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Adam Eskin on

‘The Fast Food Revolution’

I had the fortune of interviewing Adam Eskin, founder and CEO of Dig Inn, before his talk at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity on Sunday.
Adam has some exciting and convincing ideas on where the future of food production and consumption is headed, and how he’s leading it with his company and the restaurants he manages. You can read my article about the talk and a truncated version of the interview at Pipe Dream. Here’s the full transcript, lightly edited for clarity.

Jacob Shamsian: Could you give an overview about the farm-to-table movement you’re known for, and what the subject you’re going to talk about is?

Adam Eskin: When the opportunity to do TEDx came up — given that we’re in the food business, broadly speaking — the number of topics I could have come up with were myriad and broad. I mean, there’s all sorts of TED talks, TEDx talks, on healthy food, on obesity, on [agriculture], et cetera, et cetera. So I came across a presentation that was all about social movement and policy, and learning from history to understand what we can do and how things are going to transpire in the food space, how we’re going to get to a better place.

And she referenced how long it took to get rid of slavery, and how long it took to get women to vote — so that was her approach. And my reaction to that… so I’m a capitalist. I’m a businessperson. I’m not ashamed of the fact that I want to make money, and that I embrace the American dream of freedom. And part of freedom is economic freedom. It’s waking up every day and having the opportunity to do what it is you want to do. And so from my perspective, while social policy — or policy and social movement — is a piece in a backdrop to moving things forward, when that movement meets capitalism, and there’s real economic opportunity. It’s like throwing kerosene on the fire, and things really start to accelerate.

And so I got into the food business eight years ago. I was in private equity, and we bought this small business. We were trolling around. This was eight years ago, in 2007, trying to find anything we could find in terms of better-for-you, higher quality food concepts. West coast, east coast, Florida — nothing existed. Nothing. Except for this five-unit restaurant chain called The Pump, which is what we ended up buying, which was really catering to the bodybuilding movement at the time.

Fast forward eight years later, there’s but a handful of new concepts being developed that are not about healthy food.

JS: No one’s making new, innovative junk food.

AE: Right, exactly, it’s just not happening anymore. When we signed this lease for this one location years ago. We were able to put into this clause that you can’t sign a lease with any other healthy food purveyor without coming to us. It was like an exclusive use provision. They came to me like six months ago, they were like, “dude, we basically need to approve anyone who’s interested in the space next to you because every single concept that’s interested in taking this space, they’re all in the healthy food business.” It’s a testament to, when there’s opportunity, how quickly things can happen.
And so, for us, the backdrop is just wildly obvious. You have the obesity epidemic, you have a broken food system. It starts with obesity, and then you can get into agriculture and how broken that system is — how much of our land is producing corn and soy versus actual vegetables.
And then as you move forward, you look at what’s going on in society. You have a significant pop culture component. So, as you’ll see in my presentation, 40 years ago, there was one celebrity chef, and one cooking show. Now, there’s countless. There’s “food this,” there’s “cooking that.” It’s all over television. Media is really dragging that along.
The idea that eating healthful food — that eating vegetables — is cool, is a new thing. But that’s important. Because before, it was like, “oh, I’m gonna throw the Brussel sprouts under the table. I wanna have a burger, I wanna have fries.”

JS: I didn’t have broccoli until I was probably seventeen, because it was made fun of in cartoons, and I never wanted to have them. But I got over that.

AE: All of these things that are happening, they’re all feeding into this one massive trend that we happen to be sitting in the center of. You’ve got Beyonce coming out with a sweatshirt that says “kale” on it. That was a big thing. Then you have Victors & Spoils, this creative agency, that was asked by Michael Moss, this New York Times food critic who wrote a book as well, what would happen if he applied the same type of food marketing tactics to broccoli, as opposed to French Fries, or Doritos, or whatever else these big food companies are pushing. So they came up with this whole faux-campaign. By the way, in our restaurants, at this point, sautéed broccoli is the number 2 seller, behind roasted Brussel sprouts.

