Have Your Latté and Drink Your Cocktail at Takoma Park’s New All-Day Cafe

This article first appeared in Washingtonian Magazine on June 20, 2017

 

People who like good coffee are often the kind of people who like good wine and cocktails. That was the thinking behind cousins Seth Cook and Chris Brown’s first restaurant, Takoma Beverage Company, which opened Sunday. The shop serves up coffee and pastries in the mornings, then transitions to cocktails, beer, and wine in the afternoon and evenings. A full food menu, ranging from avocado toast with a poached egg to a crispy pork belly, is available throughout the day.

While Cook, the former coffee director at Northside Social, is the brains behind the morning menu of espresso drinks and pour-overs, Brown brings a world traveler’s approach to food. Beyond visiting 25 different countries and 40 U.S. states in his lifetime, Brown worked as an agricultural extension officer in Tanzania while in the Peace Corps. During his time there, he gained an appreciation for organic farming and fresh vegetables, which is reflected on the the veggie-heavy menu.

For Cook, the important thing about the menu was that each product have a story—whether it’s the coffee beans passed directly from the farmer in Ethiopia to his shop in Takoma, or it’s kale from a local farm ten miles away used in the shop’s version of a Caesar salad.

While the menu highlights local products for food (designed by chef Liam LaCivita of Bar Civita) and pastries (from bakery Souk), Cook and Brown sourced most of their beverages internationally—“just to make sure we had the best and most beautiful examples out there of each drink we were serving,” Cook says. To do so, he brought on sommelier Sonja Eberly, mixologist Tim Higgins, and beer expert Drew Lemberg to hand-select options for the drink menu, like the pinot noir from New Zealand and the pilsner from the Czech Republic.

Overall, the drinks menu is purposefully short because Cook plans to change it up often. Expect three draft beers, four wines, and eight cocktails, including several summery drinks like the “Rose of Mary” (gin, lime, rosemary, honey, and sparkling water) and the “After the War” (gin, Aperol, orange juice, simple syrup, and Angostura bitters).

Counter Culture supplies the shop’s coffee. Beyond the lattés and espressos, the storefront will soon sell retail bags of the roaster’s beans, coffee brewing equipment, tea bags from Rishi, and even alcohol.

As of now, the Takoma Beverage Company shop is pretty small. The narrow set-up fits only the bar and a few tables lined against the opposite wall and window. But at the end of the month, the shop will expand into the next-door unit when the current tenant, vintage clothing store PollySue’s, relocates down the street. By August, the additional area will be home to a long communal table that will double as an after-hours events space. Coming up first are free coffee cuppings and classes led by Cook.

The events fit into the owners’ vision for the shop to be something more than a place where you do work on your laptop or grab a cappuccino to-go. On the tentative events docket is a social awareness program to recognize Ugandan NGO, Grassroots Reconciliation Group, founded by artist, Sasha Lezhnev, whose photographs line the shop’s walls.

Takoma Beverage Co. Taps Into Everything

This article first published on Eater Washington DC on June 19, 2017

 

Takoma Beverage Co., a combination coffee shop and bar pieced together by two first-time restaurateurs, is now mixing up drinks and offering pour-over service in Takoma Park, Md.

The all-day cafe and drinking establishment comes from cousins Chris Brown and Seth Cook, who previously worked at similarly themed Northside Social in Arlington, Va. Sonja Eberly, another Northside Social alum who’s currently working at a vineyard in New Zealand, serves as sommelier. Sehkraft Brewing alum Drew Lemberg is the resident beer director.

Total capacity at this neighborhood eatery is pretty modest, with eight seats at the bar, a couple stools along the front window, and a scattering of tables. There’s also a curbside patio.

The caliber of caffeine is pretty high; a custom espresso machine built for the restaurant is fed a strict diet of Counter Culture Coffee. The main bar hosts 10 draft lines and serves up a full slate of signature cocktails. A front counter with a white quartz top features a display case and is stocked with pastries and other impulse buys.

