Eat Sprout in Easton and St. Michaels has always been trendy. For good reason–they serve nutritious and innovative food. Next week when they open in Annapolis, the other side of the bridge will find out why this unassuming business is so popular.
Not that it came easy. Some successful businesses are inherited, while others result from a lifelong dream. Then there are the accidental businesses, such as this one.
It all started when Ryan and Emily moved to Easton in 2012. She had been in the Air Force. He had a Masters in Nutrition, and they both had a job helping start someone else’s business. All was going well; they bought a house and had a child, but then in 2015, both lost their jobs.
That’s when things got bad. But people they had met throughout the years reached out wanting to help. Including a friend/client who owned Tiger Roofing in Cambridge—Gary Sampson. Sampson needed someone to cook for him while he tended his burgeoning business. Could the Grolls help?
And so Ryan and Emily began cooking for Sampson as a way to pay for their mortgage while continuing to look for jobs. But the Grolls’ cooking became known. Could they also cook for some of Sampson’s friends? “We decided it probably wouldn’t be that much more challenging,” says Ryan, “since we were already doing it.” Before too long, two became three, then four, and soon they found themselves cooking for about a dozen people.
As can be imagined, that became challenging. The couple was getting up at dawn, shopping, making and packaging the meals, and delivering them (with baby in the back) to their various clients. They would then come home, do the dishes, and research recipes for the following day. Emily compared it to cooking a large family Thanksgiving meal every day, seven days a week.
With that came the realization they were on to a good thing that just might be worthy of their time and investment. What they needed now was a commercial kitchen that would allow them to keep up with their demand. Instead, a family member suggested, what about a food truck?
Ryan found a place in Michigan that retrofitted old school buses. With the company’s help, the Grolls designed one that would fit their needs. They licensed it, hooked it up to their well and septic, and in 2016 opened Eat Sprout, a subscription-based meal delivery business. “We would do this once a week,” said Ryan. “And when we got busier, we did it twice a week, and then three times a week. Then we brought on our first employee, then our second employee. We sold Emily’s car to buy a delivery van. And then we got our first delivery driver. And it just grew and grew and grew from there.” The growth included a start in the retail business when they began providing food to a couple of companies that allowed them to keep a refrigerator at their location.
Clearly, it was time to expand beyond their 120-square-foot food truck space. After an extensive search, they found a building on Aurora Street and a bank to finance it, and in 2018 Eat Sprout became a place where people could come in and pick up a meal, snacks, and drinks. “One of our mottos,” Emily said, “is ‘if you keep good food in your fridge, you’ll eat good food.’ So it’s up to us to make that happen for you.”
Just as with their personal chef experience and then with their delivery business, soon the clients increased to where the Grolls felt they could grow even further. They opened in St. Michaels at the beginning of 2019 and started to plan going over the bridge. And then, like all stories that begin and end around this time, COVID hit, and doors and plans were shut down.
Once businesses began to reopen, owners were finding a whole new set of problems, including the need for and retention of staff. Where around them, restauranteurs were making do with shorter hours and less help, the Grolls continued to attract a talented group of employees. It may have had something to do with perspective. “Our staff is incredibly talented, and everybody is important,” says Ryan. “The chefs I know work terrible hours, so, for instance, we told our chef we could offer him a different lifestyle. He could make his own schedule, have paid time off as needed, as well as nights, holidays, and weekends. Plus, there are no tickets to fill since this is a production-style kitchen. So how do we keep our staff? By providing them with what they want.”
The Grolls are also thankful for their employees, believing that the creativity of their staff contributes to the success of the products they carry. It is the staff, they say, who tweaked what was already on the menu to make it better or interpreted what the guests were looking for and then made it happen.
Whatever the reason, Eat Sprout is well known and appreciated on the Eastern Shore and is about to be introduced to a new audience. The pause contributed by COVID allowed the Grolls to plan the approach to their expanding business. Location is everything, and they think they found it in Annapolis, next to Home Goods and in the same shopping plaza as Trader Joe’s. It will be a sit-down café with the same feel as the St. Michaels location but with the grab-and-go concept of Easton. But the Grolls’ strategy also includes a hub-and-spoke business model that so far has been working and which they hope will be the blueprint for all future locations.
The hub, at the Easton location, is their central kitchen. That’s where all the talented chefs are and where all the production, logistics, manufacturing, packaging, and quality control happens. From there is the distribution to the various spokes, which has been St. Michaels for the last two years and will now also be in Annapolis. “So the idea is consistency,” says Ryan. Since everything is still made in Easton, they can expect the exact same quality of bread, drinks, snacks, and entrees at all locations because it was all made fresh that day.”
Consistency will also extend to the atmosphere of the Annapolis shop, as some of the Eastern Shore employees will be commuting to help establish the new location. But the Grolls are also excited about this new location for another reason. Both were born and raised in Anne Arundel County, and both lived in Annapolis. So to them, it is almost like coming home and reconnecting with old friends.
“I was at the Annapolis shop doing some work, said Ryan, “and took a quick lunch break. As I’m walking to the parking lot, I hear my name called, and it’s an old friend that I went to high school with years ago. They said they were so excited to see Eat Sprout coming and are bragging to their friends about knowing the guy who owns it. So it’s kind of like some old friends I probably haven’t seen or talked to for over 15 years promoting this for me, just because they know who we are.”
If history repeats itself, it won’t be long before a whole new clientele in Annapolis will also know who they are.
P.S. In case you’re wondering what happened to their old food truck, it is now in the care of another Easton favorite, Four Sisters Kabob and Curry.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.
For more information: https://www.eatsprout.com