So you have a confluence of all these things against this backdrop of social movement and required policy change from a health societal perspective. And you say to yourself, well what got us here in the first place? It started with McDonalds in the post-industrial revolution era. That was all about convenience, and there wasn’t some master plan that said, “Hey, let’s poison America.” Industry was happening, innovation was happening. So it was “hey, let’s stamp out burgers,” in a really fast, really efficient way. And that was a novel idea. The problem is, what’s happened forty years later is it’s fucked up the entire food system.

All these things start to happen. You have a guy named Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle. His story is he went to culinary school, wanted to be a real chef, decided to open up a burrito shop that was a full-service sit-down restaurant. The first one worked so well that he made another and so on and so forth. But the premise was that while McDonald’s delivered on convenience, Chipotle said, Steve Ells aid, it doesn’t just have to be about convenience. You can have convenience, and quality, and affordability as well. So the idea that you can offer a menu that is simple enough to execute, you don’t need all the frills of white tablecloth, and a pastry chef, and this and that. And through a very efficient, simple through-put model, you can deliver the same kind of culinary sophistication and quality as you can in a sit-down environment.

JS: And healthy.

AE: So that was the beginning. I wouldn’t say that that was necessarily per se healthy. I don’t know if that’s what he was going for. Over time, he layered on this “food with integrity” sort of program, this health halo, which has been brilliant, and it’s real. The concept of sustainably sourced, real meats, and animal welfare and all those things that go into this big complicated puzzle. That’s all right, that’s all there, but he really started this movement from a “hey, food can actually be good.” Food can actually be good, culinarily inspired, food. Not faux-food. Not franken-food.
And that was in the early ‘90s. And they’ve experienced this huge wave of growth, and now they have 18-hundred-something units, and a billion dollar market cap. So they were the first to say, “Hey, this is a new model that can actually work. Not only can it work with one restaurant, it can work in scale.” Alright, so we keep going on this path, and all these things are happening — the chefs, and media, and this food-driven culture. More and more chefs are like, “wow, well that’s interesting. I don’t need to be some fancy, white-tablecloth chef anymore necessarily. I can do that, but I can also put my skills to use in a more fast-food environment.”

So we get to a point, I guess 20 years later, we’ll call it, where Chipotle’s this big behemoth. They really showed us what they can do in scale. You have every chef under the sun saying, “well I’ve got a steakhouse here, and I’ve got a sit-down restaurant here. And by the way, I’m now launching my version of a fast food concept.” “Fine-fast,” is what we’re calling it.
And I think the new breed, or sort of the next evolution, which is what we’re a part of, is we’re taking that model, and the idea that in order for us to get out of this quagmire, this predicament, vegetables — ostensibly vegetables — are the solution. Slap those two together, and I think you have a movement and a revolution that is going to change the way people eat. Forever.

JS: You said you’re a capitalist, right? But it seems to me that to offer high quality, local, organic food at a relatively low price compared to a “fancy” restaurant, let’s say, is hard to make profitable as a business.

AE: A couple of things. One, we don’t draw a line in the sand and say everything has to be organic. Frankly, one of the positions we’re interested in taking is, “oh, by the way, our food is not certified organic and here’s why.” So we’re taking a very honest, transparent, and pragmatic approach to the way people eat. We don’t want this to be a movement about exclusivity. We don’t want to be, “well if you have a lot of money, you can eat well and feel good, but if you don’t, you can’t.” What we come from is “whatever it costs you to get a venti chai latte with whipped cream and a lemon pound cake at Starbucks, I can offer you an amazing, wholesome meal.”
And so it’s not necessarily about organic, it’s just about delivering on quality. And what that requires, for us, is getting really deep into the supply chain really making a connection with the folks over many years, understanding how food is grown, the conditions in which they’re grown, the types of pesticides that are used, or not. Really understanding that equation. And then as we’ve grown, cutting the folks in the middle out. So we really have developed a direct relationship with the folks who grow the food.

JS: Right, “farm-to-table.”

