Brookland culinary incubator Mess Hall launches contest to spotlight its mission

Mess Hall hasn't even opened its doors yet, but the Brookland culinary incubator has already launched a contest to give prospective members a glimpse into the future. The winner will earn a banquet-size taste of what Mess Hall plans to do for its budding food and beverage entrepreneurs.

Launch Pad is a competition cooked up by Al Goldberg, a former corporate catering executive who founded Mess Hall, which is still under construction in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 703 Edgewood St. NE. The contest invites aspiring chefs, restaurateurs, bakers, coffee roasters, distillers, mixologists or whoever has a solid culinary concept to submit a business plan to Mess Hall's Web site.

Al Goldberg has a new vision for culinary incubators, which he plans to share with the winner of his Launch Pad contest. (Photo by Ben Droz)
Al Goldberg has a new vision for culinary incubators, which he plans to share with the winner of his Launch Pad contest. (Photo by Ben Droz)

Four finalists will be invited to an event on Sept. 27 at Mess Hall, where a panel of judges, including Alisia Kleinmann of Industree and Brandon Skall of DC Brau, will name the grand champion. The winner will receive a host of benefits and prizes, each symbolic, in a sense, of what paying Mess Hall members could receive later this year when the incubator opens. (Goldberg is aiming for a September launch.)

The prizes include a six-month unlimited Mess Hall membership with 24/7 access as well as the chance to host events in the facility's demonstration kitchen and adjacent event space. There is also a six-month business mentorship from Rebecca Layton Gunter, founder of operation:eatery, not to mention consultations from experts on everything from branding and design to taxes and product distribution.

But the most meaningful prize may be a $500,000 investment opportunity via EquityEats, a D.C. crowdfunding firm that will raise money for food-and-beverage start-ups through a model that rewards investors with shares in the company (as opposed to services such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, which provide "investors" with only goods and services for their cash). The problem is, the federal government still hasn't rewritten the rules to allow for equity crowdfunding, perhaps because the Securities and Exchange Commission sees trouble ahead for non-accredited investors (i.e., non-rich investors) who may not have money to burn on risky ventures. Until the new rules are in place, EquityEats will have to improvise, says CEO and co-founder Johann Moonesinghe.

If the "rules are not finalized before we need to raise capital for the winner, non-accredited investors will still be able to invest," e-mails Moonesinghe, noting that EquityEats will file for exemptions with the SEC and regulators in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

"These filings will allow non-accredited investors (who reside in each of those areas) to invest in our offering.  The minimum investment will likely be $500, and we will be able to support up to 500 individual investors in the winner's new restaurant, bakery or bar," Moonesinghe adds.

The long list of prizes underscores Goldberg's vision for Mess Hall, which is not just a space for cash-poor cooks to work in a licensed kitchen until that they can scrape together enough money to build their own bricks-and-mortar establishment. Goldberg imagines Mess Hall as a "food community," a concept so central to his business that the term is incorporated in the logo. Members will participate in a shared ordering system, to help lower ingredient costs, and benefit from the counsel of lawyers, architects, designers and others. Members, which may total 100 in all, will also work together, not in competition, looking for opportunities to combine talents or just share ideas.

"We want people who want to help each other, and I think that's important to make the food jump," Goldberg says.

The food jump?

"The food jump is being able to take a small, local producer and get to a point of success," Goldberg says. "And everyone’s success might look different to them.”

Goldberg says he already has several commitments from future Mess Hall members, although he can't name anyone, and the application process is ongoing. The founder adds that pricing is tailored to "the different stages of a business' life cycle." The lowest membership fee will be $750 per month.

Four years in the making, Mess Hall is the culmination of Goldberg's years in the catering and environmentally responsible drinking-water business. He's developed a lot of contacts, people who have the knowledge and desire to help others.

"I am just a community guy who happens to have a lot of relationships with a lot of people in this city," Goldberg says. "And I feel my role is to connect the dots with the right people.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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