RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Debuting in Scott’s Addition on Saturday, April 17 is the third refrigerated vending machine offering nutrient-dense, grab-and-go foods owned by local chef Danny Sterling.
Sterling operates a start-up called ELYA, which stands for Eat Like Your Ancestors, a concept he wanted to make more accessible to the greater Richmond area.
“We started this company as a way to give access to more nutrient-dense food, and a lot of the farms that we support are either locally sourced or organic,” Sterling said. “They follow natural, traditional farming techniques, things like that, hence the ancestral piece.”
It all started back in 2016, after Sterling was diagnosed with cancer. A trained chef who was getting ready to open a restaurant, he had a passion for food. But in the hospital, he said it was difficult for him and his wife, Julia, to find nutritional food that aligned with their values.
“I kind of thought, ‘Well, why is the food here not awesome, and why couldn’t it be?’” Sterling said. “My mission was to start a company where we can get better food into hospitals, and then just general access.”
In July, Sterling will have been cancer-free for five years.
Right before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he said that he and Julia planned to start a food service management company to provide healthy, nutrient-dense food. But the global health crisis changed everything.
“The pandemic happened and people weren’t in schools or businesses, and we found these refrigerators as a pivot to get to places where people are,” Sterling said.
The first fridge opened in October 2020 in Manchester at the facility where the food for ELYA is made on E 3rd Street. The second fridge opened in January 2021 at the Locks Tower Apartments. The third fridge opens Saturday at 3121 W Leigh Street, right outside men’s clothier Alton Lane.
“I think that the accessibility to high-quality, nutrient-dense food is an issue everywhere,” Sterling said. “Really, the location of Scott’s Addition was mostly based off of Alton Lane. They wanted to do something great for their employees as people are coming back into work post-pandemic, and they also wanted to do something for Scott’s Addition.”
Sterling said that each vending machine offers breakfast and lunch items and even some entrées, all of which cost between $4 and $14 each.
“Everything we have is ready to eat,” Sterling said. “It really all depends on what refrigerator you go to. If you’re refrigerator’s in an apartment complex, you might have more in-home style meals. If it’s somewhere like here at Alton Lane in Scott’s Addition, it’s going to be grab-and-go, quick, lunch items.”
Having been a chef for 15 years, Sterling said that his biggest concern was whether the community would like his food. But so far, the feedback has been positive. With that, ELYA is expanding.
“With our refrigerators, there’s a pretty low barrier to entry. We can just pop one of these things in anywhere. It’s not like taking over an entire cafeteria,” Sterling said. “We plan on expanding this summer. We have two more refrigerators that currently have contracts up on them, and once they’re finalized, they’ll be out in the open.”
Regardless of what happens next with ELYA, Sterling said that the company will remain true to its mission.
“We really believe in regenerative agriculture, so farms that are sequestering more carbon than they’re emitting, and we try to find farms that are local that do that, and if we can’t find farms that are local that are doing that, we go to a bigger playing field,” Sterling said. “Fortunately, Virginia has an awesome agricultural system, and we have tons of really great farmers that we work with. So as the season progress, whatever those farms have, we just kind of work with them and purchase accordingly.”
With the help of local businesses such as Alton Lane and Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company, which hosted ELYA for a pop-up on Broad Street as the company was first getting started, Sterling said that he hopes to provide food that is healthful and nutritious to the healthcare sector.