AE: Right, people say that, it’s great, they still go through this huge massive distribution network. For us, we really own our supply chain.

JS: What about scalability? It’s easier to do that in some regions than in others, right? There are different supply chains available in different places.

AE: There are much harder things in the world that have been figured out. We put a man on the moon. I hear all that, and I don’t want to trivialize it. I think the most important and the most difficult thing that has needed to be done, and is ostensibly being done, is creating demand for this type of food. That is a function of a better product, a better mousetrap. More delicious food that’s actually good for you. If you don’t have delicious, forget it. You’re not going to get anyone to pay attention. You have to have a product that people actually care about, they want a lot of. And then you have to be really intelligent in how you market that product to scale that business.

But the underbelly of how you execute — supply chain, training and infrastructure around how we go from ten units to 500 units — my point is, those are all things that Chipotle and others have figured out. So we know it’s possible. We know that part’s possible. Our job is to take that and say, “can we push harder, and deeper, and farther?” Because again, while they have sustainable meats, and non-GMO this and that, they’re still in the vegetable business. It’s still a burrito, which is rice, beans and meat — predominantly. And for us, the way we look at the food system and how it needs to change, the answer — both from an agricultural perspective and an efficiency of energy perspective, in terms of production, as well as where the things that we need to be eating as humans to feel better — is vegetables.

JS: So you’re digging into these supply chains and going straight to the farms. Local, obviously, has to be central to that.

AE: It’s a piece of it, yeah. It’s oftentimes the right answer, but not because it’s local, but because it just happens to be the right answer.

JS: Well, so let’s say you have a restaurant in Idaho. Would you serve a kiwi there? A kiwi doesn’t grow in Idaho, so how does that fit in?

AE: It just goes back to this notion that from a fiscal perspective, it makes no sense to draw proverbial lines in sands.

JS: You’re not polemical about it.

AE: It’s not just, “boom, you’re in the box, that’s it.” It’s “hey, everybody — customers, guys, the world — we’re gonna do the hard work to ensure that we’re gonna deliver an amazing, super high quality meal with natural meat and local vegetables, for a price point that most people can afford. And we’re going to tell you along the way how we go about that.

So a perfect example would be — we put this big piece out recently on wild versus farm-raised salmon. So we have stuck with wild. But there are varieties of wild salmon that taste significantly better than others. So it’s take us a year to move from the product we used to be using, which was not so tasty, and a little fishy, and less fatty, to a product that’s significantly more expensive, not farmed, fully wild, that’s in sufficient supply for a period of time in the year where we can actually put it on our menu. When we made this switch from the old fish to the new fish, we said “we’re not gonna farm, we’re gonna go wild, here’s why.”

This is an ongoing dialogue. There may come a point where — because a lot of farmed fisheries out there are making major strides in this stuff — and if they get to a point where it actually makes sense, we’ll consider it. But not today, because it doesn’t make sense. So what we’re doing instead is upgrading the type of fish to what we’re sourcing, and we’re gonna charge you an extra buck for it. And if you’re okay with that, great. And we put it on the menu, and what happened is salmon sales spiked by 25 percent.

JS: What this means is you don’t necessarily have long-term deals with certain suppliers because it doesn’t necessarily make sense to partner with any of them all the time. Does that hurt your relationship-building?

AE: No, food is grown seasonally anyways, so it’s not like it’s a 36-month deal, or a 24-month deal. Four months, six months, eight months. We manage our supply chain that way. Some folks have the ability, and as we develop our relationships that way, we on the consumer end push harder for thing we know we want, to force their hand.

Things like crop rotation, for example. So we develop these relationships and we get these folks to stop thinking about things like single crop and more about multiple crop. Then we can develop relationships that grow further throughout the year. If they’re doing one crop — let’s say they’re focused on beets — we’ll do beets for six straight months of the year, they’re off the menu, and then when they come back in season, the partner is the same guy, and in the meanwhile we build probably two other beet farm relationships as we grow.

