The Joy of Innovation

May 28, 2012

By Danielle Douglas and Jeffrey MacMillan, April 29

If you stop in at 944 Florida Ave. NW around 8 a.m., you can get an herb frittata with a hazelnut latte from Blind Dog Cafe. Come back again at 8 p.m. and you can down a Heineken at Darnell’s Bar. Same place. Different owners. One lease.

Friends Noah Karesh, Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist approached Darnell Perkins back in November about running a temporary coffeehouse in his saloon during the off-hours. The trio, who were customers, wanted to gauge the neighborhood’s interest before committing to leasing, refitting and operating a stand-alone space.

“We figured why put all of that capital into a cafe, when we haven’t proven that it could work,” Karesh said.

Blind Dog Cafe is part of an entrepreneurial movement in the local food scene that is ushering in new restaurant concepts, from food trucks to underground supper clubs, that stray from the traditional model. These entrepreneurs are readily using social media and mobile technology to market their businesses as they go head to head with established restaurants.

That such a spurt of innovation is transforming the restaurant industry should come as no surprise. Pushing a food cart or opening a carryout have always been one of the gateways to entrepreneurship because of the universal demand for food.

But the simplicity of the business model means the competition can be fierce and failure commonplace. Which is why this generation of restaurateurs is seeking out low-cost entry into the marketplace, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a research and consulting firm.

“When you think about food trucks, the overhead is very low and it allows a certain freedom and flexibility,” he said. “People want to work on their own terms, be more creative.”

Pop-up eateries

In the case of Blind Dog Cafe, Karesh said “necessity was the mother of invention” as the paucity of coffee shops in Shaw inspired him to open his own. He roped in Singer, whom he grew up with in Chevy Chase, and Gilchrist, a line cook at Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park.

Sharing an already leased and licensed space has saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in start-up costs. The three pay Perkins about $800 a month to rent the space. Karesh and his partners spent $20,000 to get the cafe up and running in January, most of the money went to purchasing equipment for brewing coffee and baking.

The laid-back atmosphere of the bar, complete with a well-worn comfy couch, already captured the homey vibe they were going for, so they only added a few shelves and tables.

The cafe, named for Singer’s blind Jack Russell terrier Baxter, attracts a mix of telecommuters looking for free Wi-Fi and endless caffeine. Karesh envisions Blind Dog as communal space for entrepreneurs, so he has begun inviting area start-ups, including artisan ice cream makers and vintage stylists, to host events in the cafe for free — pop-ups within a pop-up.

Culinary societies

One of the recent events held at Blind Dog involved a 45-person dinner party hosted by Feastly, a company that signs people up for “feasts” prepared by amateur chefs.

Feastly, co-founded by Karesh and Danny Harris, is the outgrowth of a pitch the pair made during November’s D.C. Startup Weekend. Karesh came up with the idea after having a hard time finding authentic cuisine while on vacation in Guatemala.

“The concept of using the dinner table as that original social network was something that really appealed to both of us,” Harris said.

Chefs can set the price of the meals and other house rules and choose how many people they want to serve under the model. On average, a feast costs around $30 per person. Karesh and Harris take up to 25 percent of the total proceeds from the dinner.

People can sign up to receive e-mail alerts on upcoming feasts. “We are leveraging technology to create vibrant communities,” Karesh said.

Kauffman Foundation vice president Lesa Mitchell said trusted online platforms, be they social network groups or referral sites such as Yelp, have become a driving force in the food industry. “Reputations can develop or be destroyed overnight because of technology,” she said. “There is greater immediacy in the response to these concepts.”

In the same vein as Feastly, The Coterie is an online marketplace that connects foodies with exclusive dining opportunities. For $42 a month, members gain access to cocktail parties and salon-style dinners. They also get access to a reservation system through which they can arrange for five-course tastings at one of five partner restaurants, including Fiola and Bibiana, for $135 a person.

“Our value proposition is connecting curious dinners with innovative chefs,” said Jill Richmond, who co-founded The Coterie with Nick and David Wiseman. “What underpins what we do, especially with the fireside dinners, is providing connections that are more meaningful than just having a great experience at a restaurant.”

Richmond, a consultant at the World Bank, started the culinary salon under the name No. 68 Project in London in March 2010. When her job led her back to the states a year later, she revived the project as a nine-week pop-up restaurant in the District.

The underground scene

Area foodies are dispelling the notion that Washington is too conservative to embrace experimental concepts. Underground dinner parties, where guests are not allowed to disclose the location or the host’s identity, have been gaining popularity in the past two years.

Dinner requests are growing at the Web site for underground restaurant Chez La Commis. Tom, the chef who requested anonymity to maintain privacy, started sending out e-mails to friends of friends in January to try out his creations.

A public relations executive by day, budding chef by night, Tom serves six-courses, with three wine pairings, for $40 out of his home in Clarendon. Word got out in the blogosphere about his dishes, such as crab salad with cucumber granite, and foodies started e-mailing requests to attend his clandestine supper club.

“Because there is no barrier aside from the cost of ingredients, you can get as creative as you want,” Tom said. “When you free people from the formal setting of a restaurant, the atmosphere becomes more lively. That matches the type of food I put out.”

What started out as a once a month event now occurs three to four times a month. “This is an investment in finding out whether I can eventually do my own restaurant,” Tom said.

Meals on wheels

No recent restaurant trend has garnered quite the attention as food trucks have. The new era of curbside cuisine, rife with gourmet concepts, has spawned well over 100 mobile vendors in the region since 2009.

“The evolution of mobile food service now has been fueled by the sustained period of economic weakness,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. “Consumers find it more cost efficient to purchase food from these vendors than paying for a meal at traditional restaurant.”

Fojol Bros. of Merlindia, which debuted its Indian fare during the inauguration of President Obama, was one of the first rolling restaurants to hit D.C. streets.

Since then, the team behind the “culinary carnival” has launched three other food trucks, including Ethiopian-inspired Benethiopia. Their newest truck, Volathai, is outfitted with two propane-powered woks for cooking the Thai cuisine.

The company, which became profitable two months ago, has no designs on fixed sites to grow the business.

“People enjoy the informality of eating outside; it’s like a live social network for them,” said Justin Viterello, who, along with his mother Virginia Viterello and friend Peter Korbel, owns Fojol Bros. “There is now a culture behind eating outside … that’s exciting.”

Pickup artists

Jenna Huntsberger, the D.C.-based baker behind Whisked!, is not ruling out launching a food truck. But given the number already on the road, she is happy selling her sweet and savory pies, cookies and cakes online, at farmers markets and pickup sites.

“There are other ways to sell to the public without having to take on the overhead of having a brick-and-mortar space,” she said.

Huntsberger and her former partner, Stephanie Willis, started selling desserts at the 14th and U Farmers Market last May, then expanded online. All told, they invested $3,000 to purchase equipment and ingredients.

By the end of 2011, the women set up pickup sites for their online orders, a system modeled after Soupergirl, where Huntsberger used to work part time.

Customers who place orders by Tuesday at midnight can pick them up on Fridays at Weygandt Wines, Mr. Yogato, Miss Pixie’s or The Cupboard. Pies sell for $9 to $19 depending on the size, and can also be purchased through bi-weekly pie subscriptions starting at $72.

Willis left the company in December to focus on her job at the Department of Homeland Security, but Huntsberger continues baking treats out of rented kitchen space at 42 Degrees Catering in Rockville.

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