Andre McCain, 29, arrives at his board meeting wearing jeans and carrying a backpack.
The youngest and quietest person in the room, he takes his seat at the head of table.
Earlier, during a daily meditation session, he tried to picture how this meeting with investors in his restaurant venture might unfold. Now, he thinks over his questions: Is it overkill to have fire pits, giant Jenga and a bocce court on the back patio? What about couches? Should the restaurant’s logo be red or blue? Or blue and red?
Around him, seasoned entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and businesspeople settle in. In all, they’ve contributed nearly $2 million to HalfSmoke, the restaurant McCain plans to open this month in Shaw. The concept? Fast-casual sausage fare, with a lounge atmosphere.
The others make small talk about cherry blossoms and tomato plants, but McCain doesn’t join in. He sips his coffee and swivels in his chair.
When it’s time to begin, McCain looks up.
“Awesome,” he says. “Thanks for coming.”
McCain, who grew up in Northeast Washington near the Anacostia River, is used to being out of place. He is young and black, and most of the people around him — on Wall Street, in private equity and commercial real estate, and now in Washington’s fierce restaurant scene — are not.
But he is no stranger to entrepreneurship. McCain started his first business at age 14, his second one a year later, and by 17 was making nearly $70,000 a year selling sneakers and clothing on his website, UrbanFly.com. He spent his early 20s in New York, working as an analyst for Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and UBS, where he learned to make sense of complex, multibillion-dollar deals with intricate models and charts. Around him, the country spiraled into recession.
Now he is back in Washington, returning to his entrepreneurial roots. HalfSmoke is his first foray into restaurants, a treacherous business.
McCain has done everything he could think of to prepare. He has invested $50,000 of his own money and built a network of mentors, cold-calling dozens of executives and contacting hundreds more through LinkedIn to ask for advice.
“He is a very thoughtful listener and he takes it all in,” said Minal Damani Kundra, who, with her husband, Monish, is an investor in HalfSmoke. “He’s very data-driven, and all of us love that about him. He studies cookbooks. He reads research reports. He thinks about every decision he makes — none of it is done lightly.”
When nobody would hire him for a corporate restaurant position, he quit his $220,000-a-year job in commercial real estate to work for $9 an hour at chains Sweetgreen and Pret a Manger, where he made sandwiches in the basement and rang up salads at the cash register. On weekends, he worked at McDonald’s.
“It’s not rocket science, but I knew that experience was necessary if I was going to learn the business from the ground up,” McCain said. “That lack of experience could sink your restaurant.”
At HalfSmoke, the idea is to create a more affordable dining option — about $15 a person for a sausage and beer — in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood. McCain discarded a dozen ideas — sushi bar, sandwich shop, even an upscale Italian drive-thru — for reasons as varied as volatile fish prices and high real estate costs before settling on sausages. The appeal? They cook quickly, and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
He plans to offer a sausage for everyone, including duck, rabbit and vegan options from family-owned farms, that will come made-to-order atop a bun, salad, flatbread or rice bowl. Also on the menu: Fun, in the shape of tater tots, milkshakes, funnel cakes and cotton candy. And he will offer beer, wine and cocktails and a laid-back atmosphere to lure the area’s college students and young professionals.
“If you look at what Starbucks did with coffee, there are a lot of similarities with what I’m trying to do with sausages,” he said. “Coffee, before Starbucks, was considered a low-quality, low-cost item that wasn’t very customizable. There was no romance associated with it.”
But people tend to drink coffee every day. Can McCain persuade customers to make sausage a staple?
He thinks so. In the boardroom, he outlines his expectations: 486 customers a day, annual revenue of $2.49 million, nearly $600,000 in profit.
“This,” says McCain, stepping over a mound of rocks, “is where you’ll walk in.”
There is a mini-excavator in the middle of the restaurant. The walls are missing and the floor has been ripped out as part of a six-month, $2 million renovation.
The plumbing and electric lines will be replaced, along with the walls and the ceiling. Part of Florida Avenue NW needs to be slashed open so crews can increase the capacity of the gas and water lines.
McCain isn’t fazed. He looks past the debris: “The foosball table will go here,” he says. “And back there, the bar and the TVs. The wood-burning oven that’s being handmade in Italy will be in the corner.”
