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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)

Welch says she loved the idea from the outset and agreed to let Takemoto, who was launching a crowdsourcing business, CoolTown Beta Community, start and run an electronic community ( A month later, the group had its first meeting. "I ordered one pizza and picked up a six-pack of beer," Welch says. "I thought if there were three or four people there, that would be a lot."

There were 14 people at the first meeting.

Over the next several months, the group grew to include architecture buffs, food lovers, designers, potential chefs and servers and a local nonprofit called Live Green, whose purpose is to help establish affordable, environmentally sound businesses. The concept has evolved, too. Where Welch had originally imagined a 1,500-square-foot cafe, perhaps with a comic book theme (she also owns Washington's Big Monkey Comics), the group wanted something more. The cafe expanded to a 3,500-square-foot, green-certified restaurant. The kitchen would be sustainable, using food from local farms as well as growing some ingredients on a green roof. Most important, Elements would have the vibe of a community center to replace the electronic one that created it.

"I fell in love with the process. Ask and you shall receive," says Welch, who to date has invested less than $100,000 in the project.

Crowdsourcing hasn't saved money, per se. The group expects that it ultimately will cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to get the restaurant off the ground. But it has offered a way to take advantage of a broad range of expertise (one member of the group is knowledgeable in the ways of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, a green building-certification process) and to build a loyal group of potential customers.

For the rest of the community, the benefits are less tangible. Members earn points for attending meetings and for tasks such as referring a new member to the community. Any member that amasses at least 1 percent of the total points is eligible for a piece of the 10-percent profit pie, if there is one, that has been allocated to community members.

Financial gain isn't the draw for most community members, however. June Blanks, a 27-year-old Penn Quarter resident who is the group's architectural liaison, has to date garnered the fifth-highest number of points. But that, she says, was never her motivation: "It's the community. What's rewarding is coming together to create a place in the city that's beneficial to the community and yourself and your friends."

Unlike so many Web discussion sites, there are no angry or insulting posts in the Elements community. Overall, the tone is enthusiastic, passionate and supportive. "We show up even when we're tired or grumpy or we've had the longest day. It's good company, and you leave feeling really energized," Blanks says.

That attitude is not unusual for crowdsourcers, Takemoto says. As long as the community is transparent, people become vested.

"We make it clear that it is not a democracy. Linda makes the final business decisions," Takemoto says. "But we know that the more they feel listened to, the more successful the restaurant will be."

Still, major challenges lie ahead. Welch found a building she liked on 14th Street, but the landlord would not sign a lease with her until she had a partner with restaurant experience. Tightening credit markets may make it harder to raise money. If and when Elements does open, tentatively scheduled for next year, it must be run by experienced managers.

Characteristically, the group is optimistic. "It's not crazy to do if you have an established, loyal customer base," Takemoto says. "What's crazy is to open a business from scratch."

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