Online, a Community Gathers to Concoct A Neighborhood Eatery

Neil Takemoto, who runs the e-community for Elements restaurant, works at the desk at Affinity Lab that he shares with other companies.
Neil Takemoto, who runs the e-community for Elements restaurant, works at the desk at Affinity Lab that he shares with other companies. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

When Sharon Greenspan went on a cross-country trip last year, she made sure to take photos of the restaurants she liked and to keep the menus. It was the easiest way to remember that "lasagna" of zucchini, spinach and pine nuts she ate in Asheville and the creamy coconut shake she tasted in Sedona. Greenspan thinks both would be great for Elements, a new restaurant she is helping to open in Washington.

The 44-year-old North Bethesda resident desperately wants a restaurant here that caters to the raw food diet, which prescribes only fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouts, none of which have been heated above 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the past year, she has dedicated as many as 10 hours each month to attending meetings, sharing her ideas on a community Web site and creating raw food treats such as oat-hemp balls to persuade others of the virtues of raw food.

One thing Greenspan hasn't had to contribute is cash, a key element in getting new restaurants up and running. That's because the model for Elements is unlike any other Washington restaurant, and, as far as the founders can say, unlike any other restaurant in the world. If it successfully opens, Elements will be the first "crowdsourced" restaurant, conceived and developed by an open community of experts and interested parties.

The term was coined by journalist Jeff Howe in a 2006 article in Wired magazine. It's essentially the application of open-source principles to fields beyond software. Instead of outsourcing a task to one person or expert, it is outsourced to a crowd. (Get it? Crowd. Sourcing.) The process uses the group's intelligence to come up with the best ideas, then distributes the tasks to people most suited to perform them. Crowdsourcing puts the wisdom of crowds to work.

So far, 386 Elements community members have helped develop the concept (a sustainable vegetarian/raw foods restaurant), the look (a comfortable gathering space with an open kitchen), the logo (a bouquet of colorful leaves) and even the name.

"Most businesses are started because you have a great idea, and you take it out to the public to see if they like it," says Linda Welch, 49, the Washington businesswoman who launched and is funding the Elements project. "This is the opposite. We're finding out what people want and doing it."

It sounds brilliant. But the restaurant business is notoriously tough. Even the most conservative studies say that 30 percent of independent restaurants fail in their first year, and some estimate that number is as high as 90 percent. The reasons for failure vary, but one is certainly that almost everyone thinks she knows about restaurants -- even if she doesn't.

Can what sounds like a late-1990s pie-in-the-sky Internet startup work for a new restaurant?

The experts, few that there are on such matters, are optimistic. "This makes it less possible to delude yourself about what people want," says New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "It's the equivalent of a comment card before you open."

Howe, whose book "Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business" will be published next month, agrees that it sounds crazy but that it just might work: "Running a restaurant is hard. But if you build and really care about a community, that will go a long way."

The Elements project began in February 2007 when Welch, who owns area several businesses in the District, purchased the business and liquor licenses of nearby Sparky's, a coffee shop that had closed. Welch has helped launch 22 startups but has no restaurant experience. She didn't know exactly what she planned to do with the licenses, other than open a small cafe. Around that time, Neil Takemoto, 40, another local entrepreneur who had worked with Welch, stopped by to chat. When Welch told him about her plans, Takemoto suggested crowdsourcing the restaurant.

"I said, 'Great!' " Welch remembers. " 'What the hell is that?' "

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