Ownership Is Key (with Sam Polk)

Show Description

Everytable founder, Sam Polk, wants to change the way we do business by not only creating jobs, but going a step further to create wealth-building, ownership opportunities through a social franchise model. In this episode, we follow Sam’s journey from Wall Street tycoon, to nonprofit connoisseur, to social entrepreneur, and how he found himself with a new mission to transform the food system by making it delicious and profitable for everyone.

Show Notes & Actions

Show Transcript

Baratunde Thurston  0:00  

Hey, I'm Baratunde Thurston and this is How to Citizen with Baratunde. In season two, we're talking about the money, because to be real, is hard to citizen when we can barely pay the bills.

The year was 1999. And I was about to graduate from Harvard University with a load of debt, because that place is expensive and fancy. And when I thought about my exit plan from Harvard, I was always conscious of what I owed the federal government, the university, my own mother, I learned about recruiters, these people from corporate America who would come to the University set up shop in a local hotel and try to woo us with promises of impacts, but mostly money. And I went to one of these events at a local hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was overwhelmed by the amount of food free food in the middle of the day. And not just any food, shrimp. Yeah, day time, shrimp was not a part of my regular diet, and I devoured it. And I was kind of sold on some of the promise. So I found myself after graduation, in the corporate world. Working in strategy consulting, which is still a hard job to explain to anybody. I wore khakis have close cropped hair, and ate out way too much. And it helped me pay off those loans. My first year out of college, my salary was higher than my mother's peak lifetime annual earning across our whole life. And that was a big deal was a big deal for me to go to Harvard is a bigger deal to graduate. And it was the biggest deal to pay for it. I'm in this corporate life, and I'm making a decent living. But there's limits I realized this is not for me, it's not my full purpose. And I found my way out. And found my way in many ways to you right here, right now. Today, we're going to talk to someone who's got a bit of a parallel story lived the most capitalist life one can in this economy by working on Walsh, like for real Wall Street. And he didn't stay like me. for him. It wasn't enough. But he did keep building businesses, different businesses, though, those that tried to address the opportunity Heather McGee laid out for us, that we can deal with our economy's historic exclusion, by significantly increasing those who are included in it, that we can all win and make money too.

Sam Polk  2:57  

We live in a world where the zip code that you're born in and the color of your skin is very determinative of sort of where you're going to end up, at least economically. And so the idea of social equity is balancing the scales. In order to do that you need to give a leg up and give support because we're not starting all from the same sort of level.

Baratunde Thurston  3:19  

After the break, we speak with Sam Pope, founder and CEO of every table

should be better. Oh, yeah, thank you. It's much better. Okay. So quiet onset. Sam Polk, saving the world Episode 37. Sam, we're gonna do growing up sample didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, but he was sure he wanted to make money. So he got his start in Wall Street. Then he pivoted hard to the far other side of the street, and Dove headfirst into the world of nonprofits, literally the opposite of Wall Street. One day, he realized he needed to create something that drew from both worlds that wasn't completely extractive and dominated by profit seeking, but that also wasn't steeped in this top down world of charity. I know capitalism and business get a bad rap. They're exploitive, and extractive and maybe just bad for the planet. But I also know there are better ways to use these tools. I wanted to talk to Sam because I also believe that there are ways to do business that help people that help us citizen that help us show up and that are good for our society. Hello, Sam. How you doing?

Sam Polk  4:56  

Good. Thanks for having me.

Baratunde Thurston  4:57  

Thank you so much for for being had is that that doesn't sound right. Thanks for being here. Let's just keep it normal. Thanks for being here. You remember the moment you decided you wanted to work on Wall Street?

Sam Polk  5:09  

First of all, like, you know, my agenda when I got out of college was to figure out a life skill that would allow me to make $100,000 a year forever. And so Wall Street was the sort of place for that.

Baratunde Thurston  5:21  

That's a very specific post college agenda. How did you come up with $100,000 as your threshold

Sam Polk  5:28  

100,000 was the number that I thought sort of people that were, you know, wealthy or comfortable would sort of make, but I wanted, like, safety and comfort is what I wanted.