The menu was composed by yet another Northside Social alum, Bar Civita chef/owner Liam LaCivita. Offerings include the Spicy Pig ($7), a breakfast sandwich featuring fried pork belly, maple sage hot sauce, poached egg, and cheddar, while the midday menu includes an “All Kale” Caesar salad($8), and evening ushers in a lineup of tartines ($8-$10).

Status: Certified open. 6917 Laurel Ave., Takoma Park, MD.; website.

Why Invest in Restaurants? Why Not!

You have all heard some variance of the adage, “Nine out of ten restaurants fail within the first year.” I can’t argue that makes it hard to sell restaurants as an investment. Except for one thing—it isn’t true.

Not even close.

In fact, only 17% of restaurants fail within the first year, the lowest number of any service providing business including real estate agents and brokerages. This myth has been debunked over and over, but the data I am using comes from a comprehensive study by two economists. The summary was published in Forbes.

Hmm. How then, given that the facts override the myth does it linger? Well there is one theory, but this isn’t a column about what are facts, do they matter, and can I make up my own facts if I want to? I’ll save that for another time (teaser: you in fact can’t make up your own facts).

Accepting for now that facts are facts, I think this quote from the researchers sums it up:

“Perhaps due to the visibility and volume of restaurant startups, the public perception is that restaurants often fail. However, as shown in this paper, restaurant turnover rates are not very different from startups of many other different industries.”

The fact is, what we do is for all to see. If the price of gas on a big sign is an indicator of the entire energy sector, or the economy for that matter, then the restaurant on the corner of your block, or the turnover in the entire neighborhood, is a sure sign of the risk of the industry, right?

Hardly.

Humans are notoriously terrible at estimating risk (if we were good at it, we would never drive a car), and the fact that our business successes and failures play out literally in the streets for all to see doesn’t help defeat false narratives.

The reality, however, is that many restaurants and bars and other food and drink businesses make it. In fact, many of these businesses scale far beyond their first store, and there are many opportunities for follow on investments and exits.

Don’t believe me? Fair enough. But would you believe Steve Case? The billionaire co-founder of AOL and founder of venture capital fund, Revolution LLC is very bullish on food. To the tune of tens of millions of dollars over several rounds poured into local startup, Sweetgreen (personal favorite: Rad Thai) and other food ventures. From its inception as a tiny salad spot in Georgetown, Sweetgreen has grown exponentially and is now valued at over $500 million. That’s a lot of green.

That’s one example, and a high profile one at that, but I assure you the list goes on. Whether it is Cava Grill raising $60 million (mostly from Revolution), or Spider Kelly’s entering our seventh year with rosy sales forecasts, examples of successful companies in this business abound.

But sure, there is risk. There are no guarantees, and it is a tricky business—customers are fickle and competition is fierce.

So, what is the secret? How do you improve your odds of picking the right opportunity and mitigating the risk? Ahem. Allow me to introduce myself…

By carefully selecting the founders I work with, patiently curating the concepts so they are ready for primetime and balancing out our portfolio to diversify, I am working hard to put our investors in the best possible position. And of course, I am jumping in with them, side by side.

Will that guarantee success? Absolutely not. But I sure as Hell can beat a 90% fail rate. And you shouldn’t need Steve Case to know that.

Reach out if you want to learn more.

mothersauce press

Don’t Let the Wine List Intimidate You: Ordering wine in a restaurant should be fun, not stressful. Try this approach.

This article first appeared in Arlington Magazine on May 15, 2017

It’s hard to say what I love most about wine. The taste? The feeling it gives me? The vineyards it comes from? The memories it helps to make? I could go on and on.

What is easy for me, by contrast, is naming what I hate most about wine.

My biggest issue with wine is the culture of intimidation that surrounds it. It makes me crazy that a beverage that is so accessible, so broadly appealing and so conducive to conviviality remains, for many, unapproachable. Why? Mostly because it can be hard to buy it or order it in a restaurant.

