Adam Eskin runs a few restaurants in Manhattan. And with them, he’s a tastemaker for the entire industry.
As CEO and founder of Dig Inn, he’s leading the charge of a food revolution that he believes is changing the way we think about food. Recovering from laryngitis, he gave his TEDx talk, “The Fast Food Revolution.” In it, he discussed how growing awareness about good and healthy food — through entertainment, media and ubiquitous statistics about the obesity epidemic — has led to a revolution in the food industry.
Before now, consumers largely chose the speed, convenience and price of fast food over expensive, healthy and wholesome. Now, technology has advanced sufficiently for restaurants to provide those healthy and wholesome meals with near the speed, convenience and price of fast food places.
The biggest example of how this works is Chipotle — it’s a massive chain, but it still tastes good, Eskin said. The popularity of Chipotle founder Steve Ells’ “food with integrity” program demonstrates that people care about where their food comes from.
“What Steve Ells did in 1990 is say you don’t have to sacrifice on quality of the food; you can still deliver accessibility, you can still deliver affordability,” Eskin said.
In the past few decades, Americans has become increasingly concerned with what goes into their food, how their food is made, and how that all relates to their health. There are dozens of celebrity chefs, Michelle Obama had her “Let’s Move” campaign, and Beyonce wore a sweatshirt that read “Kale.”
“I don’t think that [McDonald’s founder] Ray Kroc was malicious. There was no intent to say, ‘Okay, let me break the food system,’” Eskin said.
Eskin speculated that Kroc merely wanted to make food fast and cheap, unaware that he started a company that later became a symbol for the obesity epidemic.
With his restaurants at Dig Inn, Eskin develops direct relationships with local farmers, cutting out the middlemen. It suits his seasonally rotating menus, and it ensures the food is delivered faster, remains fresher and cuts margins.
Eskin thinks it’s only a matter of time before McDonald’s and restaurant chains like it either disappear, shrink or change radically.
“The exciting part about the size of the industry is that in invites capitalism,” Eskin said. “It invites capital. It says, ‘Hey, this is a big, broken industry. There’s an opportunity to make money here.’”
And while McDonald’s market cap comes out to around $2.5 million per restaurant on average, Chipotle’s market cap comes out to around $12 million per location, and Shake Shack is at around $25 million. Eskin said this means that the market validates the healthy food movement.
Eskin started in finance and fell into the food business eight years ago. And the way Eskin sees it, it’s the food business — not just the restaurant business. To him, farming, restaurant and all the middlemen are part of one big industry. The lines have blurred between food served fine and food served fast. Drones and vertical farming are new technologies that change the way we get our food.
Eskin ended his talk with a recruiting pitch: The restaurant industry has changed, he says, and now there’s real opportunity to change the way Americans eat food. The food movement is understaffed with people who’ve studied food sustainability, and it’s seeking its next batch of leaders.
“You can have social impact,” he said. “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.”
Pipe Dream had the chance to sit down with Eskin before his talk
Pipe Dream: 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.
Adam Eskin: 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.
PD: 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 10 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.
PD: 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.
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.