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Alum Wins MassChallenge Grant for Healthy Global Restaurant

James DiSabatino ’09 upped comfort food’s game more than five years ago with Roxy’s Grilled Cheese. Now the Emerson grad and his partner are trying to do the same with vegan cuisine at Whole Heart Provisions, recent winner of a 2016 MassChallenge grant.

Just don’t call him a “foodie.”

“Anybody can call themselves a foodie,” said DiSabatino. “I prefer titles people have to earn.”

Last week, DiSabatino earned the title of “trailblazer.” In a field of high tech, life sciences, and social impact startups that have been a part of the MassChallenge Boston accelerator, Whole Heart Provisions became the first and only restaurant ever to win a grant (a small number of food and beverage retailers have won).

“MassChallenge, they really look to see what type of social impact the company can have,” said DiSabatino, who majored in Marketing Communication at Emerson College.

“I think if we scale this correctly, and we’re able to be the next Chipotle, we have a serious opportunity to mitigate America’s biggest [challenges],” he said, including heart disease and climate change.

About 1,700 companies applied to MassChallenge this year, and 128 were accepted to the four-month program, which provides mentorship, office space, networking, and other non-financial resources to fledgling businesses. Of those companies, 16 are awarded grants of varying amounts to invest back into the businesses.

Whole Heart’s $50,000 award will go toward opening a second restaurant at an undisclosed location in the second quarter of 2017, DiSabatino said. The original store is at 487 Cambridge Street in Allston, Massachusetts.

The idea for Whole Heart came about when DiSabatino and his partner, Rebecca Arnold, began talking about opening a restaurant that patrons can feel good about visiting on a daily basis.

Since Roxy’s launched in 2011, it has grown to include two food trucks, two brick-and-mortar locations, and two more on the way. It has garnered rave reviews and amassed a large following of bread-and-cheese devotees. But, DiSabatino realized, it’s not the kind of thing you can eat every day—at least not if you care about your arteries.

Whole Heart Provisions, which features seven signature veggie bowls and a small menu of street food snacks, offers healthy, vegan dishes with globally inspired flavors and environmentally friendly ingredients, he said.

He described their target customers as educated, down-to-earth Millennials who are interested in food and their own health.

DiSabatino said that for Whole Heart, he and Arnold set about creating flavor combinations that people wouldn’t normally find at other vegetarian and vegan restaurants. One of their dishes—the “Mission Style” veggie bowl—is a whirlwind trip around Asia, blending edamame and Japanese eggplant with brussels sprouts; “Szechuan” dukkah (traditionally, an Egyptian condiment blend of herbs, spices, and nuts); and tahini dressing.

“We really kind of realized early on…that we weren’t going to make vegan-friendly foods accessible to non-vegans unless the flavors were off the charts,” DiSabatino said.

DiSabatino said MassChallenge was a great experience and gave them a new way of looking at growing a business.

“It allowed us to treat Whole Heart more like a startup than a restaurant, so it gave us a great perspective of how we can scale up as a company,” he said.

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