He fought for more than a year to get Douglas Development to rent him this 4,000-square-foot space, which was once a Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, then a pharmacy and later an arts-and-crafts store. Executives at Douglas Development were reluctant, McCain said, to give prime real estate — on the corner of Florida and Georgia Avenues NW — to a first-time restaurateur. They eventually relented when a number of McCain’s mentors made calls on his behalf.
It is important, McCain says, to be in the heart of this transitioning neighborhood. Upstairs, a shop called Beauty Island sells tubes of lipstick for $1.49. A block away, the boutique Lettie Gooch sells $278 hoodies and $148 leggings.
He hopes his restaurant will bridge those two worlds, creating a meeting space for the neighborhood’s longtime residents as well as the more recent influx of well-heeled millennials.
It is an ambitious undertaking. The lease on the 4,000-square-foot corner space alone is more than $250,000 a year. McCain will hire 70 employees, including 10 bartenders and at least three people who know how to use a wood-fired grill. On weekends, he plans to stay open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., which means he’ll cycle through three shifts of workers.
McCain has assembled a 120-page business plan that includes case studies on companies such as Chipotle, Pinkberry and Protein Bar. The reasons restaurants fail are quite simple, he says — high employee turnover, spotty service, inconsistent quality. He hopes to avoid the pitfalls that wipe out 59 percent of restaurants within three years.
When McCain began toying with the idea of opening an eatery, he set a daily goal for himself: He would send at least 100 LinkedIn requests and 25 introductory emails to executives in the restaurant business. He was obsessive in his approach, some days sending out messages from 9 a.m. to well past midnight. Some weeks, he didn’t leave his apartment.
“If I wasn’t emailing people on LinkedIn, I was reading about the industry and revising my business plans for 10 different concepts,” he said. “I spent all my time either trying to find people or sending them my ideas.”
Some, like Don Thompson, a former chief executive of McDonald’s, he found on LinkedIn. Others, like real estate developer Adrian G. Washington, he cold-called. Both are investors in HalfSmoke.
“One of the first things I told him when he called was, ‘Dude, this is a really good idea. You shouldn’t just be sending it to strangers like this,’ ” said Washington, chief executive of Neighborhood Development Company and a member of HalfSmoke’s board. “Here was this young guy, very humble — shy, almost — but very enthusiastic. He had worked so hard. I could tell he was on to something.”
McCain was a high school freshman when he started his first business, snapping digital photos at local nightclubs and selling them for $10 apiece.
It was 2000, and go-go parties were all the rage. Nightclub promoters recruited high school students to pass out fliers for late-night, all-ages events.
McCain called up one of those promoters with a proposition: If he bought a digital camera, printer, ink and paper — about $2,000 in supplies — McCain would shoot photos and split the profit.
It worked. They made up to $1,000 a night offering an alternative to Polaroids.
By his sophomore year, McCain had moved on to his second venture, reselling clothing and shoes. It was, he says, an obvious endeavor for a 15-year-old who spent his spare time scouring eBay for Air Jordans and Versace T-shirts.
He started small, buying up extra sneakers, Polo shirts and North Face jackets and selling them to friends. From there, his business expanded to Wilson High School, where he circulated brochures and took orders from classmates. Within a few months, he hired students at nearby schools who would hawk his wares for a commission.
He first called his company Break Yo’ Neck Kicks (“because when you saw the shoes, you’d break your neck looking at them”) but changed its name to Urban Fly.
After school, he’d pack shoes in his mother’s living room and take them to the post office. He was a merchant on PayPal and a “power seller” on eBay.
By his junior year, McCain was making $20,000 a year. He used that money to buy two cellphones, two cars — a 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme for $1,300 and a 1993 Cadillac Seville STS for $2,800 — and put about half of it back into the business. What was left over, he saved.
“It started as a simple way to make additional money to help support me and my mom,” McCain said. “I didn’t know it would become so big. I was really only able to do this because it was all online. No one knew how old I was.”
McCain has always seemed older than his years, his mother said.
As a child, he loved to dress in suits. For his fifth birthday, when his mother offered to throw a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s, he asked if they could have dinner at Red Lobster instead.
“He was always so grown-up,” said his mother, Williesteen McCain, 70. “From an early age, he had that business mind. He was calm, but you knew he was always thinking about something.”
McCain grew up in Deanwood on the District’s eastern tip. His mother worked as a pharmacy tech. He never met his father.
He was 16 when he was introduced to white-collar America, landing an internship at AG Edwards. He bought a three-piece suit at Burlington Coat Factory and tried his best to blend in, three days a week from noon to 6 p.m.
