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All American Dave food truck transforming the way poker players eat

10 July 2014

By Dan Podheiser

LAS VEGAS -- Grass-finished, coffee-encrusted sirloin steak with mashed sweet potatoes and veggies. Pineapple-jalapeno wild Alaskan sockeye salmon over brown rice. Protein-enriched smoothies with organic fruits and fresh greens.

If this doesn't look like the typical diet for a poker player, that's because for a long time it wasn't. When you think poker cuisine, you think pizza and beer at a home game or smoke-filled pool halls offering greasy fare to keep their players fat and happy. Hell, the sandwich was invented at a poker table.

But walk through the rooms of the World Series of Poker Main Event these days, and you'll see a different kind of poker player. Jason Koon is a physical specimen who has won more in millions than his percentage in body fat. Phil Galfond looks like a shell of his former self (in a good way). The only thing bigger than these guys' chip stacks are their biceps popping out of their t-shirts.

And both players, like thousands of others at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino during the WSOP, get their meals from the All American Dave food truck.

Dave Swanson, left, sits in front of his All American Dave food truck outside the Amazon Room at the Rio on Thursday afternoon.

Dave Swanson, left, sits in front of his All American Dave food truck outside the Amazon Room at the Rio on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Dan Podheiser/Casino City)

A natural business in the making

Dave Swanson, the truck's proprietor, is not a certified personal trainer. He has no formal culinary education. But he's driving a movement toward healthy, clean living that is sweeping through the poker community -- and he's making a nice little chunk of change along the way.

"My proof is in my results," Swanson said during a rare slow period after the Main Event dinner break Wednesday night.

Swanson, 36, is originally from a small town called Gold Beach on the coast of Southern Oregon. An athlete in high school, he became a professional wakeboarder living in Orlando and moved to Las Vegas in 2003 to pursue a career as a firefighter. In the meantime, Swanson competed on the bodybuilding circuit, perfecting his physique by applying what he calls "perfect dietary principles" to his training.

But after a couple of knee injuries derailed his career, Swanson entered the personal training business. He added poker pros Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Jennifer Tilly, Brian Rast and Greg Mueller to his roster of clients, helping them get in shape both in the gym and with carefully designed diet plans.

"He's upgraded my quality of life because I'm more healthy, and everything in life is better when you're healthy,” Esfandiari said.

It’s hard for poker players to stay in shape. They sit for hours on end -- a 36-hour cash game session isn’t uncommon. Temptations are everywhere. And when they play tournaments, they generally only have time to grab a bite to eat from the nearby food court.

Swanson adjusted to his clients’ schedules.

"I was already cooking them meals and making sure they were eating right," Swanson said. "And during the World Series they were already down (at the Rio) for hours and hours without access to healthy food. So I started cooking them food out of my kitchen and bringing (meals) down here."

The word started to spread quickly, even though Swanson wasn't doing any advertising. He made a deal with nearby bar Crown & Anchor to lease out its kitchen during the WSOP, and began cooking meals and running deliveries to the Rio twice a day.

"I saw this group of thousands of people who had disposable income (and) were ordering this kind of food from Whole Foods or from other places and getting it brought in," Swanson said. "But they saw my players eating my food and said, 'I'll take some of that.' I just grew without trying to grow."

Demand soared so high that Swanson was eventually flagged by a Rio executive, who told him he could no longer run his deliveries into the casino. But Swanson's high-profile customers -- Esfandiari, Laak, etc. -- immediately came to his rescue and complained to WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart.

"They said, 'You can't stop these deliveries, we need them,'" Swanson said.

So Swanson and the Rio had a formal meeting and discussed a potential partnership.

"I was pretty nervous going into it because I had never done anything like it," Swanson said. "But five minutes after I explained what we did and what our principles were, they said, 'Wow, I can't wait to eat at your truck!'"

A deal was struck, but Swanson knew he'd have to revamp his business model to meet the enormous demand. Thanks to a couple of silent investors, he invested $75,000 in a new, mobile operation. And in 2013, he returned to the World Series with the All American Dave food truck and parked it in the outdoor break area behind the Amazon Room.

Sales were immediately off the charts, but Swanson, who worked as a kitchen manager at Outback Steakhouse in his early 20s, wasn't quite ready to run his own full-scale business and meet the heavy demand. He threw together a staff at the last minute and used paper bags to write down meal plan orders and receipts. At one point, the crew misplaced the receipts -- Swanson said he had to comp 800 or 900 meals.

"I didn't run the business aspect like I should have," he said.

And though it didn't make a profit that first summer, All American Dave had clearly established a presence at the Rio. This year, the food truck is back. Swanson projects that by the end of the summer, All American Dave will have done $400,000 in sales. He wants to reach $1 million next year.

What exactly is he selling?

One of the major "fad" diets in recent years has been the Paleo diet, a nutritional program based on the eating habits of our Stone Age ancestors. Paleo followers avoid processed grains (and in some cases, nearly all carbohydrates) and dairy. They eat only grass-fed and grass-finished beef, wild fish, free-range chicken and hormone-free pork. Everything is organic.

