“The only way to grow an enterprise is from the inside out,” Simons said on a recent afternoon at the site for Potomac’s Founding Farmers, which is to open on Nov. 3. “We loved our arrangement with the farmers, but we wanted them as partners instead of just working for them.”
The North Dakota Farmers Union, a 42,000-member cooperative of family farmers, is licensing the rights to the new restaurant, its third in the Washington area. The union entered the market, and the restaurant business, with the 2006 opening of Farmers & Fishers (formerly Agraria) in Georgetown to promote family farms.
“We considered starting a grocery store, but decided the most in-your-face way would be opening a restaurant,” explained Mark Watne, executive director at the union. The District’s dense population and economic stability, he said, made it a better place for a restaurant than, say, Bismark, N.D.
Three years ago when the union was ready to expand, it turned to Simons and Vucurevich. Their Kensington firm developed the Founding Farmers concept and created Farmers Restaurant Group to manage the restaurant.
Simons and Vucurevich signed on for an undisclosed percentage of that restaurant’s profits, a move that paid off quickly after its September 2008 opening. According to the union’s Web site, the restaurant rang up nearly $8 million in sales for 2009. Watne would not disclose current figures, but said the restaurant is exceeding initial sales projections by more than 20 percent.
The farmers were so pleased with the results that they then let Simons manage their first restaurant, which was losing money. Farmers Restaurant Group tweaked the menu and rebranded the space.
Sales at Farmers & Fishers, according to Watne, were turning around until it was forced to close, having sustained water damage when Washington Harbor flooded in April. He said the union is in talks with MRP Realty Services, the property owner, to reopen next spring. But for now, its primary focus is the new bistro.
Potomac’s Founding Farmers, located off Interstate 270 at Montrose Road, features some of the design elements that made its big sister stand out: silo-styled booths, a farm-themed mural, reclaimed barn wood and flooring made with recycled materials.
The menu, with entrees in the $15-to-$30 range, has expanded to include a section dedicated to poultry dishes, more roasted meats and house-made sausages.
Simons said the group strives to buy food from family farms around the country, but is not averse to picking up seasonal items elsewhere. Which is why the company purchases carbon offsets to compensate for its share of greenhouse gas emissions. Critics have questioned the “sustainability” of the buying practices at Founding Farmers.
“I’m going to put what my guest wants and quality above some extreme local mantra,”Simons said.
Between the build-out and operations, the entire project cost in excess of $5 million, Simons said. To finance the development, he raised $4.3 million through an equity offering that attracted 25 local investors.