Keeping it local: how one entrepreneur is going to change the way we eat

The term “fast food” is not one frequently associated with health and wellness nor does it bring to mind visions of locally sourced organic produce. Rather, it reminds us of cross-country road trips, cardiovascular conditions, and perhaps even the distinctive odor of fries soaking in Canola oil.

But what if we could change this? What if there was a way to get rid of the connection between “fast food” and those notorious golden arches? What if someone could provide hungry customers with food that is quick but also real, nutrient-dense, and locally grown?

While popular chains like Chop’t, Shophouse, and Sweetgreen have done much to de-stigmatize the fast food industry, there are still definite strides to be made when it comes to on-the-go foods that actually provide our bodies with the nutrients they need.

This is where Emily Gaines comes in. A WeWork Wonder Bread member and a healthy-living extraordinaire, Emily firmly believes that “fast” and “nutritious” don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In an effort to prove this point, Emily is launching her first restaurant in September, an organic, locally sourced, fast food spot called hälsa. Although not of Swedish decent, Emily got this name from the Swedish word meaning “health,” both of mind and of body. “The Swedish are into eating locally and organically,” Emily explains. “They are also on the cutting edge when it comes to sustainability,” another key component of Emily’s concept.

hälsa will be located in a new development in the Brookland area of D.C. called the Monroe Street Market. This spot will house other restaurants like &pizza, Potbelly, and Busboys and Poets, as well as several subsidized art studios. Emily chose this location based on its proximity to students from Catholic University and a growing population of young families and young professionals, all groups likely to share her passion for healthy and sustainable eating.

After earning her degree in International Business and Marketing from George Washington University, Emily spent time in Southeast Asia where she made a remarkable discovery: coconut ice cream. Inspired by this delicacy, she decided to open a coconut ice cream shop of her own in D.C. Around the same time, Emily began educating herself on the importance of eating locally and seasonally, ultimately deciding she could do more with her passion for health than selling artisanal ice cream alone.

“So many people can’t answer questions like, ‘What is good health?’ or ‘What should we be eating?’ There’s so much confusion out there,” Emily explains. And with a newfound understanding of the relationship between food and the environment, as well as a growing desire to support small farmers, Emily shifted her focus from ice cream to a full-scale restaurant concept. hälsa will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner using 80% locally sourced ingredients from D.C.-based farms such as 3 Farmers, Tree and Leaf, Next Step Produce and Ecofriendly Foods. The remaining 20% of her products will be those not found locally such as avocados, cocoa, and several superfoods (She also plans to include coconut ice cream on the menu).

“I’m so inspired by my travels and the way I’ve seen other cultures eat. Making food is their life – From growing to harvesting to cooking. And they are so much healthier because of it!” So as she works to bring these practices to the States, Emily encourages others to make healthy food choices a way of life. “Instead of watching TV at night, I tell people to grab a friend and go to their local farmers market. Pick out the foods that appeal to you and cook dinner! Just make an activity out of it.”

And while this may sound simple coming from a guru of sorts, the truth is, most of Emily’s health education has been self-instructed. “I’ve read a lot of recipes, and I’ve learned a lot from my holistic health coach as well as my chef consultant. To me, being an entrepreneur is having a dream or desire and learning the skills necessary to get there.”

Whether you are also passionate about only eating animals that were grass-fed and humanely raised, produce that is good for the environment and for the body, or if you draw your inspiration from something else entirely, Emily would advise you to listen to your intuition and remain passionate about what you do. “My biggest mistake has been relying too heavily on others. It’s important to remember that this is your business and your dream and you have to make sure you’re happy every day doing what you’re doing.”

So if you find yourself in D.C. this fall, be sure to give hälsa a try. After all, it’s for your health.

20140416 Emily Gaines Halsa Wonderbread-3

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