A few weeks ago, Alvaro Anspach and Joseph Linzon were processing down the University of Virginia’s historic Lawn, celebrating their graduation with thousands of their classmates. Now, they are taking orders and helping customers at a restaurant across the street.
The difference? It’s their restaurant.
Anspach and Linzon, both May graduates of the McIntire School of Commerce, co-founded Roots Natural Kitchen with fellow alumni Jung Kim and Alberto Namnum, who graduated from the University in 2014 and 2013, respectively. Roots opened June 1 with a simple but compelling mission: sell delicious, affordable and healthy food and promote community health by donating a portion of the proceeds to the UVA Children’s Hospital.
“People eat on the Corner every day and we realized that there exists a large demand for healthy food,” Linzon said. Too often, he said, college students have to choose between health and affordability.
Roots hopes to fill that gap with a host of grain bowls and salads crafted by chefs Andrew Silver and Ivan Rekosh, renowned for their work at one of Charlottesville’s top restaurants, Zocalo. Diners can build custom creations of whole grains, local produce, lean proteins and housemade dressings or choose from Silver and Rekosh’s signature menu, featuring UVA-themed dishes like the “Mad Bowl” or the “Corner Cobb.” All are priced at less than $10.
The real story of Roots, though, began long before architects refashioned 1329 West Main Street into a sleek, two-story restaurant and long before Silver and Rekosh worked their magic with local produce. It began in the halls of the Commerce School, amid the buzz of conversation as students changed classes.
“McIntire is an amazing place to meet people,” Anspach said. “I sat around every day with some of the most brilliant people I have ever met. You grow a lot just by talking in the hallways after class, not to mention on working on group projects together.”
Anspach and Namnum, both committed to active lifestyles, began talking about how and where they could eat healthier meals. They realized that they were looking for a specific cuisine and restaurant style and, more importantly, that they could create it themselves, alongside friends Linzon and Kim.
“We started building the concept to fill what we saw as a gap in the market, both here and nationally,” Anspach said. “We began researching market size, putting together a business plan and financials, and we got really excited about it.”
The watershed moment came when the founders delved into nutrition research and made changes to their own diets. In a few short weeks, they were feeling better, sleeping better and enjoying more energy and focus – and Roots grew from a good idea to a powerful mission.
“It was a pivotal moment for us, as we realized how focusing on your diet can transform your life every day,” Anspach said. “We really internalized the idea that food is the most powerful substance on the planet and people should use it to their advantage. We saw how we could empower people through food.”
The four founders had some experience in the restaurant business as waiters, busboys or, in Linzon’s case, as the child of veteran restaurateurs. However, they needed funding and advice and found both in The Galant Challenge, an annual event held by UVA’s Galant Center for Entrepreneurship to connect student entrepreneurs with potential investors.
During the challenge, Anspach and Namnum pitched Roots to Paul Gannon, a UVA alumnus and investment management executive. Impressed, Gannon and his daughter Jacqueline decided to invest in the fledgling business.
“The Galant Challenge really spurred our growth,” Linzon said, citing the event as one example of “tremendous changes” in student entrepreneurship during his time at UVA.
“The entrepreneurial ecosystem within UVA has really grown and developed, and hopefully that trajectory will continue,” he said.
With the Gannons’ support and guidance, the team began delving into the details, working with real estate agents, architects, contractors and chefs to make their vision a reality and using their own business background to carefully manage costs and keep prices low.
They also began exploring a partnership opportunity with the UVA Children’s Hospital to expand Roots’ mission of promoting healthy lifestyles in the community.
“[The founders] approached me a little over a year ago and made it clear that they wanted to both offer a healthy eating option on the Corner and benefit a cause that would encourage healthy eating habits in children,” said Joshua Walker, associate director of development at the U.Va. Children’s Hospital.
“As you get to know them, you see that this is very personal for them,” Walker said. “They want to model what they believe in through the way that they run their business.”
Roots will donate a portion of all proceeds to the hospital. The founders also plan to lead workshops with the Children’s Fitness Clinic, which sponsors programs like Go Girls, designed to educate teenage girls and their families about nutrition and exercise.
Anspach hopes to build similar partnerships as all four partners work on the restaurant full-time and, hopefully, expand it, both within Charlottesville and beyond.
“Going forward, we don’t see Roots as just a restaurant that you eat at and forget about,” he said. “We see it at as one partner adding value to a healthy lifestyle and we would love to partner with others dedicated to that mission. We hope not just to provide healthy eating options, but also disseminate information about nutrition, fund nutrition research, use food to improve athletic and daily life performance, and many more things.”