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Greenville Business Magazine

Fast Food, Farm-fresh

Sep 08, 2017 05:42PM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

Photography By Amy Randall Photography

Jonathan Willis, a buff Millennial with arms sleeved in tattoos, sits outside a coffee shop after a grueling morning with a mentoring group of CEOs. His fiancée, Kaylee Gonzalez, a stunning blonde actor who’s also his partner in their new company, arrives minutes later. They look and sound like entrepreneurial stars from TV’s “Shark Tank” while pitching their fast-growing Elev8, billed as the Upstate’s first farm-fresh fast-food restaurant and meal-delivery service.

In its first year, the two already have cooked up six-digit gross revenues, with a 92 percent retention rate among their 103 customers. Diners order online before picking up fully cooked meals from half a dozen locations all over town or from the commercial kitchen Elev8 rents in the Village of West End.

And now, Willis and Gonzalez this month will open their first dine-in site in a renovated laundromat at 860 S. Church St. near the heavily trafficked County Square.

“Our business concept is fast,” Willis says. “That’s what life is right now, fast-paced.”

Especially now for the young couple—he’s 30, she’s 24—simmering in the nation’s boiling-pot $200 billion fast-food market.

While Willis lists several area farms whence he and Elev8’s three chefs select fresh ingredients, Gonzalez stresses the company’s primary mission: to create meals packed with nutrition, flavor, and value, starting at $7 each.

“I have to eat good food, but I want something healthy,” she says. “Even cookie dough—we have that!—turning it totally healthy so you can eat it every day. A lot of people think that eating healthy means you have to eat grilled chicken and rice, and barely anything all day, and then you’re hungry, and you hate your life. We don’t want that. We want to show people that you can eat good food and still indulge in good taste.”

Just look at the “clean-eating” selections on their website. Hormone-free proteins, whole grains, and organic ingredients go into the “Almost Heaven” Fat Free Cheddar Stuffed Burger, Overloaded Sweet Potato Fries, and Shanghai Street Tacos.

Neither likes to cook. Both take food seriously.

For Willis, eating right became a life-and-death proposition. He was a 19-year-old, 300-plus-pound West Virginia University student when, he says, “The doctor literally looked at me while I was getting a breathing treatment for asthma and was like, ‘You’re not going to see the other side of 50.”

Today, the 6-foot, 205-pound Willis self-funded his startup. In fall 2015, his motorcycle was stolen. He spent the $9,000 in insurance proceeds from the Suzuki on a web portal and to hire professional chefs. Cash flows sustain growth.

“In my business plan, I didn’t see our first year having brick and mortar,” he says. “My whole thing was online, using an industrial kitchen. Now I enjoy the customer aspect and talking to people and being able to relay my passion to them.”

That passion includes provenance: “I like to take the passion that farmers have and put it into our food.”

One vendor, Reedy River Farms in west Greenville, looks forward to selling Elev8 baby greens and roots vegetables.

“I’m really interested in seeing how it goes,” says George DuBose, 28, co-owner of the one-acre urban farm. “Their concept itself seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Investors are salivating.

“You can tell this guy is working his rear-end off to bring this to life for people, and the fact that he’s doing it here in Greenville is going to be tremendous,” says Kevin Minton, owner and CEO of Chief Executive Boards International, the Greenville-based peer-advisory company where Willis had spent his morning.

While restaurants’ failure rate tops 60 percent in the first year, Minton says, “You’ve got to have a hell of a niche and a differentiator to grow, but he’s already got people who want to franchise this thing.”

Says Willis, “A lobster is never told to grow. It just has so much pressure inside of its shell that it goes underneath a rock and expands, breaks open its shell, gets a new one, and comes back out. Nothing in nature tells it that it needs to grow except for that pressure.”

Still, Minton advises cautious growth.

“You’ve got a young guy, he’s got a good idea, and it’s different enough it’s going to take off,” he says. “I think the kid’s going to knock it out of the park, as along as he doesn’t make a fatal mistake and we can keep him between the rails.”

Even Willis says he won’t let any sharks throw them off track.