When Amanda McClements quit her job as a food writer in 2012 to start her first business, she was, in her own words, scared to death.
“It was an extremely intimidating time,” said the owner of home goods store Salt & Sundry. “I had no retail experience, and didn’t know the first thing about starting a business.”
McClements had long wanted to open a shop on 14th Street NW, near her home in Logan Circle. But then she found another opportunity: Union Market in Northeast Washington, which was being revived from its roots as a battered warehouse district into a modern-day artisanal market.
She picked the latter, and says the collaborative atmosphere at Union Market has proven helpful.
“Having people who are in it together, who you can talk to about the nitty-gritty of starting a business, has been invaluable,” said McClements, who is preparing to open her first stand-alone store in Logan Circle.
In the two years since its transformation, Union Market has become an informal incubator for area restaurateurs and business owners. Companies such as Red Apron Butchery, Curbside Cupcake and Takorean have opened their first physical locations at the market before expanding throughout the region.
A number of established businesses, including Ris and Toki Underground, have also looked to the space at 1309 5th Street NE to experiment with new ideas and concepts.
Monthly sales at the market have more than tripled since the space opened in September 2012, according to Edens, the developer that owns the project. Month-over-month sales increases range from 12 percent to 15 percent, a trend executives say they expect to continue for the next 18 to 24 months as the neighborhood continues to attract new visitors.
“From our perspective, we have a thriving market with the right balance,” said Jodie McLean, president and chief investment officer of Edens. “It’s a working market and a place that brings people together.
Edens hopes to eventually bring more people — not just shoppers, but also residents and workers — to the sprawling 45-acre development. Later this year, the developer plans to break ground on an apartment building on Florida and 4th Streets NE. Edens is also in the process of signing more office tenants to the Maurice Electric Building at 500 Penn Street NE, where technology start-up Venga moved in three months ago.
First and foremost, Union Market continues to be known for its mix of eclectic foods and homegrown fare, such as $3 steamed pork buns, $26 braised short ribs and $299 specialty knives.
Richie Brandenburg, director of culinary strategy for Edens, has spent the past two years cultivating a mix of 34 local businesses and pop-ups, from Teaism and Takorean to the full-service restaurant Bidwell’s.
There is an unspoken rule, he says, that no two businesses will sell the same items within Union Market. When Panorama Bakery showed interest in joining the market, for example, Brandenburg came up with an alternative arrangement, allowing the Alexandria-based bakery to sell only pastries and desserts, since District-based Lyon Bakery was already selling baguettes and focaccia.
“There is a lot of thought that goes into each decision,” Brandenburg said. “We don’t just say, ‘This space is $X per square foot, take it or leave it.’ We talk to the person, try their food and talk to them some more.”
That flexibility is what drew Robb Duncan and his wife Violeta Ebelman, who own Dolcezza, to open a gelato factory across the street from Union Market last December. The duo had long worked out of a 300-square-foot basement space in Georgetown, but said they wanted a location where they could also interact with customers and other entrepreneurs.
“Everything in here is old-school, like this is grandma’s kitchen,” Duncan said. “Edens has a vision, but they’ve also maintained the industrial grit in this area, which is something we really like.”
The 4,000-square-foot facility now serves as Dolcezza’s production plant, offices and tasting room. Next door, Angelika Film Center has opened a three-screen pop-up theater, a precursor to an upcoming eight-screen movie house to be built atop Union Market.
“We’re trying to get people comfortable with walking around the entire district, not just within the physical confines of the market,” said Jennifer Nolan of Edens.
But for now, the concentration of entrepreneurs within the market continues to be the development’s largest selling point.
McClements of Salt & Sundry says she often relies on nearby entrepreneurs — Gina Chersevani of the soda shop Buffalo & Bergen, say, or Carolyn Stromberg of Righteous Cheese— for quick advice throughout the day.
“I’ll ask them questions about not-fun admin stuff: How do you do your payroll? What service do you use for insurance? How are you navigating Obamacare?,” McClements said. “We’re all in it together.”
In three weeks, McClements plans to open her second Salt & Sundry store, at 14th and S streets NW. This time around, she might be better prepared—but she’s still nervous.
“I joke that I’m finally going to be in the real world,” she said.