JS: How does urban farming fit into your vision? Or, does it? That’s a growing movement as well, and it seems to work in parallel to yours. I just don’t know if it’s a bit small for what you’re talking about.

AE: It does. I would throw that into the bucket of our interest in leading the charge of agricultural innovation, which encapsulates more than just urban agriculture. Technology — that’s a big part of ag in general. Everything from drones to vertical farming.

I met with a former Brown student — I guess he graduated a year before me — a friend had connected us two weeks ago — who I hadn’t spoken to in forever. He comes from a technology space, he built a SaaS [Software as a Service] platform, selling it to big brand names. A successful business, built it for five or six years with his partner. He left recently and in the last six months he’s been evaluating where he wants to get into. “Where are the big opportunities? Where can I find opportunities where I marry my desire to build something big with my other desire, which is to have social impact?” And so he wanted to connect with me, because he wanted to bounce his idea off me, which is a new sort of vision for urban agriculture. And so we spent 90 minutes talking about it, and it sounds really, really interesting.

And there have been a bunch of models that have come out — they really haven’t worked that well. Rooftop farming, for example, for a host of reasons, just doesn’t work in scale. It can work on a one-off basis, but it doesn’t really work. There’s just a lot of bullshit you have to go through. Permitting, structural issues around rooftops and buildings. It’s a cool idea, you can do it on a small scale. He’s coming from the idea of “how can I have operational discipline, but a financial acumen approach to capital and technology — how can I develop a refined model that goes beyond what’s introduced, that’s on the marketplace today, that can actually be a billion-dollar business.

I don’t know who’s going to get there first, or what’s going to happen. What I do know is he wanted to connect with us, because he wanted us to be one of the partners, one of the folks early that’s sort of embracing. So as long as we can stay ahead, we can be collaborative in that way, and be sort of pulling and saying, “Hey, look, there are the specs we want, here’s what our customers are looking for, here’s the story we want to tell around urban agriculture — from a marketing perspective. And we can collaborate with these different businesses and brands and entrepreneurs over time to foster innovation.

JS: Those are all the prepared questions I have. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

AE: I wanted to tie it all back to that we’re in a university, with a bunch of young, talented, motivated young people. One of the problems that we’ve found in the restaurant business is that historically there’s been a real dearth of intellectual capital. It’s not like everybody in the last 30 years have woken up and said, “I want to get into the restaurant business.” You have other aspirations and dreams. Today it’s such an amazing opportunity because it’s not just a restaurant industry anymore, it’s really a proxy for changing how we eat. Food away from home has never been higher, and it’s just going to continue to get higher. We’re always on our phones, we’re running around, we’re doing X, Y and Z, we don’t have the time.

And so what we’re offering is “hey, come join us, come work with us. Bring your passion, bring your creative ideas, bring your hard work, and help us change the conversation. Help us change how we as Americans consume food.” So internally, we’ve been having a lot of conversations — we need a new recruiting strategy. We really do. Where are the folks that are studying, for example, food policy in undergraduate? Where are all these people that we know are really passionate about what we do, about what our mission stands for, and about changing the way people eat How do we get those people to join the company, bring those folks in? So if we can be successful in doing that, in bringing all the young talent through our organization — like this thing just accelerates and accelerates and accelerates.

And so I finish with an acknowledgement that with, what the food landscape, or agriculture or otherwise presents is the opportunity to have it both ways — rather than McDonald’s’ “have it your way,” right? You can have social impact. You can make a difference. You can go home every day and feel fucking good about what you do. But you don’t have to starve, either. And actually make money and economic prosperity and be successful, and maybe one day stand in front of the stock exchange, ringing the bell with all of us. And I don’t think that existed in the food landscape 10, 20 years ago.

JS: Was that just a recruitment pitch for Binghamton students?

AE: In part, yes. Totally! Unabashedly. We know the writing is on the wall. This is gonna happen. The more smart people that care, that get involved earlier the faster it’ll happen. And my interests are to see it happen as fast as possible.

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