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These 5 food entrepreneurs are vying for a slot in Union Market

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From a fast-casual pasta joint to an upgrade for an already-popular baker, local food entrepreneurs are competing in Mess Hall's Launch Pad competition -- the incubator's search for the next great D.C. food business.

The winner will take over Ris's Union Market stall -- a particularly desirable spot for its visibility and top-of-the-line equipment and vented hood -- for six months. Mess Hall founder Al Goldberg said a panel of more than a dozen judges -- including Ris Lacoste of Ris -- reviewed nearly 50 business plans.

On July 12, Lacoste, Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, and Aaron Silverman of Rose's Luxury will convene at Union Market's Dock 5 to crown a champion, who will then have access to a dedicated panel of advisers and mentors including restaurateurs Spike Mendelsohn, Eric and Ian Hilton and a variety of experts in the fields of technology, real estate and financial services.

The finalists were judged not only on how comprehensive their business plans are, but also on "Menus that made us say 'Wow, I'd wait in line to try that!' Goldberg said.

These five aspiring restaurateurs made the cut:

Bao Bros Bar

Louis Grayson and Nelson Wong think bao buns are too often relegated to the appetizer section of the menu. Their concept is a customizable fast-casual bao joint with fillings like pork belly, lamb, chicken, tofu, and a variety of sauces -- and, on a sample menu, punny names like the "Rocky Baoboa" (steak, crispy onion, shallot, jalapeno). Their mock-up logo is an appropriately bro-ish fist bump.

Half Smoke

D.C.'s most beloved sausage gets the fast-casual assembly-line treatment, from hometown aspiring restaurateur Andre McCain. In addition to the eponymous spicy links, McCain also wants to offer pork, beef, chicken and veggie sausages with fully customizable toppings, including chili, kimchi, and artichokes. He'll dish out tater tots and Brussels sprouts on the side, with funnel cake for dessert. And with the changing of the seasons, he'll introduce more exotic offerings, like a foie gras and duck sausage, or smoked elk.


You may have already seen Jenna Huntsberger's sweets at farmer's markets and coffee shops around town. Winning the Mess Hall competition would give Whisked! a more permanent and visible presence, and room to expand the current roster of quiches, pies, and cookies.


This fast-casual Italian concept from Mark Baik, Minji Suh and Jin Woo Park would serve speedy, high-quality fresh pasta bowls -- think Red Hen, not Noodles & Co. A sample menu promises squid ink pasta with calamari, tortellini with seasonal fillings, and good-old spaghetti with meatballs. Dishes would be ready in under six minutes, and would utilize locally sourced ingredients.

Arepa Zone

The popular food truck is aiming to win a stationary presence in Union Market through the contest. Ali Arellano and Gabriela Febres also hope to launch a second food truck to dish out arepas, cachapa and tequeños around town.

A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Silverman and O'Connell judged the preliminary round of the competition. They will judge the final round.