From Kickstarter to Union Market: crowdfunding a cheese shop


Carolyn Stromberg, owner of Righteous Cheese, a wine and cheese bar/ store, located in Union Market in Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN)

On a Saturday afternoon, Righteous Cheese is bustling with activity. Customers on bar stools sample wine or beer and cheese. Others line up to buy blocks of cheese to take home. The small shop’s five employees rush between working the register, recommending wine and cheese pairings, packaging food, or explaining tasting flights.

“It’s a high-paced environment,” owner Carolyn Stromberg said.

Located in Northeast’s Union Market, Righteous Cheese opened in September. The market, which houses tens of small shops like Stromberg’s, sees hundreds of shoppers each day.

Many of Stromberg’s patrons come to the shop because they like wine and cheese, but several also patronize it for a different reason: Because they helped fund its opening.

After almost a decade of working with wine and cheese in restaurants in and around the District, Stromberg, a D.C. resident, dreamed of opening her own shop. She needed to raise about $12,000 in addition to the $45,000 in private loans she’d already taken out, so she turned to Kickstarter, an online platform allowing artists, product designers and entrepreneurs to raise funds from large groups of Internet users for discrete projects.

Kickstarter requires businesses to offer perks in exchange for financial contributions. Donation tiers ranged from $1 to $1,000. The smallest perk was acknowledgment on Righteous Cheese Facebook page, and the largest was a package including a tasting flight named after the donor, an embroidered apron, a gift basket and a private class.

She raised $13,325 in a month’s time, offering a glimpse into the way a growing number of small businesses are taking advantage of crowdfunding.

No donors contributed $1,000 or more — instead the most common contribution was for $50 or more, in exchange for which donors would receive a tasting flight and a digital wine pairing and recipe guide. Out of 160 backers, 52 contributed at this level. Four backers contributed more than $600.

To raise awareness about the campaign, Stromberg reached out to people she knew, posting on Facebook and Twitter, and e-mailing all her industry contacts. “I had to be a little shameless in terms of promoting. In the middle of the campaign was my birthday, and I was saying to all my friends, ‘This is the best birthday present ever,’” she said.

About a quarter of the donations came from people Stromberg knew well, and another quarter from acquaintances she went to school with or worked with. Roughly the other half were strangers — mostly D.C. residents who wanted to patronize the store.

One of Righteous Cheese’s donors, D.C. resident Laura Lightbody, received Stromberg’s request for donations because she was on a cheese-minded listserv — she’d never met Stromberg, nor was she a customer.

“I donated to her because I have a general interest in the food community in D.C., and I liked how it was a food start-up, which is somewhat rare these days,” said Lightbody, who gave $50.
While Stromberg said raising the funds was “surprisingly easy,” she wasn’t prepared for the amount of extra work paying back the donors would require.

The biggest challenge has been developing the digital wine and cheese guide she promised to donors who made a $50 or more contribution, she said. Initially, she had estimated she’d be done with the guide in October of last year.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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