Baratunde Thurston  5:38  

Where does the Wall Street decision come into that

Sam Polk  5:40  

the real sort of moment for wall street for me was when I walked on to a trading floor at Credit Suisse First Boston on the first day of my summer internship, and it was, have you ever been on a trading floor, but it's, it's wild? people yelling and you know, six screens in front of traders and you know, people like, you know, talking and shouting into their phones. And so like how they were dressed, you can see that this was like a level of sort of, like elite sort of wealth and class in a way that that I had no experience with hundreds of billions of dollars are flowing through those people and their decisions just sitting there.

Baratunde Thurston  6:21  

And you saw that and you said I wanted I wanted and it meets the 100k threshold that you set for yourself. What is it like once you're in the life, what's it like for you?

Sam Polk  6:31  

I just worked like a maniac. I was waking up at 430 in the morning, and you know, getting to the office of the first one on the trading floor every day. last one to leave. You know, analysts in the trading program lived in these sort of like, swanky apartments downtown and I got this like 600 square foot apartment 25 minutes away that I can pay $400 a month for just so I can sort of like save enough money.

Baratunde Thurston  6:56  

Do you feel rich yet? Do you feel powerful?

Sam Polk  6:59  

Yeah, I mean, Wall Street in general did I mean like the expense accounts and you know, flying to see sort of traders in the Midwest, Wall Street was really a place even my first year where I would like get sick of these sort of like five star dinners because I would just go there every night and I'd be like, Oh, God, I need a night off from Nobu, you know?

Baratunde Thurston  7:18  

Did you just say that? Yeah. For those who may not know, what is Nobu.

Sam Polk  7:23  

Nobu is the fanciest, most sort of elite sushi restaurant in the world, basically.

Baratunde Thurston  7:29  

And it was like your McDonald's. It was. So you're over ordering sushi. You're working hard. You're making more money, you have some sense of power. When does this start to turn sour?

Sam Polk  7:43  

You know, by the time I got to be 30, I was then you know, the senior distress trader at one of the largest hedge funds in the world. This was sort of during the crash of oh eight and oh nine.

Unknown Speaker  7:55  

It was the worst day on Wall Street since the crash of 1987.

Sam Polk  8:00  

The Dow tumbled more than 500 points after two pillars of the street tumbled over the weekend, Lehman Brothers a 158 year old firm filed for bankruptcy. It was a crazy time on Wall Street, you know, like Lehman went down. And you know, countrywide went down to the American dream, no one was better

Unknown Speaker  8:18  

at selling it than Angelo Mozilla. As founder of the mortgage giant countrywide, financial finance,

Sam Polk  8:24  

more and more people find themselves at or near underwater with their houses, their propensity to reach into their pocket, grab their house keys, and leave them on the countertop and walk out goes up, we have to stop that problem. And nobody knew was gonna happen. But But the interesting thing about it was that all of these sort of bankers, were not going to get their bonus that year. And people were very, very upset about that. And so I was looking at these guys and being like, Huh, this doesn't seem right. Like, of course, you're not going to get your bonus. And we basically took the entire country down into financial catastrophe. And at the same time, I picked up Taylor branch's three part series on martin luther king. And I was sort of like struck by this juxtaposition, basically, about sort of what I was dealing with on a daily basis. And then I'd be you know, coming home and reading stories about the Freedom Riders and like, you know, these are some of the most gripping stories, real life that you could ever imagine, right, like activists on buses, pulling into Montgomery, Alabama, amidst a mob of people, you know, ready to beat them. And there was something that was so jaw droppingly courageous about that. And it wasn't that I was, you know, pretending that I was about to do something like that. But I was aware that at that time in the 60s, there was plenty of guys trading bonds at Goldman Sachs.

And so I just basically Quickly Do you know took a hard look in my life and said, Where do you want to be 50 years from now? What are you going to be proud of? What do you kids going to be proud of? What do you want your life to stand for. And at the end of the day, being a successful hedge fund manager, it was definitely a world where people that got a million dollar bonus, were completely devastated because they should have got a $3 million bonus, there was never enough, this crazy sort of like cloistered relative deprivation amidst absolute abundance, you know. And it just seems so empty, basically. And I wanted to figure out something else.

