Four years ago Will Russ didn’t know it, but he was on the verge of a sea change.
The young professional was not particularly content working in his corporate sales job in North Carolina. And, he was battling his weight — in fact, he had been struggling with yo yo dieting and an eating disorder for years.
That’s when he discovered Clean Eatz, a healthy meal prep service and café started by a couple of bodybuilders in nearby Wilmington. The prepared meals were not only delicious, healthy and filling, they were perfectly portioned with healthy amounts of carbs, protein and fat to build muscle and encourage weight loss. With the guesswork taken out of meal prep, Russ started to lose weight and build a stronger body.
In 2019 he moved to Nashville 100 pounds lighter. He started looking for a location to open a Clean Eatz Nashville location and settled on a former Thai/sushi restaurant in Green Hills. Before long, he had 25 employees and was selling out every week.
“I didn't have a background in food service. I was a busboy once and wasn’t a good one,” Russ said. “But I do have a passion for healthy living and I have experience in production environments. I guess that’s what helped me to manage all the moving parts that go into running a successful business.”
At Clean Eatz Nashville, employees prep thousands of prepackaged entrees every month from a menu of 50-plus options. Customers can order online without a subscription or minimums, or stop by the café to pick up the meals they need for the week. The entrees are reasonably priced, ranging from $4.50 to $7.60 each. If customers need advice on their health journey, they can get that at Clean Eatz Nashville. “We have a certified nutrition coach on staff that manages our Green Hills location,” Russ said.
Among the top sellers? Buffalo mac and cheese, BBQ beef stuffed sweet potatoes and the beefy bean burrito bowls — all under 500 calories. “By the end of the weekend, our shelves are empty and we are refilling them again,” he said.
Just like the rest of the city, Russ had to pivot his business due to the COVID-19 outbreak in March. He converted his model to curbside exclusively for about two months, and Russ estimates his business took a 30 percent hit. He also was forced to temporarily reduce staffing by half. By August, Russ said the business was beginning to rebound. He is slated to open a second location in a former Zoey’s Kitchen in Murfreesboro in late August.
Russ is committed to helping his customers have a positive experience at Clean Eatz Nashville. “I love being able to encourage people and tell them, ‘I’ve been where you are and this is possible,’” he said.
He’s also dedicated to supporting his team members.
“Creating roles and opportunities that my employees can thrive in is what drives me,” he said. “It’s super important to me that they are happy and enjoy their work environment. Now that I’m in a place where I can create work for people and help them find their career path, that is exciting.”
As far as the pandemic, he’s not taking any bets on how long it will last. “I don’t know that I see an end to it for quite some time,” he said. “For me this is the new normal. As business owners nobody’s going to save us, we have to make decisions that are right for ourselves and our team members. I look for the positive moments in each day. For now we just have to make it work.”
This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.