Jonathan Willis doesn’t have any prior experience in food service or running a restaurant. While he’s the first to admit his qualifications to run a hyper-local, farm-to-table neighborhood spot aren’t exactly orthodox, he’s doing it anyway with Farm Fresh Fast, set to open within the next few weeks at 860 S. Church St.
“I don’t know what the heck I’m doing,” jokes Willis, 30, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist. “I hire what I don’t know.”
Despite that lack of experience, what he does have is a long line of coal miners and tobacco farmers in his family from whom he learned how to work and make something out of nothing.
“I like to say I have a blue-collar mentality in a white-collar world,” he says. “The farming part? I got that. But the making this work? That’s the challenge.”
For instance, Willis and his father laid 5,000 pounds of concrete in one day for the restaurant’s countertops without any prior experience. He also dismantled sections of a 100-year-old barn to reclaim the materials for use in the dining area. At Farm Fresh today, an enormous barn door is hung on its original tracks as a decorative feature inside, while framing from the barn creates an interior awning over the drive-thru area.
Previously named Elev8, Farm Fresh Fast grew out of Willis’ Elev8 Next Level Nutrition meal delivery service, which he began in 2015. The name change is strategic to position the company for franchising.
Willis and his fiancée, Kaylee Gonzalez, with a team of half a dozen chefs have run the meal delivery service from an offsite commercial kitchen. It’s marketed as a quick and easy way to eat healthy without requiring any prep time. The pre-made, pre-ordered meals are delivered to various gyms and drop-off locations around the Greenville area. Willis plans to continue that service, with meals also being available in open coolers in the 32-seat restaurant.
The concept for Farm Fresh Fast was inspired by Willis’ passion for health and fitness with a goal to help nurture and grow a more health-focused community. He believes good nutrition to be the health care of the future. To help accomplish that, he wants to provide quick meals made with locally sourced grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, and heirloom pork, for instance, to consumers at an affordable cost.
“I saw a need in the market,” Willis says, explaining that his goal is for entrees to remain less than $10. “We want to be a community place.”
He also has a desire to better the community through supporting local farms.
“Everything you eat here is coming from a local farm and made locally,” Willis says.
Farm Fresh Fast has a rotating list of more than a dozen farms and suppliers, many of them smaller farms that will benefit from a regular buyer rather than selling only at local farmers markets.
“Being just part farm-to-table doesn’t fully benefit farms,” Willis says. “I want to help the farmer who isn’t fully established and get smaller players into the game.”
The Farm Fresh Fast community also includes Due South Coffee (making the restaurant the only place where you can get Due South in a drive-thru), Kuka Juice (which will sell 8-ounce bottles for $4), Spartanburg’s Blue Moon Specialty Foods in Spartanburg (they’re offering regular and blueberry lemonade made without sugar), and Upcountry Provisions (providing whole wheat sandwich buns).
The menu will include six or seven constantly rotating items — burgers, chicken, pastas, salads — that will be made fresh to order in fewer than 10 minutes. Grab-and-go items, along with drinks, will be available at the drive-thru.
“We’re keepin’ it real,” Willis says. “We’re young, we work hard, and we’re not conventional. I want to be different.”