sam Polk, deep into figuring out how to change the logistics and remedy the glitches.
I watched as he waded into the scrum, rearranging the plastic pylons and moving elastic bands to create a new pattern of rows, so that customers could move efficiently from the food shelves to the checkout counter.
“Signs! We need signs!” Polk called out to the store manager, as he guided students along his newly configured route.
It was the first day of spring semester classes at Cal State LA—and the first real test for Everytable, which aims to expand its revolutionary restaurant model across Los Angeles County.
Photo: Everytable founder Sam Polk and Cal State LA Executive Vice President Jose A. Gomez with students at the grand opening. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)
In that moment, the passion of Polk, the man behind the brand, seemed to me like a very good omen.
Cal State LA is the sixth outlet of the 4-year-old Everytable restaurant chain, and the first on a university campus. The company’s mission-driven focus on food democracy aligns perfectly with the University’s commitment to innovation and uplift.
“We think of ourselves as the food service of the future,” Polk told me. “We think that everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food that they enjoy and can afford.”
Guided by that social justice vision, Everytable takes a novel approach to what might otherwise be just another upscale fast-food option.
We think of ourselves as the food service of the future. We think everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food that they enjoy and can afford.”
The company is considered a social enterprise startup, with the heart of a nonprofit and a commitment to serving so-called food deserts, where healthy eating options are few.
To keep costs low, its grab-and-go meals are made fresh daily in a central kitchen about 10 miles from campus. To ensure access, they are priced variably, according to the average income in individual neighborhoods where the shops are located.
So the same dish that goes for $8 at Everytable in Brentwood will cost only $5 for a customer in Compton or at Cal State LA.
Polk expects Cal State LA to be his highest-volume outlet. “This is different from our other locations, where people stop by and pick up four or five meals at a time,” he said. “They’re meal planning for the entire week.”
On campus, there’s a constant stream—and sometimes a flood—of customers, buying and devouring single meals. And employees are selling, microwaving meals and hustling to keep the shelves filled.
Photo: Two students with Eddie the Golden Eagle at the opening celebration. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)
“As college students, it’s definitely the price that draws us in,” Cal State LA senior Theora Brown told me during the Everytable grand opening festivities. “When you’re working part time or relying on your parents, to be able to afford fresh food on a very fixed income is a big thing.”
Brown grew up in a South Los Angeles neighborhood with fast food joints on every corner and a lone grocery store. “There were basically no options for salads or fresh produce and meats,” she said. “I love to eat and I love trying different kinds of food. Now I can do that here without busting the budget. I’m even bringing food home to my family.”
For Cal State LA students, faculty, staff and visitors, the benefits go beyond the price break, the good taste, the fresh ingredients.
“When you’re working part time or relying on your parents, to be able to afford fresh food on a very fixed income is a big thing.”
Photo: A sample meal from Everytable. (Courtesy of Everytable)
In some ways, the restaurant is still a work in progress, adjusting on the fly as needs arise. That may create challenges for Polk, but it seems fitting to me.
College students are a work in progress too. So is the University, at 72 years old. And so is Polk, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Columbia University with one goal: to make gobs of money.
After eight years as a Wall Street hotshot—and lots of therapy—Polk came to grips with how empty the competitive pursuit of wealth made him feel. He walked away from his big-money career and toward a life focused on helping others.
The sheer audacity of that choice ought to serve as an inspiration for students. It lines up neatly with Cal State LA’s ethic of engagement, service, and the public good.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the university ranked number one in the nation for the upward mobility of its students is not fixated on how much money their graduates might earn, but on how much good they will do in the world.
In my six months on the Cal State LA campus, it was impossible not to absorb that mantra. I could hear its influence in my conversations with students and sense that commitment driving faculty and staff.
It even sparked personal soul searching. Every day I walked past the campus Career Development Center, which adjoins the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, whose motto is inscribed upon the building’s façade.
Seeing those two concepts—career and service—so inextricably and prominently linked provided a constant reminder that career satisfaction isn’t measured only in dollars or status, but by the imprint left on others’ lives.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the university ranked number one in the nation for the upward mobility of its students is not fixated on how much money their graduates might earn, but on how much good they will do in the world.
Everytable’s presence on campus both reflects and affirms that attitude.
And the students passing through might not realize it now, but they’re not just earning paychecks or enjoying meals, they’re promoting food democracy today and seeding tomorrow’s dreams.
Sandy Banks is a columnist at the Los Angeles Times.