Baratunde Thurston  10:36  

So after you leave Wall Street, what next and

Sam Polk  10:40  

my wife and I, you know, one weekend ended up sitting down and watching all this food, documentaries, you know, Forks Over Knives and food, anchor, etc. But there was one that was sort of like a lesser known one, it's called a place at the table by Laurie silver Bush, the reason people are going hungry is not because of a shortage of food, it's because of poverty. One out of every two kids in the United States, at some point will be on food assistance. I was one of those kids that was hungry, it messes with you, the average food stamp benefits $3 a day, it was the first one that really made this argument about this sort of intersection between food and poverty. And they even described a neighborhood South Los Angeles, I was five miles from where I was living at the time, and said that a kid born in that neighborhood would live 12 years less than a kid born in the neighborhood that I live in right now. You know, and there's a lot of reasons for that. But one of the core ones is food, and I didn't know it, then that that was going to change my life and you know, become really, you know, life's work in some level, but it did. And it you know, I have this idea that healthy food should be a human right. And not a luxury product was like self evident to me on some level.

Baratunde Thurston  11:48  

Yeah. So you watch this food documentary with your wife called a place at the table. Take us from that to starting feast.

Sam Polk  11:57  

So feast is a it's a nonprofit, that basically helps parents who are living in difficult food situations, who want to give themselves and their families healthy. And, you know, I'll stop there to say that most times the following things you would hear from this would be, we run nutrition education and diet cooking classes into that, I am proud that we did not structure it like that there's plenty of sort of moralizing when it comes to healthy food, which is like, fully these people knew what good food was and what you know how to cook, then they would make the right choices. I knew that was not true, sort of from the beginning. Food is a fraught and multifaceted, multi layered, complicated situation. For most people, no matter where you live, that is then exacerbated, you know, when you've got, you know, no options for healthy food and underserved neighborhoods and a massive amount of stress, sort of overlying that. We structured feast basically, as almost like a support group, we're running dozens, if not, not yet, hundreds, but it's getting up there of groups across now, five states. And these are basically, you know, a group of 10 moms that meets once a week for two hours, led by somebody who has taken the program before somebody that was in the group will then go on to lead another group, and then you know, at the same sort of school, or at the same, you know, community center or at the same house, and it will just sort of keep perpetuating itself over time.

Baratunde Thurston  13:24  

You are a white man, Sam, and you are working in a lot of communities that are not white, and people who never worked on Wall Street. $100,000 a year would be like, an extraordinary situation. How do you manage your own presence, as a white man going into many communities of color working with a lot of moms in particular, and avoid any kind of savior complex, you think about that, as it come up for you in some way?

Sam Polk  13:53  

All the time. You know, I think from my experience with feast and sort of running these groups, were just all sorts of people basically, and then how I sort of work with my, you know, privilege in some sense, and what I look like to other people, and is to just acknowledge it, and I do this with my team all the time, but like, speak to it and own it and try to create a situation where I'm standing next to people as opposed to reaching down to lift them up.

Baratunde Thurston  14:21  

It's a powerful image, what does social equity mean to you

Sam Polk  14:25  

here have become on some sense like a reborn capitalist, sort of this journey for each person to figure out where they sort of need to exist in the world and what is right for them and how they can be of service and contribute. That is a system and an idea that works only on the on the fundamental foundation of you know, equality of opportunity. And yet, we live in a world where where you, you know, the zip code that you're born in, and the color of your skin is very determinative of sort of where you're going To end up at least economically. And so the idea of social equity is balancing the scales in order to sort of like make, you know, equality of opportunity for everybody. But in order to do that you need to rebalance the scales and sort of give a leg up and give support. Because we're not starting all from the same sort of level.

Baratunde Thurston  15:29  

After the break fast food franchises, and how ownership may be the key to building wealth that lasts.

Alright, Sam, you told us about your wild west days on Wall Street, you broke down what you're doing with feast and this community support group. Now I want to move on to your newest endeavor. Tell me how you came up with the idea for every table.