But the Paleo diet isn't exactly new.

"I always call Paleo a cute name for what fitness professionals have called 'eating clean' forever," Swanson said. "It's whole foods in their natural state."

All American Dave's menu follows many of Paleo's principles, but it takes a more balanced macronutrient approach. Protein is always the meal's staple, but healthy fats are incorporated and carbs are not vilified.

"The proteins especially are from the best, absolutely cleanest sources," Swanson said. "We don't cook with butters or oils because I don't believe in cooking with them. They're great -- oil is a very healthy fat. But once you start applying heat to it, it starts to degrade the essential fatty acids. So we'll use them in a raw form on top of vegetables."

The truck offers individual meals at $25 apiece (and smoothies for $10), but customers have the option to pay in bulk for a meal plan and receive a discount: $300 gets you 15 percent off, $500 takes off 20 percent and a $1,000 deposit gets a 25 percent discount.

Though he doesn't yet have the final tally for this year's World Series, Swanson estimates that two-thirds of his sales this summer have come through meal plans.

"I want people to commit to eating clean for a couple of weeks at a time," Swanson said. "If you want to get just one meal, and then not stick to the plan, well, you're gonna pay for it."

Along with the meal plan comes a text-or-tweet delivery service. Swanson posts the truck's menu daily on Twitter and Facebook (other off-menu items are typically available, too), and customers with meal plans can text him or tweet at the All American Dave Twitter account to place their orders. Poker players who are stuck at their tournament tables for hours at a time can get their meals and smoothies delivered right to their seats.

And though Swanson won't take credit for starting the health movement in the poker community -- as he says, poker players are highly intelligent, and the information is out there -- he has certainly helped to accelerate it.

"This is the healthiest group at the World Series of Poker we've ever seen," Swanson said. "And it's awesome to say I've had a hand in it."

Esfandiari, one of Swanson’s original clients, is thrilled for his friend’s success. But Esfandiari also knows Dave’s business is affecting his bankroll.

"Players play better when they have good fuel," Esfandiari said. "I almost wish he never came to the World Series."

Beyond the WSOP

Swanson didn't get into the physical fitness industry to make money. But now that his business is booming, he's looking to take All American Dave to the next level.

The All American Dave food truck sits outside the Amazon Room at the Rio during the World Series of Poker.

The All American Dave food truck sits outside the Amazon Room at the Rio during the World Series of Poker. (photo by Dan Podheiser/Casino City)

His dream is to open a one-stop shop for working professionals that helps them live a healthy lifestyle. It’s almost like a concierge fitness plan. A customer would come to Dave's brick-and-mortar location in the morning. They'd order their meals for the day and then work out with a personal trainer. When they've finished, they can go to the sports bar for a cool-down and post-workout protein shake while watching a little TV. And by the time they're ready to go, their meals for the day have been prepared and they're out the door.

"I have people in every single city across America who understand my concept (and) would love it in their city," Swanson said. "It's a market that is out there, and nobody's taken it over yet."

When he's not at the Rio during June and July, Swanson operates a small-scale version of this business. He rents a storage unit at Harmon and Polaris Ave., near the Ultimate Poker office, where he parks the truck and has a small gym to train himself and his clients. So far, his non-WSOP business is fairly small -- just $50,000 in sales since the 2013 World Series ended and the poker players went home. But he's looking at Los Angeles and San Diego as potential locations for his pilot brick-and-mortar business.

"When you think of a health-conscious, forward-thinking market, Las Vegas doesn't usually apply," Swanson said.

He knows his market exists, because he knows there's a societal ill that needs to be cured. Obesity has become an epidemic in the U.S. and even Swanson -- an athlete his whole life -- has not always been immune.

Go to AllAmericanDave.com and you'll see side-by-side, shirtless photos of Swanson. On the left, an overweight former athlete trying to reverse a downward spiral. On the right is Swanson as he looks today, shredded six-pack included.

He lost all of the weight over the course of one summer, eating the same meals he prepares on his food truck.

"I believe food addiction is the number-one drug addiction in America, and it's something I battle with all the time," Swanson said. "And if I don't have access to healthy, clean food, it's easy for me to unravel. It's a process where you completely lose it."

Swanson knows he's not alone. And he knows how hard it is to live a healthy lifestyle without support. So he wants to help others make the same changes he made.

"I knew that if I just applied the diet that I believe in that I would be able to help people," Swanson said.

Eat better. Train better. Be better. Those are the core values of the All American Dave food truck, and they're plastered all over the website. It's not just a gimmick.

"I believe we can always be better," Swanson said. "And if we're always living by that principle, we'll always be OK."

 
Dan Podheiser
Podheiser is a graduate of Emerson College and has worked as the sports editor of The (Torrington, CT) Register Citizen and as an intern for NESN.com. Immediately prior to joining Casino City, Podheiser served one year as an Americorps*VISTA, writing grant proposals for a local non-profit.

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