Special to Mustang News
Scroll to the bottom of the article to see a time lapse of Real Food Cooperative at work.
The Real Food Cooperative serves healthy food at its booth every Monday at Dexter Lawn from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.. This is the time and place where the six cofounders live out their dream of selling food.
Their goal is to have a 100 percent student-run business that sells local, organic and sustainable food. However, to make that dream come true, the six cofounders of Real Food Cooperative have to work around the clock with a modest number of volunteers and pay for equipment and ingredients out of their own pocket — approximately $8,000 so far.
Their goal is to be an example to Campus Dining of how to make healthy food without corporation-driven and frozen food supplies.
“Students are dissatisfied with the food,” cofounder Jesse Gibson said to Campus Dining. “We told you that for a while. You’re not making the improvements, so we’re going to do it ourselves.”
It all started about two years ago when Gibson, now an environmental protection junior, came up with the “crazy idea” of starting a student-run cooperative that supports the use of healthy food — though he was not sure what the word “cooperative” meant.
As challenging as his idea seemed, Gibson was lucky to find other students with the same vision and passionate for the co-op. However, none of them were skilled in cooking.
For about a year, they came up with plans and ideas but couldn’t create a menu. Then Chris Sayegh, an employee at the San Luis Obispo Country Club, came into the picture.
Sayegh used to attend the University of California, Santa Cruz, but left the school to work in kitchens in Los Angeles because of his passion for cooking. He was Gibson’s neighbor and currently has a ServeSafe certificate.
“Once we got Chris on the team, things started really picking up,” Gibson said. “We actually had a product at that point. Before, we were just conceptual.”
When Sayegh joined the team, they conducted menu tastings and surveys to learn what types of food students want. They started selling food on Oct. 6.
Three weeks later, with permission from the university, they put up a wooden-framed booth.
“We want to thank the administration for making it easy for us to open up on campus,” said Gibson. “Sometimes it seems like they’re posing obstacles to us. But really, I just look at them as challenges and the things we needed to do to become a better business.”
The cofounders are among 25 volunteers who work in the kitchen for a total of 10 hours on Saturdays and Sundays to prepare the food from scratch, without any frozen ingredients. They work an additional four hours selling food in the booth every Monday, not to mention grocery shopping hours on Thursdays.
The cofounders know that for this business to exist long-term, they will have to pay their staff and turn their project into a real business. They applied to SLO HotHouse Accelerator program for funding, but their application was denied.
Cofounder Will Medford, a crop science senior, said they also talked with Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey about their dream to have a physical place on campus for the co-op. Humphrey told them to give the business a try and come back in a year and show him some data. If the data shows that students are interested in the co-op’s food, Cal Poly will consider their request.
In addition, the cofounders will need to create a business plan this year that can keep Real Food Cooperative running in the future, regardless of who is in charge — three of the original founders are graduating this year.
While Sayegh’s dream is to provide students with healthy food, it is impossible for average student volunteers to learn the French techniques Sayegh knows. In the long run, Sayegh will leave, making Medford’s goals for the business more focused on healthy food rather than high-quality food.
In addition, Sayegh is not currently a Cal Poly student, though he has applied to the university — meaning the business isn’t 100 percent student-run as it was originally intended.
The co-op is under the umbrella of a club called Real Food Collaborative, whose goal is to assist the university in meeting the requirements of the national organization Real Food Challenge (RFC). According to RFC, colleges participating in the program sign the Real Food Campus Commitment pledge to buy at least 20 percent real food annually by 2020 in order to support a healthy food system.
RFC’s definition of “real food” is local, fair, ecologically sound and humanely sourced food.
The co-op uses some ingredients produced by the Cal Poly organic farm to make high-quality meals for students.
“Especially when you’re an agriculture school,” Sayegh said, “we have farms that grow whatever we need and we don’t use any of that, or we use very little amounts of it, which is insane, considering the amount of produce that we put out.”
The co-op’s kitchen is an 800-square foot, high-ceiling white room inside Cal Poly’s meat processing center. Every time the front door of the center is opened, a powerful flow of air is released from above to make sure no bugs can get inside. Almost everyone working in the kitchen wears a hair net, except the chef.
Sayegh — a natural enthusiast and believer — is the most energetic person in the kitchen.
“(The reason) we’re working so hard for this without getting paid is we believe in it,” he said. “We believe in a world where students — well, not only students, but everyone — has access to good food.”
Once in a while, Sayegh assembles the whole staff to show them how to break down a chicken or cut squashes.
“This is for everybody to learn as well, and I think it’s important to know how to break down a chicken or any fish or anything that you could potentially use,” he said. “Just for your own knowledge, it’s amazing to know.”
No matter what he’s doing, Sayegh occasionally looks up to make sure everyone’s doing their job right.
On Mori Camille’s second day as a volunteer, she slid her pan of mushrooms sautéed with garlic back and forth on the stove, when a flame occasionally flared up, she didn’t know why.
Sayegh noticed and explained to Camille: “When the moisture from the mushroom comes out, and when moisture hits oil and fire, that causes a reaction. And then that’s why you get a big flame.”
But Mori wasn’t bad at cooking at all; her mushrooms produced an appealing smell that spread through the entire kitchen. The mushrooms were used in the fall risotto (the special) and the OG (Original Gangster) — customers’ all-time favorite since day one.
But due to a shortage of staff and time conflicts, they are only able to serve on Mondays. Medford said they will take some time off from selling food during the last weeks of fall quarter so they can focus on school and come up with a solid plan for the business.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Real Food Cooperative had finished creating their business plan. It is still in progress.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the cooperative.
This article has been revised to include the hours the cooperative serves food.