Sam Polk  16:04  

So I was running feast, and we kept hearing from these moms. Basically, the reason we go to McDonald's is because it's you know, what is the only thing available that and so I quickly came to realize that like what people in underserved communities, it's not the necessarily love fast food, there's just no other options, basically. And so every table is a lot of things at its base. It is a food preparation, production, distribution and retail system. That includes restaurants, smart fridges, which are basically Healthy Vending machines, home delivery, that is building a company that that is making healthy made from scratch delicious, prepared food for cheaper than fast food. And in the in the process is literally like building a new food system. I know that sounds big, but it really is like, in some sense, I think we're building the food system that should have been built 50 years ago, basically,

Baratunde Thurston  17:06  

what should have been done 50 years ago that wasn't and how does our current food system and look I in ways that aren't serving us,

Sam Polk  17:13  

the way to understand sort of how and why the food system was built as it was the fundamental thing to understand is that people didn't understand that processed food was going to be bad for you.

Unknown Speaker  17:27  

Yeah, thank goodness for jello, instant pudding. That terrific busy day dessert you can make at the very last minute,

Sam Polk  17:35  

see how quick they just didn't know it. And so if you think about the decisions that were made with that sort of mis assumption, would then sort of spurred the creation of the food system was exactly what you might guess, which is like, how do you make food really delicious, and really cheap. And so when I think about the food system, I think that you know, the largest food companies in the country are what are called CPG when consumer packaged goods, so that's your cereal and chips, Doritos, etc, CPG companies and fast food companies. And the reason that they're the largest is because they figured out how to sell food, the cheapest.

Baratunde Thurston  18:13  

So So how is every table dismantling or reimagining this system?

Sam Polk  18:18  

Well, when people talk about food deserts, I can't tell you how many times people call me and say, Hey, Sam, you know, I too, am passionate about this issue of food deserts. Let's get a bus and put a bunch of produce in it. And then drive around sort of, you know, streets and underserved communities.

Baratunde Thurston  18:37  

What is a food desert.

Sam Polk  18:38  

So a food desert is a community that doesn't have access to fresh, healthy food. If you go to South Los Angeles, for example, there is fewer grocery stores per capita than there is on the west side. But there's grocery stores for sure food for less superiores Ralph's is an underserved neighborhoods, like it's not that there's no grocery stores. What it is, is that there's no prepared food, there's no pressed juicery or tender greens, or sweet green or lemonade or creation or flower child. I mean, I could go on like they're the amount of sort of fresh, healthy, prepared food that there is an more affluent communities is massive. And I think that's the things that people miss people and underserved communities are both short on money. And they're also short on time, sort of like we all are. And so what every table does is we say, look, we like where sweet green is going in terms of quality and freshness of food. But can we do it in a way that makes it accessible and affordable to everybody. And all we do is we apply the principles of CPG and fast food namely centralized production and massive distribution, but too fresh food. And so what every table is, is preparing incredibly fresh, healthy, delicious meals from scratch every day and then packaging them and grab and go container. And then as far as pricing goes, every table sort of gotten known in the press for this variable pricing model where you know, same food, same concept, but if it's in rent would will charge seven or eight bucks, which is basically half the price of sweet green. So an incredibly good deal. But then we open in Compton or South LA or East LA, will charge five or $6 for the same meal. And it's not charity, like our stores and underserved communities are amongst our most profitable, but it is about, you know, creating a system that works for everyone that includes everyone. And that respects everyone.

Baratunde Thurston  20:37  

I've heard a lot of tension in the goals of running for profit business, and creating something that's sustainable or achieve some sort of equity goals. And this choice that we are forced to make, it seems you can either be a real capitalist, and lower your costs, and jack up your prices to whatever the market will bear. Or you can go do your do gooder business, and have your social equity and your social justice. How do you approach those tensions? How do you see it?

