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Online, a Community Gathers to Concoct A Neighborhood Eatery

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?' "

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 ( http://elements.collectivex.com). 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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