In San Luis Obispo, the sunshine becomes particularly noticeable around 11:45 a.m. Like a petulant child, it pokes your back with rays of heat — a phenomenon marking the moment black pants become the worst idea of the day. Despite the heat, nearly every student walking by Dexter this past Tuesday stopped for a look at the grand opening of the Real Food Cooperative.
Head chef Chris Sayegh looked like he was exactly where he belonged. Between greeting an astonishingly large number of friends and watching over his duties, he explained his vision of the largely local fair trade experiment.
“We’re trying to be gourmet grab-and-go,” he said.
The energetic foodie was adamant about the idea of expanding horizons and options for students eating on campus. He spoke specifically about local food, some of which Real Food attains from Cal Poly’s facilities. Sayegh had room to be ambitious; his past work experience includes employment at Melisse in Santa Monica, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant.
“We want to give the students something better, a better choice for campus,” he said.
The menu includes both breakfast and lunch. Options vary from bowls, salads and plates, many of which have a mixture of vegetables, beans, grains or rices, sauces and optional meats.
His involvement with Real Food is largely thanks to chance. Environment protection and management junior Jesse Gibson, co-founder of Real Food Cooperative, lived next door to Sayegh last year. Gibson founded the cooperative with forestry and natural resources junior Eli Grinberg.
“Jesse branched out,” Grinberg said. “He talked to Chris and asked if he’d like to join to team. Chris said absolutely. It came together so organically.”
According to Grinberg, the cooperative has been in the works since he and his friends were freshmen. The result was several students’ involvement in the Real Food Collaborative, a Cal Poly club. Grinberg spoke proudly about the fact that their business model is cooperative, rather than hierarchical.
“Everyone (working there) has equal play, an equal say in issues,” he said. “We think it’s a little more transparent when everyone has the same title. There’s less arrogance.”
Another important facet to the creators of Real Food Cooperative is their dedication to using locally grown food. They see San Luis Obispo’s agricultural roots as an important advantage for students to use.
“Before I was involved with RFC, I was an employee at the Cal Poly organic farm,” Grinberg said. “I realized how much of a resource — a beneficial resource — it is to have that availability for stuff that we can easily serve to people.”
Grinberg even buys some food for Real Food Cooperative from the campus’ organic farm.
Grinberg doesn’t see the cooperative as competing with Cal Poly’s already available on-campus options, he said. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to better the quality of food across the board.
Grinberg said the California State University (CSU) system recently mandated that its campuses should each buy at least 20 percent of their food locally by 2020. Currently, Cal Poly buys approximately 8 percent of its products locally, Grinberg said, and the Real Food Cooperative will attempt to help Cal Poly reach the CSU’s goal.
“It’s not by any means a competition,” Grinberg said. “We’re just trying to make people think more about food.”
If Real Food Cooperative’s momentum continues, Sayegh and Grinberg hope to serve students at Dexter more than once per week.