Health Binge merges grab-and-go convenience and healthy food

Gerome Sapp is confident his Health Binge will succeed where other healthy-food concepts have failed — in large part because it’s been years in the making.

Health Binge is a retail grab-and-go concept that merges healthy foods and good eating. All of the offerings at the shop near Jones Boulevard and the 215 Beltway are gluten-free and low in calories; many are dairy-free, vegetarian and/or vegan.

“The initial idea came when I was in business school at Harvard,” said Sapp, who was playing in the National Football League while he earned his MBA in 2005-2006.

During one class, the instructor told the students they had an hour to come up with a business concept.

“I was starving at the time,” Sapp recalled. “Man, I don’t want to eat this vending-machine food.”

Sapp thought back to his days as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, where he had created a grab-and-go concept for athletes before he was drafted into the NFL in 2003.

“At that time in my life, I’d been in the NFL for two years and I’d been exposed to meal prep,” Sapp said. He also had teammates who had personal chefs, and he was impressed with how those chefs were able to apply healthful principles to food that tasted good.

His project idea was to combine the convenience of fast food with the nutritional aspects of meal prep and the gourmet flavors of personal chefs. But initially, that’s as far as it went.

After walking away from professional football in 2009 (“I got tired of hitting people for a living”), Sapp returned to his hometown of Houston, where he learned of a company called My Fit Foods.

“They’re my idea, on steroids,” Sapp said of the company, which has numerous outlets in Texas and Oklahoma but never moved into the West.

Which Sapp found himself doing three years ago, when he moved to Las Vegas after Tony Hsieh invested in his tech company. Still, the idea lingered: “If I ever get out of tech …”

Las Vegas, he thought, seemed like the perfect market for the project.

“People are on the go and in the industry here,” he said. “With a lot of their contracts, they have to maintain a certain physical appearance. And there are a lot of ex-athletes that live in and come to Vegas.” The city also has one of the youngest populations among the markets he studied.

“That was the start of it,” he said. “Sure enough, I got out of my tech company.”

One of the first steps was to hire a “dynamic chef,” Jackie McMahan. They set about working on a menu, with dishes that would be healthful — and all of them gluten-free.

“We can’t sell flatbreads and celery,” Sapp said. “People want more.”

And Health Binge’s menu certainly offers it: blackened shrimp and grits, asparagus white omelet, chicken garam masala, ancho chili bison enchiladas, Japanese meatloaf, vegetarian stuffed peppers, a vegan Southwest veggie bowl, a molten lava chocolate cake. In all, more than 40 selections, including a short kids’ menu.

The cuisine, he said, is American with Caribbean and Southern aspects.

Health Binge opened in mid-December at 6040 W. Badura Ave. The refrigerated cases of grab-and-go packages lining the walls are arranged chronologically, starting with breakfast and moving into lunch and dinner entrees, with a special section for vegan and vegetarian choices and one for snacks, kids and desserts. A wall chart explains the color-coding of proteins. There also are cold-pressed juices, made under the Health Binge label by a company in San Diego.

“The second day we opened, they sold out,” Sapp said.

Like all other aspects of his plan, he chose the location carefully. Health Binge shares a parking lot with a busy Starbucks, and there are both neighborhoods and a sprawling industrial park nearby.

He’s well aware that lots of other healthy-food concepts have failed.

“I’m a big believer in the psychology of things,” Sapp said. “I want to know why something worked or didn’t work. It’s always the simplest things that make you go out of business. This business wasn’t something I just woke up and thought about.”

One of the most important elements, he said, is a central kitchen, which helps control costs, quality and efficiency. Another is the grab-and-go convenience, and here Sapp is supported by research: In a recent study by food-trends research firm Datassential, 53 percent of consumers said they’re buying more supermarket-prepared foods than they did a year ago.

He test-marketed for two months before opening his doors, sometimes delivering foods to potential clients, although many started coming to the central kitchen.

“Before I got the retail aspect started, I started making more money than I had in all my other businesses,” he said.

Sapp said Health Binge isn’t locked onto one demographic, and isn’t focused on people who spend all their spare time in the gym.

“The person who wants to change the way they work out, eat, live, that’s our sweet spot,” he said. “We’re not trying to ride a wave of ‘what’s next.’ I see this as a brand that helps people.”

He is, however, negotiating with a chain of gyms, and has had talks with MGM Resorts International and prepared meals for the sales staff of Gaudin Ford.

The grab-and-go aspect is a big issue for David Schreiber, a Health Binge regular.

“It’s convenient for me,” Schreiber said. “Between me and my girlfriend, I used to spend $350 a week just on groceries, and then you still have to make it. Now, when I go to the grocery store I basically buy eggs, milk and bread.”

Most Health Binge dishes range from $7.50 to $11, depending on size and contents.

Schreiber said he also likes the variety.

“They have a good mix of stuff,” he said. “It’s not just rice, chicken and broccoli. Gluten-free isn’t really a thing for me. Protein content, good food, that’s my main requirement.”

Sapp said he has sufficient capital and patience, and is prepared for the long haul it might take to make Health Binge a success.

“This is my new competition in life,” he said. Like in the NFL, “all I can do is prepare for it. We just roll with the punches.

“This is a brilliant opportunity, if we do it right.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Find more of her stories at www.reviewjournal.com, and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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