Union Market is already home to a diverse array of food, with everything from smoked salmon and empanadas to dosas and egg creams. Coming soon: arepas.
Arepa Zone, the Venezuelan food truck that first hit the streets last year, took home the top prize at Sunday's finale of the Launch Pad competition. The event was the culmination of a process that began in April as a way to give a leg up to a local food business.
For winning Launch Pad, Arepa Zone will take over the Ris stall at Union Market by the end of August for a period of six to 12 months. The title includes various other perks, including the opportunity to be mentored by Ris chef-owner Ris Lacoste and a variety of other restaurateurs and industry insiders. (Last year's Launch Pad winner, Mason-Dixie Biscuit Co., also operates a stand at Union Market.)
Al Goldberg, founder of culinary incubator Mess Hall, which organized Launch Pad, said about 50 businesses submitted their plans for consideration in the contest. They were narrowed down to a pool of 10, followed by a cull to the five finalists: Arepa Zone, Whisked!, Half Smoke, Bao Bar (which just yesterday changed its name from Bao Bros Bar) and Bene Ristorante.
The finalists had about an hour to serve tastes of their fare to the attendees as well as judges Goldberg, Lacoste, Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya, Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, Aaron Silverman of Rose's Luxury, Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora and David Hall of investor Revolution.
Each finalist then made a five-minute pitch to the judges about their business and why they'd be the best candidate for the stall.
"We wanted to fill the void" of Venezuelan food in Washington, said Arepa Zone's Gabriela Febres, who owns the business with Ali Arellano. "We wanted to bring something new to the city."
Febres said Arepa Zone is currently working on building out a commercial kitchen, which will serve the truck and Union Market stall, as well as a second truck and brick-and-mortar they hope to launch within two years.
After all the pitches, the judges reconvened to pick their winner. The criteria included the branding impact and company story, market opportunity, taste of the food and financial understanding. The audience vote also factored into five percent of the overall score.
Bao Bar won the people's choice award. At the end of the event, Goldberg made a surprise announcement: Both Mess Hall and Edens, the developer behind Union Market, were interested in working with the fast-casual Asian bun venture founded by Louis Grayson and Nelson Wong. That may include free membership at Mess Hall, as well as a potential opportunity at a spot owned by Edens.
As Lacoste told all the aspiring food businesses, "We're here to help you. This business is not easy."