Left to right: Elyce Jacobson and Shaka the King, founders of Skinny Buddha. Photography courtesy of Skinny Buddha
How many times have you wondered which of your food and health struggles are more than skin deep?
Researchers have found that many people struggle with weight simply because of genetics. Just like we get our hair and eye color from our ancestors, we tend to inherit their waistlines, too. That does not really compute, however, with the rate of obesity in the U.S. Currently, it stands at about 42.4%, an increase of 26% since 2008.
Clearly, other factors are at work.
For Elyce Jacobson, her struggle with weight, confidence, and health began when she was a child. As an adult, she was determined to change her life and her lifestyle. When she met Shaka the King at her gym, she found more than just a trainer; she found a business partner. Together, they founded in 2010 Skinny Buddha Organic Food and Fitness, a food and fitness establishment in Mount Kisco selling and serving organic, vegan, gluten free, kosher foods, smoothies and beverages and classes and programs. Skinny Buddha helps clients eat better, exercise better, and think about health in a more holistic way. Their healthy food and exercise programs were created to fuel the body and fill the soul.
Shaka the King
We sat down with Elyce Jacobsen to learn more about her journey and the Skinny Buddha philosophy. Please read on for (often surprising) insights.
NEW YORK MAKERS: How did you go from a person struggling with health to an inspiration to so many?
ELYCE JACOBSON: It has been a long journey. I have struggled with my weight since I was a child and have been dieting most of my life. I began exercising religiously when I was in my early twenties. After having three children, I was frustrated with all the weight I had put on, and I was determined to get back into shape. It wasn’t until I started training with Shaka, and finally did a 12-week program with him, that I realized I had been doing everything wrong my entire life. Shaka designed a 12-week program specifically with my needs in mind. He gave me nutritional breakdowns and explained how to create recipes and meal plans that fit those breakdowns. I kept a journal with my daily meal plans and all the recipes I created. I trained with Shaka five days a week, plus I did cardio on my own. I gave up alcohol for all 12 weeks. My results were startling. I changed the shape of my body, losing a ton of body fat and many inches in all the right places.
NYM: So how did you two decide to found Skinny Buddha?
EJ: It was completely a joint effort from conception through creation. It started with my personal food and fitness journey. After the completion of the 12-week program, we were both so excited with my results that we wanted to share them with as many people as we could. The idea that it’s possible, and not terribly difficult, to lose weight, shift your metabolism, and change the shape of your body seemed like a miracle. We felt an obligation to share it. We thought about writing a book, had grandiose dreams of building a compound, but in the end settled on creating Skinny Buddha Organic Food and Fitness. We wanted to really touch peoples’ lives and be there to interact with them and support them as they were going through the process. We decided to do a test run; we found six people who were willing to sign up for a six-week program. They would train with Shaka five times a week, do their cardio on their own, and only eat the food I cooked for them. We designed a diet and a workout specific to each individual. We sublet a small gym in Westchester and brought in a refrigerator, and I cooked the meals out of my home kitchen. Each person came for their training session and left with their meals for the day.
NYM: How did the vision for the company evolve over the past decade?
EJ: On the heels of the success of the initial program, we rented a space, built out a gym, and opened for business. We offered many different programs all combining food and fitness. Our clients started requesting more food. They wanted meals for their families and catering in addition to the food that came with their program. We started looking for a commercial kitchen and, when we found one, we opened it up to the public. We started with just a pick-up window and then expanded to allow people to actually come into the kitchen. After five years, we closed the gym and opened a second food location, a cafe in Scarsdale. We were there for four years, but due to complications with our landlord and our lease, we had to leave Scarsdale. We had the opportunity to do a pop-up in the East Village of Manhattan, and we jumped on it. We were there, in addition to our Mount Kisco location, for three months. We negotiated a lease to stay permanently in the NYC space, but it fell through just as the store next door to our kitchen become available for rent. We took it as a sign, bid farewell to the city, and reopened our gym right next to our kitchen, all under one roof in Mt. Kisco. This is what we had always wanted.
NYM: Who does what?
EJ: Shaka trains, and I create recipes and cook. We both do EVERYTHING else. And I mean EVERYTHING. From accounts payable and receivable to making smoothies and Acai bowls, to delivering orders, to social media and marketing to washing floors. We do it all.
NYM: You are focused on vegan and also organic foods. Where do you source ingredients?
EJ: We are vegan, gluten free, organic, and kosher. We use mostly two purveyors: Ace Natural and Baldor Organic.
NYM: How did the pandemic affect your business?
EJ: We had to close the gym for ten months. We opened in January 2020, and we closed in March. We finally got all the filtration systems and necessary precautions in place and reopened last month for one-on-one training only. Luckily, the kitchen was deemed an essential business, and we have been open through the pandemic. When it first hit, we were mostly doing curbside pick-up and delivery. We shortened our hours, cut our staff, and decided to close on Sundays. We are happy and grateful to say that we are back to being busier than ever.
NYM: How has the transition to virtual offerings gone?
EJ: It’s honestly a bit like starting a whole new business. We had to build a new website, write tons of material, shoot cooking and workout videos, shoot and edit interview videos, and more. But it’s been super rewarding. Our Skinny Clean 14 program has been our most popular. It’s a 14-day private Facebook group where our clients receive workout videos with Shaka, cooking videos with me, a grocery list, an opening zoom call with us, where we introduce our philosophy and the parameters to the program. Our clients have had huge success. Many are losing 5-10 pounds in 14 days and building a lifestyle with new habits that they can take with them. Many go on to do the Shape 28 program because they want to continue. We have also created an alumni Facebook page where they can continue to support each other and touch base. Our interview platform called “The Skinny” has been a great way for our viewers to connect with our community and for us to highlight some of the people that have influenced us and touched our lives. We have interviewed people from Dr. Joel Kahn, the well-known plant-based cardiologist to John Joseph of the Cro-Mags, who was a homeless drug dealer turned Hari Krishna, turned Iron Man athlete, to a 10 yr old boy who has been our customer since he was two and runs local races and grows his own food in his garden.
NYM: How has the local community embraced your business?
EJ: The local community has always been extremely supportive. When we first opened, we were not vegan or even vegetarian. We source all organic ingredients, but had things like curry chicken salad, beef meatballs, turkey meatloaf, and egg frittatas. When we decided to transition to 100% vegan, I created vegan versions of all of our popular animal-based menu items. I created curry cauliflower salad, vegan meatballs made with butternut squash and navy beans, meatloaf made with walnuts and lentils and frittata made with chickpea flour, coconut milk, nutritional yeast, and sautéed veggies. We had already gained our customers’ trust, and they were willing to give these new recipes a taste. Over time, we phased out all the animal-based recipes and replaced them with plant-based recipes. Our customers have remained loyal fans and have incorporated more plant-based meals into their diets. I would guess that about 85% of our customers are not vegan. They just like our food and they like the way our food makes them feel.
NYM: Are there any recipes you’d like to share?
EJ: I’m saving most of my recipes for when I write a cookbook someday, but I’d be happy to share my hummus wrap recipe. You simply take a large raw collard green and trim the spine so it’s flat. Add four ounces of hummus (store bought is fine, but we make our own), 1 ounce of shredded beets, 1 ounce of shredded carrots and then roll it like a burrito. We cut ours in half. Eat and enjoy.
We at New York Makers are looking forward to that cookbook!