Founder of D.C. Central Kitchen tries feeding Los Angeles
Robert Egger's L.A. Kitchen aims to reduce food waste and unemployment while combating hunger and isolation among older adults.
Los Angeles — An abandoned toilet-seat factory in a gritty, freeway-spliced neighborhood might not seem like the ideal stage for a bold Los Angeles debut.
But that is exactly where Robert Egger could be found on a recent morning, inspecting the renovation of a two-level, 64,000-square-foot space, one-third of which will soon house his latest venture: L.A. Kitchen. It is part nonprofit, part social business, with a multipronged, multigenerational mission to reduce food waste and unemployment while combating hunger and isolation among older adults.
"Old people aren’t on the map," said Mr. Egger, adding that there is not a city or nonprofit in the country prepared for the demographic tsunami of aging baby boomers.
The name of the venture, and its philosophy, might sound familiar. In 1989, Mr. Egger founded DC Central Kitchen, one of the first organizations to take excess food from restaurants and hotels to create meals for the hungry. The success of the model, along with several complementary endeavors and social enterprises that followed, made Mr. Egger a celebrity in Washington and beyond.
His national profile only grew when he went toe-to-toe with talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and tailed presidential hopefuls during the 2008 primary in New Hampshire to ask them how they planned to support the nonprofit sector.
Mr. Egger has consulted on community kitchens around the country, but L.A. Kitchen represents a genuine replanting for the veteran nonprofit executive. The venture is also a homecoming of sorts. Mr. Egger lived in Southern California until the age of 12, when his family moved to Washington.
"I didn’t want to become a boring old dude who went to parties every day in D.C. and have people always asking me about the DC Central Kitchen, and acting like I was somehow in charge when I had handed it over years earlier," said Mr. Egger, who is 56.
How well the efforts of Mr. Egger—a man of boundless energy and colorful language—translates in Los Angeles remains to be seen.
The city is littered with well-intentioned organizations that have failed after succeeding in other cities, said Trent Stamp, executive director of the Eisner Foundation in West Los Angeles. He cites the area’s immense size, institutionalized poverty, diverse demographics, and struggling school district as some of the many roadblocks.
"I’m hopeful that Robert Egger will be the exception," Mr. Stamp said. "He’s smart, he’s cocky, and he’s committed. It seems to me that he came to L.A. not to get famous, but to find better ways to feed people, and to do it not only on the big stage but in a place that has struggled to provide seniors with the most basic human needs—an honest meal—for decades."
The fact that L.A. Kitchen is even operating, and its permanent home to be completed in the first quarter of 2015, could be interpreted as a positive sign.
Los Angeles is a tough town for fundraising, said Paula Daniels, founder of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and senior adviser on food policy and water projects to former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It was Ms. Daniels who introduced Mr. Egger to the developers Mott Smith and Brian Albert of Civic Enterprise Associates in mid-2013. They were looking to create a wholesale food-processing facility with multiple tenants, where food entrepreneurs could legally and safely prepare food items for public consumption.
During the first meeting between the developers and Mr. Egger, they agreed that L.A. Kitchen would become the anchor tenant of the facility, called L.A. Prep. They went real-estate shopping together, and by fall 2013 they had money in escrow for a property in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. Mr. Egger is renting his 20,000-square-foot space at about 85 cents per square foot, well below the market rate.
"L.A. is a creative economy," Mr. Egger said, as exposed coils dangled above his head and the shell of an elevator shaft loomed to one side. "Nothing is too crazy. No one says, ‘You can’t do that.’"
The start-up costs for L.A. Kitchen are about $2.85-million, according to Mr. Egger. He received a $1-million grant from AARP; a $2-million loan from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, with support from the California Community Foundation; and a $250,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation.
He expects L.A. Kitchen to have a $2-million annual operating budget, with the staff growing to about 150 employees from its current six.
In Washington, Mr. Egger explained, he first created a nonprofit that provided services. That was followed by a for-profit business, the revenue of which supported the mission and made the venture less dependent on philanthropy, he said.
"[With] L.A. Kitchen, I’m building a big social enterprise first and then building the programs after we make money," Mr. Egger said.
He has three revenue streams in mind. One is to contract with the city and county to provide meals for seniors. Another is to sell wholesale products to major institutions, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District and local colleges. Mr. Egger also plans to experiment with what he describes as "corner store retail," or the creation of small enterprises by franchisees who sell food from carts or tables in their neighborhoods.
The second L.A. Kitchen job-training class is already under way. It is being hosted in a kitchen at St. Vincent Meals on Wheels, an anti-hunger organization run by Sister Alice Marie Quinn, who after decades of service has become a Los Angeles institution.
L.A. Kitchen will focus heavily on working with fruits and vegetables, preparing mostly vegetarian and vegan meals. California grows nearly half of the country’s vegetables, fruits, and nuts, he points out.
"There is an old saying; ‘L.A. is where the future comes to happen,’ " Mr. Egger said. "I’m going to prove it."