Sam Polk  21:09  

You know, 50 years ago, it was the norm for companies to be focused on the good of the community and all the different stakeholders. And now this was obviously helped by the fact that we had like a real labor movement, so there was collective bargaining, etc. But we've sort of like developed this sort of like rapacious sort of lobbyists supported idea of capitalism, but I don't think that's what it has to be. And then the other point I'll make is that actually, so many sort of, quote, unquote, social enterprises are frankly, stupid. And what I mean is, you know, you know, think about like TOMS Shoes, and Tom's invested in us. So I want to be don't bite the hand that feeds you, so to speak, I love where this is going, go for it. But like so. So Tom's is a company that was probably like the old GE sort of social enterprise, really, that basically created this model where for every pair of shoes that they sold, they would donate one to somebody in need. But it's basically like, they were part of this idea that, that there's one group of customers that you sell to, and there's another group of customers that you do charity for. And I don't like that Tom's was about making the affluent customers feel good about their purchase. Now, why is every table different, the more stores we can have underserved high income, the better. And every table gets the same benefit that we do with sort of that any sort of franchising business gets, we get these royalties off the top, we also get brand benefit from this. I'm trying to design a system that works across the board. And I'm sure there will be tensions along the way, and often make some decisions. But it also, you know, there's plenty of arguments, for example, like Costco pays, its employees incredibly well. And they've done that from the beginning. And they have lower turnover, and, you know, lower labor costs because of that, etc. So, some of these assumptions that we made, which was sort of like spurred by the whole private equity cost cutting, you know, things are just wrong. Like if you treat your customers Well, you treat your people work for you. Well, if you share the wealth a little bit, the company's probably more sustainable over time.

Baratunde Thurston  23:17  

I want you to paint a picture for our palates. what some of the food people can get

Sam Polk  23:24  

from every table. We have this crazy, you know, very actually white sort of idea of what healthy food is. But actually, all cuisines, and all cultures have basically two things in common, which is that their food is delicious. And it's healthy, because it's made by whole food, you know, over time, you know, by scratch, basically. And so for us, it's really just going back to that. And so for example, you know, our menu is really about celebrating the cultures and cuisines of Los Angeles. And some of our bestsellers include, you know, Jamaican jerk chicken with coconut beans and rice and plantations and a carnitas bowl that does incredibly well in Puebla, Chicken tinga. That's an amazing seller. Actually, our best selling dish of all time, is called trap kitchen, chicken, curry and trap kitchen are these two Compton chefs who started a soul food Instagram delivery business, out of their grandmother's kitchen that got so wildly popular that they got, you know, 300,000 Instagram followers and then got shut down by the government because you can't really do that. But you know, they're sort of Compton celebrities. And so we partnered with them to make a version of their chicken curry. And it's been the best seller since we launched it, not only in Compton, but in Brentwood, as well.

Baratunde Thurston  24:39  

So how does every table work? I know you have multiple locations, you're running under a franchise model. But what does that look like for y'all?

Sam Polk  24:47  

So franchising is a sort of tried and true and great way for restaurants to grow. And the reason is, is because it's a very mutually beneficial sort of relationship. Between the franchisor, which is usually the restaurant owner and the franchisee, and the mutual benefit is, if you're a franchisee about to start a franchise, you're basically about to start your own business. But starting your own business is risky. So isn't it great to be able to start a business with a proven concept that you basically know is going to work from the point of the franchise or I can start a bunch of stores not have to spend money to build them and still make, you know, between five and 10% of their revenue. But as we looked at franchising, we realized that there was a big problem with franchising, you know, like so many other industries, there's a lot of privilege baked into it, you have to have a significant net worth and capital available in order to start a franchise. Well, you know, given the sort of racial wealth gap, people are more likely to look like me that have sort of accumulated capital, right? And so we said, can we create a system that promotes ownership for entrepreneurs who have been sort of marginalized historically. And so what that looks like is we've gone to, you know, some of the biggest foundations in the country Kellogg Foundation Annenberg Foundation, we basically built these partnerships where these foundations either lent us money at incredibly low rates, or even in some cases just donated to us with grants so that we now have this big pool of capital, that when we find talented entrepreneurs, from underserved communities who want to start their own business, we can train them in our stores and lend them the money to build and own their own every table franchise.

Baratunde Thurston  26:39  

What was your first franchise was the history of that relationship,

Sam Polk  26:43  

we've actually only got one operating right now. And it's and it's Dorsey's, and it's every table Hollywood, you should go see it. And so dorsia, you know, over the years had, you know, she was in the second ever feast group, then she had gone on to lead many more groups in feast and become such a leader in that organization that she eventually joined the board. And then, you know, after a while, she came and started working for every table as a store manager, and was the manager of our watch store. And so when it came time, like, you know, I was, I was both sort of like creating this franchise program with dorsia in mind. And then when it came sort of time to choose the first person, she was sort of the natural, you know, selection. And I've known her for eight years now. And during all that time, she has been a single mom working two or three jobs supporting her three kids. And like the the amount of work and stress that she has had to carry, her whole life is like, you know, all of these Wall Street guys would crumble in the face of that, as far as I'm concerned.

