Lack of experience has never deterred Jonathan Willis from executing a good idea. So when the certified nutritionist and former personal trainer saw a niche in the Greenville market for farm-to-table fast food, he refused to let his inexperience in the restaurant arena slow him down. Instead, he plowed ahead, first establishing his healthy prepared-meal delivery company, Elev8, in 2016, and expanding the concept a year ago into a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Farm Fresh Fast.
Between the reclaimed barnwood lining the kitchen counter, barstools crafted from old wash basins, and metal nesting boxes hanging on the wall, country charm pervades this small space on a busy corridor of Church Street. The menu lists nutrient-rich sandwiches, salads, and veggie bowls, and even includes a “no-kill” selection for vegans—all made with local, sustainably raised products. The same rules apply to the prepared-meal program.
The Virginia native’s passion blazes when he talks about his restaurant and his mission to shine a spotlight on local farmers. “Dirty boots, clean conscience” isn’t just a tagline for Willis. He actually keeps a pair of mud boots in his car to wear during his frequent visits to the farms that provide meat and vegetables for Farm Fresh Fast.
What was the concept behind your original prepared-meal company? >> The idea of Elev8 was to take dishes that were normally not healthy and turn them into healthy, low-glycemic options. I studied biology at West Virginia University and originally wanted to follow in my mom’s footsteps as a nurse. But I ended up going into personal training. I used to be super overweight; I weighed over 300 lbs. at one point. I went through this whole transformation of myself and that was the catalyst for my meal-prep operation. If I’d had access to a company like that, it would have made my own transformation easier.
Grass Roots // Along with Farm Fresh Fast, Jonathan also runs Seedlings, a similar concept housed on the bottom floor of the Children’s Museum. Jonathan sources from area farms such as Kaland, Sharon Hill, Bio-way, Hurricane Creek, and Crescent Farm
Why tackle a restaurant? >> I felt like the farm-to-table movement in Greenville needed authenticity, as there are a lot of false claims out there. So I wanted to create a restaurant based on authenticity and transparency.
How did you compensate for your lack of restaurant experience when you opened Farm Fresh Fast? >> I come from tobacco farmers and coal miners in Lee County in southwestern Virginia. What we lacked in money, we made up for with hard work. Even if I have no experience in something, I believe that with hard work I can figure it out.
What drew you to the farm-to-table model? >> Consumers are so disconnected from their food. They live by going to a grocery store and buying a package of meat. You should want to know where your food comes from because not knowing is how we get diseases like salmonella and E. coli. People should not ask why local food is so expensive. They should ask why food from a grocery is so cheap. People need to understand that there are so many unethical practices behind industrial farming operations. I wanted to set a gold standard for what sourcing locally would look like on the restaurant side.
Consumers are so disconnected from their food. You should want to know where your food comes from. People need to understand there are unethical practices behind industrial farming.—Jonathan Willis
How many area farms do you source from? >> At first, we gave a little money to a lot of people. Now we realize it’s better to give more money to fewer people. We’ve pared our farms down from 39 to 19. And now we have two farms—Kaland Farms and a new startup—growing exclusively for us. So we’ll have varieties like Dragon Tongue beans and Adirondack Blue potatoes coming in. We plan to make blue tater tots—it’ll be amazing!
How do you select your farms? >> Quality. I don’t care what people tell me; I go to see the farms we source from myself. As the owner of Farm Fresh Fast, my name is on everything. I have to own the good, the bad, and the ugly of what we do, so I want to see the animals, to see how they’re cared for. I’m obsessed with the process. I know that the end product will be beautiful if you make the process right.
How do you ensure the quality of the local products you use? >> If you tell me you have grass-fed beef but it turns out not to be, I’m lying to my customers. So we came up with a supplier contract that says if you want to sell to me, you have to certify that you are doing exactly what you say you’re doing. My farmers have to detail their growing practices in writing. Then they sign it, and I sign it.
Why is it important to you to advocate for local farmers? >> The strength and sustainability of the local farm-to-table movement in the Upstate depends solely on the relationship between farmers and chefs. Farmers take so much pride in what they do, and they take so much pride in what we do for them. They are the real rock stars. We’re just the back-up band.
For more information on Jonathan and Farm Fresh Fast, visit eatfarmfreshfast.com