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'When I eat here, I feel super-human': The happy CEO reimagining how restaurants work

Eating & Drinking
Long read

Georgina Wilson-Powell

27 November 2017

Can a restaurant not only survive by making food fresh every day but thrive and help grow its local community? Hug-prone Corey Rennell, CEO of CORE Kitchen is reimagining the food system in Oakland, California.

The latest of our guest features series #pebblesmakeripples is from B Corp's magazine, B The Change. This article was originally published on B the Change.

Corey Rennell likes hugs. “There should be more hugs in the world,” Rennell, the founder and CEO of CORE Foods, says after hugging one of his patrons. There’s not much the 31-year-old doesn’t like. Except for the mainstream food system in the United States. And he’s set on upending it. His latest plan to do so has manifested through CORE Kitchen — an Oakland, California, restaurant that uses only fresh produce. It had its first profitable week in August, and it will celebrate its first anniversary in mid-December.

“What I’m really passionate about is people eating new food,” Rennell says. “I think we realised to do that, we had to go into food service and we had to open our own restaurant, where we could produce food that only lasts a day.”

Fresh, unpackaged fare hasn’t always been Rennell’s focus. CORE Kitchen is an extension of Rennell’s CORE Foods brand, which has sold CORE Meal bars — made of organic oats, nuts and fruit — at health-food stores nationwide since 2010. But when CORE Kitchen opened after a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $90,000 for kitchen equipment, Rennell felt like he’d hit his stride.

“I am so happy all of the time right now,” he says. “And it wasn’t even true until this restaurant opened. Sure, we had an awesome packaged food company and we were making bad-ass shit, but you know, it wasn’t everything from produce. It wasn’t everyday as fresh as this is. When I eat here, I feel super-human.”

Core Kitchen Pebble Magazine4

Corey Rennell has gone back to basics on food prep in restaurants

All of CORE Kitchen’s food is prepped and prepared on-site. There is no industrial-sized walk-in fridge, so everything from chopping courgettes for the popular Thai courgette noodles dish to cracking coconuts for curry collard wraps has to happen day-of and in-house. While many restaurants use pre-packaged sauces, CORE Kitchen produces its own. Essentially, Rennell says, he’s had to reinvent food production from the ground up. With a limited workforce and space to hold food, the restaurant is currently only able to stay open Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 am to 3 pm. But it’s all worth it for Rennell, who says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

"People — especially people in our generation — don’t want to work for evil anymore. It’s not cool, and it’s not fun"

A world-wide foodie tour

To understand Rennell’s exuberant energy, it helps to understand his background.

His interest in the origin of food started at age seven, when he became a vegetarian. During the same week that young Rennell watched Disney’s Bambi for the first time, his father brought home a deer he’d killed while hunting. The event stuck with Rennell. He became a vegan at 11 but switched back to being an omnivore while studying nutrition at Harvard.

During college, Rennell was recruited as a contestant on the BBC reality show Last Man Standing. The show sent six competitors to interact with some of the most remote tribes in places like Papua New Guinea, Senegal and Mongolia. Rennell and the five other contestants were tasked with learning a tribe’s sport and then competing against them. But Rennell used the show as a way to research how people around the world ate. “My motives were a little different from the producers,” he admits.

“What I observed was people traditionally don’t eat very much meat at all,” Rennell says. Based on Rennell’s research, meat made up between 5 and 10% of the tribespeople’s diet. In the US, he says, it’s closer to 20%. Witnessing an extremely natural diet inspired Rennell.

“That was the vision of CORE Foods,” he says. “How can we just make healthy simple again? You don’t need to think about protein-to-carb ratios, super-food powders, or whatever. You just need to be eating new food — and mainly plants.”

Running a business to match values

Because Rennell was interested in structuring his business to serve the best interest of his community, regardless of whether it grew or who was running it, he structured the CORE Foods business model as a nonprofit when it opened in 2010. 

“We believe in the truth that businesses are here to serve their customers and serve their communities — not to serve their owners.”

Also in 2010, Rennell started the Golden Rule Trust with a few other for-profit companies that agreed to focus on positive social impact. The Trust developed a set of standards and an application for bringing more companies onboard. But the more they established their conglomerate of do-gooder organisations, the more they heard about B Corporations and the nonprofit B Lab — a third-party certifier already providing metrics for determining the societal contributions of businesses.

“After we talked to B Lab, we were like, ‘You are 25 steps ahead of the game from where we are,’” Rennell says. “And we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Actually, we’ll just become a B Corporation and follow and support your vision.”

According to its 2015 report, CORE offset 720 tons of carbon, spent 80% of its budget locally, hired 7% from workforce development, and planted 120 trees in a single year. It earned more than $1.7 million and spent about $1.6 million, leaving $138,000, which the company invested in local nonprofits.

Rennell says every nutritionist in the world believes fruits and veggies are healthy. But he believes everything else is debatable. So CORE Kitchen uses “common sense”.

“We apply common sense and rationality to the science of health. I think so many times people get caught up in correlations in data and forget to use their brains,” Rennell says. “Does it make sense to eat an epic volume of meat? Don’t think about the data and stuff. Is that what you want? Is that the world you want?”

"If you want to have a talented workforce, particularly ones that are the leaders in tech, you have to be a social business at this point"

Nothing but plants: Challenges but steady growth

CORE Kitchen continues to grow, albeit slowly. In terms of meals served, CORE has grown from just under 200,000 in 2011 to nearly 650,000 in 2015. The number of free, healthy meals served to homeless families has climbed from pretty much zilch in 2011 to more than 40,000 in 2015. Team members qualifying for some sort of economic or workforce development program has climbed from around 25% in 2011 to almost 75% last year. And CORE is working on opening several new locations.

“We are artists more than businesspeople,” Rennell says. “And we want to do what we think is right. If that means it’s slow growth, we would prefer that to doing what’s not the right move for the world.”

Rennell thinks the business movement of doing what’s right for the world is here to stay. 

“As everyone rises and more and more companies get B Corp certified, then those metrics get challenged to be better and better,” Rennell says. “People — especially people in our generation — don’t want to work for evil anymore. It’s not cool, and it’s not fun. And if you want to have a talented workforce, particularly ones that are the leaders in tech, you have to be a social business at this point.”

CORE Foods is part of the community of Certified B Corporations. Read more stories of people using business as a force for good in B the Changeor sign up to receive the B the Change Weekly newsletter for more stories like the one above, delivered straight to your inbox.

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