Baratunde Thurston  27:43  

So what changes for people when they have access to capital to financial resources, especially in the consideration of historic restriction, from access to those resources?

Sam Polk  27:55  

I mean, everything changes, like I think that's the I think that's the fundamental thing to understand is that capitalism is ownership, like it is about ownership. And the real issue for me, and I think the change that needs to happen is the focus on ownership. And what I mean is like, I'm all for $15, minimum wage, for sure. But I also think that that still ends up to be like $30,000 a year. And for the real change is you got to spur ownership in whatever form that needs to be.

Baratunde Thurston  28:30  

Are there other companies doing this social equity franchising thing, making it easier for people to to get in?

Sam Polk  28:37  

Well, you know, what's funny is like, you know, we actually studied Domino's Pizza a lot. And they, they didn't sort of think about it like this, they would never have called it that. But they actually did some version of this, which is that most of Domino's pizzas, franchisees came up through the restaurant business, so we're drivers or cooks in the kitchen, etc. So, you know, Domino's you know, they didn't call it that didn't do it specifically, but they should get some credit for that.

Baratunde Thurston  29:04  

What do you think it would do for our democracy, to have people who have been historically excluded from this ownership to be included?

Sam Polk  29:12  

how it would impact democracy, I think is clear for me on sort of two levels. The first and probably most important is that it would bring back or at least democratize access to the American dream. Which I think is so sort of fundamental to our culture and our identity as a country. And so it just brings back and spreads out the access to power and the voices and, you know, democracy the vote that is so important that this country

Baratunde Thurston  29:52  

sample, thank you so much for spending time with us. This has been quite the education. great talking to you.

Next week we'll be talking to Noni session, the executive director of the East Bay permanent real estate cooperative. She's working on a way to help people claim ownership of their own communities, literally. You know, we call this show how to citizen. So here's some of the How to parts from our producer alley.

Unknown Speaker  30:28  

Okay, I want you to turn inward and think about the businesses in your neighborhood. Are they mostly local small businesses or national chains? If more of one than the other? Why do you think that is? who works there? And who owns them? When you hear the word entrepreneur or business owner? What do you see in your mind? Who is that person? What do they look like? Now it's time to inform yourself success for entrepreneurs often means selling their business to a bigger company or going public on the stock market. These successful exits can generate a lot of wealth for the few people at the top, aka owners and investors. What if there was another path for those entrepreneurs to take one that rewarded those most connected and impacted by the business including employees, customers, founders and investors. There's a movement called exit to community which is doing just that. Learn more about it by searching online for exit to community or visiting E to C dot how fun domain name, the letter E, and the number two, and the letter C dot h o w. And lastly, we want you to publicly participate in a safe way of course, consider joining or giving to a few of the community movements working to build a more inclusive economy. Here too, we are especially fond of zebras unite cooperative believes the most urgent Human Rights Project of our time is to reimagine business. Then there's the effort to make the donut economy real and communities and countries around the world. Search the donut economics action lab to learn more hint, it's not about pastries.

Baratunde Thurston  32:20  

If you take any of these actions, please brag about yourself online using the hashtag #howtocitizen and send us general feedback or ideas for the show to comments at speaking of that domain name, we have one and we're using it visit to sign up for our newsletter. We'll learn about upcoming events, or even more stuff than that. And if you like the show, spread the word. Tell somebody if you don't definitely just keep it to yourself. Appreciate you. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of IHeartRadio podcasts and dustlike productions. Our executive producers are me. Baratunde Thurston, Elizabeth Stewart and Misha Yusuf. Our producers are Stephanie Cohn and Allie Kilts. Kelly Prime is our editor. Valentino Rivera is our engineer. And Sam Paulson is our apprentice. Original Music by Andrew eapen. This episode was produced in sound design by Allie Kilt. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from IHeartRadio


Go Deeper

Share Some Feedback

Let us know your thoughts about the episode. What did you learn or what surprised you or challenged you?

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Spread The Word

Share what you’ve learned. Knowledge is power! Tag #howtocitizen so we can reshare!