The Wall Street millionaire bringing healthy food to those in need

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, economics correspondent Paul Solman spends a little time with a former hedge fund trader turned social entrepreneur, someone who wants to turn the table on food shortages in inner cities by launching an array of eateries in both high-end and lower-income neighborhoods.

It’s part of our series “Making Sense”, which airs Thursdays on the “NewsHour”.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sam Polk was formerly a top dog at one of the world’s top hedge funds.

SAM POLK: Former Hedge Fund Trader: My dad was this sort of Willy Loman character, this sort of out-of-work salesman that could never make ends meet. So when I was on Wall Street, my entire life’s goal was to make more money than the next guy.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE, Groceryships Graduate: Just going to pour a little bit of salsa inside. It’s like your own little bowl.

MAN: Wow, nice.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dorcia White-Brake is a teacher’s aide in Los Angeles. Three kids, no car, the nearest supermarket miles away.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE: So I can have, you know, good healthy food that tastes good. I have to take a bus and a train.

PAUL SOLMAN: When I was 27, I had been on Wall Street for five or six years and I was at this club in Las Vegas, and it was this super-exclusive club and there was $1,000 bottles of champagne, and beautiful women all around. My life finally looked like I’d always wanted it to look. But I basically felt empty.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE: So, basically, I waited six months for this application.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE: Yes, and I got it and I turned it in and then it seemed like an eternity. I was waiting and waiting and finally I got a call.

PAUL SOLMAN: Got a call to join the Los Angeles non-profit Groceryships Program, started by Sam Polk.

SAM POLK: I started Groceryships when I came to understand that people are living in food deserts, where there’s very little produce for sale and tons and tons of fast food.

PAUL SOLMAN: Groceryships is a six-month scholarship to buy healthy groceries, learn to cook them, and to share.

SAM POLK: And there’s a box of Kleenex in the center because a lot of time is devoted to sharing about family, about body issues, about self-esteem and so, we have yet to see a group where you start talking about those issues and somebody doesn’t burst into tears.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE: I need my box right now, because, I’m not kidding.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really? Just talking about it.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE: Yes, because just to be able to tell people about my food disorder. I let so much out in that so circle. Yeah, you know we went through a lot of stuff together. Whatever, whatever I was going through, my Groceryships family went through it with me.

PAUL SOLMAN: Groceryships is expanding in L.A., but to Sam Polk it’s only prelude to his new venture, Everytable. He’s just opened the first outpost of what he hopes will be a nationwide chain of restaurants, dishing out healthy food, furiously fast, and challengingly cheap.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE: So that means in this s neighborhood, which is south Los Angeles where the per capita income is $13,000 a year, and life expectancy is ten years lower than more affluent areas. We price the meals at $4.

DAVID FOSTER, Co-founder, Everytable: Four bucks is a great price here compared to fast food, which is the predominant option.

PAUL SOLMAN: David Foster also left a rich career in finance to join Sam Polk. They’re about to open a second Everytable in upscale downtown L.A., $8 a meal.

DAVID FOSTER: But eight bucks is also a great price compared to what’s available in the healthy fast casual space downtown.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, it’s $8 versus $4 for exactly the same food?

SAM POLK: That’s right. It’s basically making sure that everyone can afford healthy food.

PAUL SOLMAN: The same healthy food, prepared in the same central kitchen to keep costs low, and, here’s the key innovation, sold at higher prices in wealthier neighborhoods to make up for the super-skinny margins in poor ones.

SAM POLK: In a world where inequality is clearly growing and becoming seen as structural, we think that this is the time for a new business that questions that fundamental assumption that prices should be the same for everyone.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is one of the dreams of all sellers, right? It’s price discrimination. You want to charge people what’s they’re actually willing to pay, as opposed to just have one price across the board.

DAVID FOSTER: We’re not price discriminating in the sense of trying to make as much money off of each customer as possible. We’re actually kind of doing the opposite. We’re saying we don’t need to make much if any money on a lot of our customers, because what’s driving us is not just having a successful, viable company, but more importantly solving this problem that afflicts a lot of people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Surprised that two guys from Wall Street are doing this?

DEBRA DIXON, Program Administrator, Ella’s Table: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dedra Dixon’s foundation feeds the homeless, getting leftovers from Everytable just one day old.

DEBRA DIXON: There’s not too many places t around in our community unfortunately where you can get salads, you can get these meals. And so, yes, that two guys from Wall Street can come down into south L.A. and say there’s a need here that needs to be met by way of food and meet that need, I am very surprised. But grateful.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like other entrepreneurs we’ve covered, trying to bring good food to the desert, in Philadelphia, in Boston, Polk sees the need everywhere.

SAM POLK: Eventually, we’d like to see an Everytable store in every neighborhood in the country.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thousands?

SAM POLK: I would say tens of thousands. We have over 50 investors, including some of the biggest venture capital funds in the country.

PAUL SOLMAN: Including many of their high-flying former colleagues.

But despite the enthusiasm for do-good ideas like this, people aren’t exactly leaving Wall Street in droves for more meaningful careers.

SAM POLK: I think we all have inside us both ambitions which are things that we want for ourself– you know, money, power, prestige. And we all have aspirations to contribute or make the world a better place. It just so happens that we live in a culture as a whole where ambitions are celebrated more than aspirations and it’s almost like Wall Street is the most distilled part of that culture.

PAUL SOLMAN: And like any culture, it reinforces its norms in casual conversation.

You know, what is your net worth? How many sticks have you made this year?

SAM POLK: How many sticks?

PAUL SOLMAN: You call a million dollars a stick on Wall Street.

SAM POLK: So, you say: I’m up ten sticks to say I have ten million in profits this year. My bonus in my last year on Wall Street was more than my mom, a nurse practitioner midwife had made for her entire life. And I was 30 years old.

PAUL SOLMAN: It had taken three years after the emptiness epiphany in the Vegas nightclub, but at 30, as he explained in for “The Love of Money”, a “New York Times” op-ed piece that went viral and has now been turned into a book.

SAM POLK: I came to understand that even though that billionaire siren song was really attractive, that in another way, that came to seem like a good way to waste your life. You go to Wall Street and you make all this money and then you’re 70 years old and you’re on your deathbed and —

PAUL SOLMAN: Hey, wait a second- – not 70 on your deathbed. How about upping that number just a bit?

SAM POLK: Ninety on your deathbed.

But at the end of the day, I felt like I wanted to be truly proud of what I’d done with my life.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for David Foster —

DAVID FOSTER: There are a lot of smart people working in finance, and I’d go as far as to say that there are too many smart people working in finance and that thee value I was adding versus a replacement player was kind of negligible. I thought that there was something out there in the world, a bigger problem that needed solving, beyond being another person working in the private equity industry.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or another chef cooking for the one percent.

CRAIG HOPSON, Executive Chef, Everytable: Hi, I’m Craig Hopson. I’m executive chef here at Le Cirque in New York.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hopson went from haute cuisine to Everytable.

CRAIG HOPSON: It could be thousands of people a day that buy the Everytable meals. So, I mean the audience is unlimited. Le Cirque, not so much.

PAUL SOLMAN: And Hopson too speaks in sound bites that would sound hokey if they weren’t so obviously earnest.

CRAIG HOPSON: It’s great to be able to be proud of what I’m doing and be able to give back to the people that really need it and to make a difference in the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: And speaking of hokey lines, make a difference they do.

DORCIA WHITE-BRAKE: Bon appetit.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, putting on the pounds, healthfully, in south Los Angeles.

That’s really nice.

The post The Wall Street millionaire bringing healthy food to those in need appeared first on PBS NewsHour.