Cafe Green and Java Green turn to crowdfunding model to pay off back taxes


Founder and Chef DJ Kim and Wes Rubbin, Manager in front of the Green Cafe, on 17th St NW, which has been closed by city officials for non-payment of taxes but are trying to raise money thru the community. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN)
September 2, 2012

Washington-based restaurants CaféGreen and Java Green owe more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes.

And they want you to pay up.

The restaurants, which specialize in vegan and vegetarian food, were shut down by the District’s Office of Tax and Revenue on Aug. 21 for being delinquent on taxes dating back to November 2010.

In the days that followed, owner Dae Jung Kim and his staff uploaded a video onto Café Green’s Web site asking customers for donations of $50 and $100 to cover the restaurant’s unpaid taxes and penalties.

“In order to stay open and provide you with the healthful vegan dining experience you’ve grown to love, we are going to need a little help from our community,” the site says, adding that those who donate will receive 5 percent discounts on food at the restaurants.

Kim’s campaign is a departure from the sort of “crowdfunding” appeal popularized by sites such as Kickstarter, which typically raise money for start-ups, art projects and other ventures. And some were skeptical.

“I’m not sure donating would actually really help them in the long run,” said Katelyn Sornik, who owns Kate Bakes, a local vegan snack company. “It may stave off a permanent closure for a little longer,” but without changes in the operation, “we’ll be right back here next year.”

Java Green and Café Green, which opened in Northwest D.C. in 2002 and 2009, respectively, were among the first restaurants in the area to cater to vegan and vegetarian diners, Kim said.

So far, the restaurants have raised about $3,000, mostly from regular diners and other local vegan organizations, according to Wesley Rubbin, manager of Café Green. He noted that some customers have raised concerns about where the money will go.

“People have said, ‘How can I trust that the money is going to go to the right places?,’ ” he said, adding that the restaurant is working on improving its business model. “We’ve had a few who have been more irate than others.”

It is unclear why Java Green Coffee & Tea, the parent company behind the restaurants, was not paying its taxes. Rubbin offered several explanations, including a suggestion that the money was needed to pay rent and salaries.

“We needed money to keep employees paid and the doors open,” he said. “That’s kind of how this tax thing happened.”

Earlier this year, Café Green faced a court-ordered eviction for nonpayment of rent. Kim said the restaurant paid $100,000 in late rent payments and court fees in time to avoid being kicked out.

“The next plan was to get to the taxes,” Rubbin said. “We had been trickling money [to the tax office] as well, but not the lump sum that they wanted.”

A tax lien from the District shows that the restaurants owe a total of $133,344.06 in unpaid taxes, interest and penalties.

Rubbin said the plan is to pay back $40,000 in taxes as quickly as possible.

“We’re hoping that’s going to appease the tax guys and give them what they need to get the doors back open,” he said.

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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