StartUp Kitchen helps local restaurants find their footing

On paper, Priya Ammu was ready to open a restaurant.

She had the perfect recipe, an extensive business plan and plenty of experience, having spent more than a decade working in commercial kitchens and catering facilities.

But, she said, there were things she wasn’t prepared for. Having to juggle different orders at different times, for example, or the intricacies of picking out table cloths and decorations to evoke a certain mood.

“It’s just so hard to go from a concept to the actual execution,” Ammu, 52, said. “At first, I was just focused on the food and it was like, ‘What about the music? What about printing the menus?’ ”

Six weeks ago, Ammu opened D.C. Dosas, a pop-up restaurant in Petworth that serves a South Indian dish similar to crepes, as part of StartUp Kitchen’s first incubation program.


Priya Ammu works with Kera Carpenter and StartUp KItchen to demonstrate D.C. Dosa, her restaurant prototype. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

The initiative, created through a partnership between the nonprofits Think Local First D.C. and Nurish, was housed in Domku, a restaurant in Northwest Washington that is closed on Mondays.

The idea was to take an underused space, find a mentor and a business plan that fit the space, and open shop.

“So many times, you have people with great food concepts who don’t know how to put together a business,” said Stacey Price, executive director of Think Local First D.C. “Linking them up with somebody who says, ‘This is how I did it from the nuts and the bolts to opening day’ is really priceless.”

The groups put out a call for business plans in June. About a dozen applications came in. Judges eventually whittled them down to three finalists, including a specialty butcher shop, a restaurant that specialized in homemade corn tortillas and D.C. Dosas.

“With [Ammu], here was a person that everybody felt was ready to open a restaurant,” Price said. “She had a concept that fits D.C., her numbers looked right, she’s committed — but even then, the first night was hairy.”

Ammu had originally envisioned a fast-casual restaurant modeled after Chipotle. Price and Kera Carpenter, chef-owner of Domku and founder of Nurish, had something else in mind. They steered her toward creating a grander experience, with a three-course meal that included ginger lemonade and chai ice cream for a fixed rate of $35.

“Ultimately, for us to do this, we knew we needed it to be more of an experience than just selling individual dosas,” Price said.

Participants pay a $1,000 fee that is split between Think Local First, Nurish and the host restaurant. They also pay for food, supplies and staff. Ammu says she spent about $5,000 in all.

‘Something new’

Last Monday, the restaurant was abuzz with young couples and groups of friends. By 8 p.m., there were nearly 50 people at the restaurant.

“I really like the concept,” said Samantha Yale, who had won tickets to StartUp Restaurant at a farmer’s market. “Sometimes I feel like I always go to the same places in D.C., and this would be something new.”

Ammu spent most of her time preparing food in the kitchen, but popped out every now and then to check on the crowd and chat with diners.

“It’s so exciting that people understand what I want to do,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You’re all paying me to eat my food? And you like it?’ It’s kind of unbelievable.”

Six weeks earlier, during the first night of StartUp Kitchen, it had been a different story.

“The first night, it became very clear to me that she had no idea how to delegate, no idea how to set up stations, no sense of timing,” Carpenter said.

Ammu had worked from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. without a single break that day.

“I told her, ‘You can’t work like this,’ ” Carpenter said. “‘You need to schedule a break for yourself and your staff.’ After that, I had her go through and organize everything, make a bunch of lists. The next week, it was 200 percent better.”

The next StartUp Kitchen will be held at Hello Cupcake in Capitol Hill, where an extra baker’s kitchen in the basement will become a temporary home for a new bakery.

“It’s a way to use an existing space through a model that doesn’t need funding or infrastructure,” Price said.

Ammu, meanwhile, is looking for a permanent outpost in Washington where she can open up — a process that Price and Carpenter are helping her navigate.

“There are so many questions — everything from how you negotiate leases to which neighborhoods you go to,” Carpenter said. “What permits are actually needed? Who do I buy food from? How do I know how to price things?”

“We want people to get real experience in real time,” she added. “With this, they can make mistakes and get feedback before they make all those decisions and spend all that money.”

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