Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Doron Petersan’s upcoming H Street diner as Farewell rather than Fare Well. This version has been updated.
If it seems like Washington-area restaurants come and go in the blink of an eye these days, just wait until you meet Prequel.
Prequel is a permanent — for now — pop-up space, a restaurant industry oxymoron if we ever heard one. The enterprise occupies 18,000 square feet across five floors of the former Living Social 918 F Street event space in Penn Quarter. It showcases a rotating array of food businesses looking to secure funding from investors to eventually open their own storefronts.
“It’s a visceral experience to invest in a restaurant,” said Steve Lucas, vice president of strategy and communications for EquityEats, the online crowdfunding platform behind Prequel that he helped found with Johann Moonesinghe and Andrew Harris.
Of course, the concept of crowdfunding on the Internet is no longer novel, with projects on Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe all competing for our time and attention. But donors or investors often have little insight into the final product before deciding whether to pony up cash. That’s what sets Prequel and EquityEats apart, Lucas said: Potential investors can get a taste of the end product. Perhaps the fastest way to an investor’s heart is through his or her stomach? (On a smaller scale, EatsPlace, near the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro, also hosts restaurant and bar pop-ups, but without the online fundraising platform.)
“It’s a good way to test out products” and see what customers are interested in, said Doron Petersan, the owner of vegan bakery Sticky Fingers, who soon will be previewing Fare Well, her forthcoming H Street diner, at Prequel.
Just don’t expect the feel of a fully realized restaurant, as Prequel and its chefs are temporary residents of the spacious building. You may even walk by the unassuming facade without realizing what’s in there; if you don’t catch it at a particularly busy moment, you may wander in and wonder whether you’re in the right place.
Lucas admitted that even six months after its April 2015 opening, he and his co-founders, as well as the aspiring entrepreneurs, have struggled to get people to understand the concept.
Part of that may be due to the transient nature of Prequel. Depending on what month, week, day or even hour you show up, you’re going to have a different experience. Right now, a day in the life of Prequel may include baked goods and coffee for breakfast, burgers for lunch, evening cocktails and wine followed by dinner and maybe a wine class or comedy show.
Tenants come and go — the length of the residency is determined on a case-by-case basis — or tweak their concepts. Lucas and his colleagues are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Having most of the action on the building’s fourth floor and basement in the evenings, for example, made the building look dead at night.
To liven it up, former Vidalia chef Hamilton Johnson’s Honeysuckle restaurant has moved into the ground-floor space with windows overlooking F Street NW. The shift also means he’ll be doing most of his cooking in the large third-floor kitchen, which has allowed him to expand his Southern-influenced menu to include about a half-dozen each of appetizers and entrees, plus several sides and desserts.
“It’s a learning experience for everybody involved,” Lucas said.
Bluebird Bakery is Prequel’s and EquityEats’s poster child for success.
Owned by married pastry chefs Camila Arango and Tom Wellings, the bakery far exceeded its own fundraising expectations during its time at Prequel. The couple took advantage of a relatively new regulation in the city — the District of Columbia-Only Securities Offerings Exemption — that allows for so-called equity crowdfunding, in which D.C.-based businesses can raise money from D.C. residents. In paperwork required under the law, Arango and Wellings set a minimum fundraising goal of $300,000. They ended up taking in $406,600, from almost 150 investors large and small.
“The money’s coming from different sources,” Lucas said, whether from wealthy individuals with deeper pockets or everyday contributors who will eat and tweet their support.
In addition to setting up shop with their exquisite pastries on Prequel’s ground floor, Arango and Wellings hosted cooking classes and open houses for potential investors, both of which connected them to people who ended up, in some cases, contributing tens of thousands of dollars to their efforts to open a storefront in the city. Until Bluebird moves into its permanent location, likely early next year, Arango and Wellings continue to work out of one of the production kitchens on Prequel’s third floor.
EquityEats has since changed the model for its campaigns with other businesses. With the exception of larger dollar amounts ($5,000 to $100,000), people who invest in a business will receive food and beverage credits equal to their contribution once the restaurant, bar or shop opens. (No money will be collected from investors if the business does not meet its fundraising goal in the set amount of time.)
The revised model is “more agile and entrepreneur-friendly,” Lucas said, especially because it doesn’t demand the same paperwork and requirements as the process Bluebird pursued. Plus, he said, people get a tangible return on their investment.
Johnson of Honeysuckle said the regular exposure to diners — especially when he was cooking at an open work station on Prequel’s fourth floor — has been different, but good.
“People were not too shy about telling [me] what they liked, what they didn’t like,” Johnson said. He also said the pop-up has made it easier to recruit investors for his restaurant, a location for which he’s in the process of securing a mere two months after moving into Prequel.
Just as the concepts within the building are subject to change, so, too, was the very idea of Prequel itself.
Scott Hoffner was hired as executive chef when the original idea was to have him and his kitchen staff support chefs chosen to rotate into Prequel, as well as host an occasional in-house pop-up. When Lucas and his colleagues realized chefs wanted to maintain control over their food, Hoffner pivoted toward running his own burger shop called BFF (Burger. Fries. Forever.), which took advantage of the recipes — the french fries are a must-try — he had developed for one of those in-house concepts, called Lighthouse.
“It just seemed like the natural progression,” Hoffner said. He credits Prequel with introducing him to an investor who has expressed interest in helping expand the BFF concept into multiple locations beyond Prequel.
Not everyone views the semi-permanent-pop-up method as a guarantee of future stand-alone success. After about a month and a half of five-day-a-week dinner service at Prequel, chef Nick Sharpe decided the model wasn’t the right fit for his restaurant project, named Jolene, after his daughter.