“Here I was, 16, and it was the first time in my life talking to a business person,” McCain said. “Nobody in my family worked in a job like that.”
At school, where he had a reputation for wearing the newest fashions, showing up in the same suit and boxy dress shoes three days a week was unthinkable.
“Wearing a suit was just — it was the worst thing possible,” McCain said. “Unless you were going to a funeral, that was just something you did not do.”
He tried everything: stashing the suit in his backpack, wearing just the shirt and pants, leaving it all in a heap in his locker.
“Eventually, I had to just own it,” McCain said. “I was the dude in the suit.”
McCain arrived on Wall Street in 2006, fresh off his sophomore year at Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male school in Atlanta. The U.S. economy was booming and Wall Street was in full swing. The 19-year-old spent 80 hours a week interning at Merrill Lynch. The bank paid for lavish dinners and had a limousine service drive him home each evening. On weekends, he went to parties in the Hamptons hosted by his bosses.
It was, once again, a world apart from his own — and at times, perplexing.
“People were making a lot of money, there were open bars and fancy dinners, but the day-to-day was the opposite: It was not glamorous,” McCain said. “Most of the people who worked there did not enjoy their lives. They didn’t get to spend time with their families, didn’t have any sense of fulfillment or joy.”
Despite his misgivings, he returned to Wall Street the next summer to work at Morgan Stanley. After graduation, he accepted a job as a real estate analyst at UBS.
These days, he works around the clock. McCain doesn’t date much anymore. It’s hard to find the time, he said.
Sometimes his mother asks him about it: “When’re you going to bring over a young lady?”
He always has the same reply: “Aw, ma.”
“I don’t ask Andre too many questions,” she said. “Andre is so private. He says, ‘Ask me anything,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, right.’”
Once a year in December, McCain picks a city he’s never been to — Asheville, N.C., say, or Philadelphia — and books a hotel room for a few nights. He turns off his cellphone and reflects on his life.
He has created a scorecard that he’s been grading himself against for 13 years. Did he go to the gym at least five times a week? How many books did he read? Did he save at least 20 percent of his income?
In a category he calls “memorable moments,” McCain tracks whether he had one new experience each month.
“I’ve always been a planner, a control freak,” he said.
This year was an interesting one, McCain says.
“I kept trying to envision what my life will be like, and this time it’s difficult,” he said. “I’m turning 30 this year. I’m opening HalfSmoke. This is a new chapter in my life.”
That uncertainty makes him uneasy.
“I’m reminding myself to slow down,” he said. “You can’t be too prescriptive. Sometimes you have to let things unfold.”
The restaurant is three months from opening. Inside, a dozen workers are installing ventilation systems and building stairs to the basement. Outside, the patio is a mess of tangled weeds and steel rods.
But things are moving quickly. It’s time to think about hiring.
On a rainy morning in May, McCain sits with Don Schaefer, a restaurant consultant who has handled operations for Sweetgreen and Le Pain Quotidien. McCain is laying out his plans. He’d like to create a curriculum, as he calls it, for his employees.
“The idea is that after you have worked at HalfSmoke for a year or two,” he says, “you will have learned things beyond just the Xs and Ys of a restaurant.”
McCain plans to pay more than the minimum wage and to offer opportunities to climb the ranks of the restaurant. He’d like to have a speaker series for employees, homework, team-building activities — things that helped shape his path.
After an hour, the meeting is about to end.
“There’s one more thing I’m trying to think through,” McCain says.
He’d like to model HalfSmoke after companies like Toms Shoes, with their one-for-one models. Buy a pair of shoes, and the company will give a pair to someone in need.
In his case, McCain says, he’d like to give away food. Once again, he turns to statistics: Thirty percent of children in the District don’t have regular access to dinner. For each sausage meal he sells, McCain would like to give one away.
“If you’re a restaurant making food, my belief is that you should be helping by providing food,” he says. “From a pricing standpoint, if I build that into the model, I think people will be willing to pay. But operationally, I don’t know.”
He considers a few options: setting up a kitchen in the basement, or renting space in a restaurant incubator, where staffers can assemble simple meals — sausage, vegetables, fresh fruit — and give them out every day.
There is a lot to figure out, McCain says. Schaefer looks down at his notebook, which he has filled with pages of notes.
“You’ve got a lot going on here,” he says. “You’re definitely not taking the easy way out.”
“No, I’m not,” McCain says, “But that’s the reason I’m talking to people like you.”