DOWNTOWN — Loop workers in search of a healthy lunch have a new eating spot.
It's literally a spot — a 9-by-5-foot converted newsstand stocked with snacks, drinks and seasonally appropriate sandwiches and side salads.
The first of four so-called "e.a.t. spots" opened Monday at 368 W. Madison St. The second will open at 151 W. Van Buren St. in the next two weeks, with two more planned for Downtown in September. Hours are 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
There are no Flamin' Hot Cheetos on the menu. The three sandwich wraps ($6-7) and eight sides ($4 each or 3 for $10) are heavy on vegetables and grains from local farms, including chef favorites Nichols Farm and Three Sisters Garden.
The stands are the brainchild of Ken Waagner, founder of the nonprofit e.a.t. (which stands for education, agriculture and technology), whose mission is to broaden access to healthy, local and sustainable food. The nonprofit is operating the stands under a lease agreement with JCDecaux, which manages the city's street furniture advertising.
"We saw it as a great opportunity to put healthy food and our mission and our organization right in front of people, and make it so easy to eat healthy," Waagner said. "I mean damn, it's right on a street corner, and it's five bucks, and I can get something that's delicious and healthy — that to me is a win."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the new stands in a news release, and said the city had issued the venture its first-ever Emerging Business Permit allowing it to launch.
Those staffing the stands are at risk of homelessness. They've gone through extensive job readiness training with Streetwise and Fresh Picks. Waagner said the four stands will provide as many as 18 jobs.
Streetwise Executive Director Jim LoBianco said a donor told him about the vacant newsstands last year and suggested they use them to sell Streetwise magazines.
"My response was, 'There's a reason they're vacant. That business model of selling periodicals is no longer sustainable,'" LoBianco said.
What has been working, he said, are the mobile produce carts Streetwise has placed in the city's food deserts that employ graduates of the Streetwise training program. LoBianco turned to Waagner, who'd helped with the produce cart project, to pitch the city on the idea of retail food stands.
Waagner's interest in healthy food access stretches back decades to his previous career in the music industry. He ran a record company before transitioning to technology consulting for musicians and artists. As the Web guru for the band Wilco, his work intersected with their philanthropic pursuits, including as ambassadors for the UN's Hunger Project.
Waagner's other projects have involved building rooftop gardens with schoolkids in Harlem and students at Harold Washington, Wright and Kennedy-King colleges.
"This ability for low-cost, high-quality, healthy food — it's a big draw," said LoBianco. "That's what we saw from the mobile produce carts, how likely people are to stop and buy healthy food if its immediately accessible."
Everything about the e.a.t. spots is designed to be removable, from the refrigerators to the signage.
The food is prepared in a West Loop shared kitchen by e.a.t.'s executive chef Ashley Robinson and a small kitchen staff and delivered to the stand by a Fresh Picks van. Chef Shaw Lash, who worked for Rick Bayless, developed the menu, which Waagner said will likely change quarterly.
Like the menu, the prices at the e.a.t. spots aren't static.
"We're still trying to figure out pricing, what will people pay," Waagner said. "We don't want too boutiquey food stands. We want it to be for everybody."
Customers can pay with cash or credit card. Waagner is working to add a LINK card payment option.
To drum up interest from the public, he plans to run a contest online asking people to guess the locations for the two forthcoming e.a.t. stands.
Branching out into the neighborhoods is planned for the next year but, Waagner said, "We want to make it sustainable. Before we say we're going to open eight, we want make four work.
"It's a neat social enterprise-meets-social experiment. That's what it ultimately is, so we'll see."
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