“I liked the concept, but I wasn’t quite ready to commit to five or six months of it,” said Sharpe, who previously cooked at Georgetown’s After Peacock Room cafe. “I didn’t necessarily think that five months of a pop-up would do anything” toward opening his restaurant, he added.
The day-to-day Prequel experience isn’t quite anything goes, but patrons should keep in mind that the food businesses are often limited in staff and still finding their bearings. So, yes, it’s possible that you may walk up to find a business shuttered for the day. Or, you might place an order, only to find out the item you want is unavailable.
In an ordinary restaurant, such hiccups can substantially affect business, especially given the larger scale and number of staff needing to be paid. But at Prequel, the support given to tenants — wine, tableware and some staff — and the lower overhead of operating out of the space with fewer employees means there’s a bit more of a cushion when things occasionally go awry.
Prequel’s tenants also benefit from their prime real estate setting. Interesting architectural elements fill the space, a gorgeous 1890 building with one of the oldest operating elevators in the city. The exposed brick walls are very on trend, and large windows let in loads of natural light on the upper floors. The basement-level Brick & Mortar cocktail bar is dark and moody cool with its black-painted walls and first-floor lounge that looks over the action below via a cutout in the floor.
And Lucas said that’s fine. “People are coming for the experience and the chef and the food.”
Here’s the experience and food you can expect — until it inevitably changes, anyway:
Fare Well/Sticky Fingers
Ground level. 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday,
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Starting next week, Doron Petersan, the owner of vegan bakery Sticky Fingers, will highlight products from her upcoming H Street vegan diner, Farewell. There will be a variety of sweet and savory baked goods for breakfast and lunch, including some packaged desserts from Sticky Fingers. (La Colombe coffee is also available here.)
BFF: Burger. Fries. Forever
Ground level. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Scott Hoffner serves two burgers — beef and vegetarian (both $12). They’re served on a house-made brioche roll, topped with lettuce, cheddar and a sweet but slightly tangy tomato jam. Hoffner also makes the potato chips you’ll snack on before your meal and the crunchy garlic-dill pickle accompanying it. Don’t skip out on the fries ($2 on the side, $5 for a large order), which take three days to make.
Ground level. 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, with biweekly special tasting menus on Saturday nights.
Chef Hamilton Johnson, formerly of Vidalia downtown, is cooking up what he calls Southern-influenced Mid-Atlantic American cuisine. His ambitious, meaty menu (entrees $29-$34) may include foie gras with pumpkin bread, stuffed Virginia quail, potato-crusted flounder with Chesapeake hash browns and a “bruised apple” dessert with celery-peanut praline and caramel panna cotta.
Before (or after) your meal, you can grab a cocktail or snacks from Johnson at the small bar stationed within Honeysuckle. Its name? The rather amusing Mr. Tibs’s Old-Timey Manhattan & Old Fashioned Emporium & Parlor.
Brick & Mortar
Basement level. 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday (happy hour 5-7 p.m.).
This is Prequel’s permanent, in-house cocktail bar that also serves beer, wine and small bites from Honeysuckle. The drinks have been curated by Prequel beverage director Bryan Smith, whose résumé includes Bistro Bis, Woodward Table and Fiola Mare. The bar offers a mix of classic, modern and seasonal cocktails. The bar is especially buzzy for happy hour, but if you want a bit less noise, head up the spiral staircase to the lounge that overlooks the subterranean space through a rectangle cut right into the middle of the floor.
Second floor. 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10, Nov. 24 and Dec. 8.
Smith leads sessions ($40-$80) that focus on particular wine regions in France. Expect to sample multiple wines, along with appropriate small food pairings.
What is EquityEats?
EquityEats is an online platform that lets restaurateurs raise capital for their businesses.
What is Prequel?
Prequel is a space operated by EquityEats, where participating businesses can test their concept and showcase their food to potential investors.
Where is it?
918 F St. NW in Penn Quarter, in the old Living Social 918 F Street event space.
How does it work?
From a diner’s perspective, Prequel works pretty much like any other shop or restaurant, though it’s important to keep in mind that chefs and the Prequel staff are constantly adjusting and working out kinks. Some events and dinners require you to pay up front (more on that below), but most of the time, you can walk right in and pick up something to eat or settle in at the bar or restaurant for a drink or meal.
What if I want to invest?
As a bit of background, the current campaign structure is EquityEats’s third fundraising iteration. Because of existing securities regulations, the founders originally intended to target so-called accredited investors: individuals with an income of $200,000 a year, couples with a combined income of $300,000 or individuals with a net worth of $1 million. After that, EquityEats shifted to a model under city law that allowed D.C. residents to invest in a project in exchange for equity; this was the model employed in the successful Bluebird Bakery campaign.
Funding for projects on EquityEats now happens in two phases. During the first phase, businesses can accept investments ranging from $100 to $2,500, all of which equate to food and beverage credits at the restaurant once it opens its location outside of Prequel. After a business collects $10,000, it can start the second phase, accepting bigger investments ($5,000 to $100,000) in exchange for equity in the future restaurant. The smaller investments in exchange for dining credits will still be accepted. If businesses don’t meet their fundraising goal within a set amount of time, investors will not be charged.
What’s this thing about tickets on Prequel’s Web site?
Most of the bar and restaurant concepts are walk-in. Some special events are booked and paid for in advance, such as wine dinners, wine classes, comedy shows and Honeysuckle’s biweekly supper club-style tasting menus. Spaces also can be booked for private events.
How long will it be around?
Prequel is nine months into a two-year sublet. If there’s an opportunity to continue, the founders will consider staying on.
918 F St. NW