Do wine lists leave you feeling bewildered and moderately illiterate? As a guy who has spent 20 years in the restaurant business, let me say, first and foremost, that it is the restaurant’s job to make you feel comfortable and help you find something you like. But good communication between the customer and the house can also demystify the process. Here’s where you come in:

Know what you like.

Seems simple, right? It’s not. A lot of people order wine that they think they like, that they think they are supposed to like or that someone else likes. The best way to identify what you like is to try a lot of different wines. Take advantage of tastings at wine shops, festivals, even the grocery store. If you’re trying to decide which wine-by-the-glass to order in a bar or restaurant, ask to taste more than one. I have seen people’s eyes widen with joy the first time they taste a wine that truly suits their palate. You don’t have to buy a whole bottle to find out that you don’t like a particular grape.

Start basic.

Red or white? Lighter or heavier? A little sweet or a little dry? Creamy and buttery or crisp and minerally? Fuller mouth feel because of malolactic fermentation? Okay, just kidding on that last one, but you can see how people can get carried away. You shouldn’t have to know what that means to order wine off a wine list. If you have a general sense of what suits you and you can articulate those characteristics in lay terms, then it doesn’t matter if all the wines on the list are Italian and you’ve never heard of them. Describe what you are in the mood for and a good staff member should be able to match that up with what the place has in stock.

State your price point.

Don’t be shy. Money is weird, and oftentimes guests don’t want to say (and have their entire table hear) that they want to keep it under $30 a bottle. Of course that is your prerogative as a customer, but if you aren’t specific then you leave the staff guessing. A good bartender, sommelier or server will suggest wines at different price points to tease out a sense of your budget, but if you’re up front about it, the conversation will go a lot faster. The good news? Restaurants now offer incredible wines across many different price points, particularly as they tap into emerging wine regions in lesser-known places like Croatia and Bulgaria. You don’t have to spend $100 to find a bottle that will blow you away.

Fear not the screw top.

Cork trees can take 100 years to mature (not exactly sustainable), and screw tops keep wine better preserved anyway. Great wine comes with twist-off caps. Trust me.

Don’t like it? Speak up!

There’s no need to ruin a good meal by suffering through a wine that isn’t working for you. A good restaurant will have the policy that you get the wine you want, period—even if your dislike isn’t immediately apparent upon your first sip. Keep in mind that a wine will change quite a bit as it breathes, and it may taste different once you pair it with food, so there is no shame in switching bottles a few minutes in. (Although if the bottle is half gone, don’t be that guest.) Don’t fret that the wine will go to waste if you send it back. It won’t. Provided the bottle isn’t corked (a fancy word for wine that’s “turned” or sour), the restaurant management may offer it by the glass, use it for staff education or drink it themselves. This is basic customer service and a cost of doing business. But if you don’t speak up, they may never know.

 

Nick Freshman is a co-owner of Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon and principal of Mothersauce Partners, an Arlington-based investment and consulting venture that helps D.C.-area chefs and restaurateurs bring new food and drink concepts to fruition. www.mothersaucepartners.com

Real Change. Right Here.

For many years, I was a Big Brother. Of course, I have been a big brother for all but those first two blissful years of my life (sorry, Ben), but the capitalized version is different. Big Brothers Big Sisters is a one-to-one mentoring organization that provides youth with adult role models—someone to provide guidance and positive examples. It is a great organization, and the reason I did it was that I wanted to be a part of change I could see right in front of me, right here where I live. There is no anonymity in mentoring, and the change you see is immediate and personal.

I have been looking for some time for an organization that can have the same effect, but on the broader community I live in and the industry I work in. I found it in La Cocina VA. After hearing a piece on NPR about the organization, I called the same day. I joined the Board of Directors weeks later.

La Cocina VA is primarily a culinary training center that provides people—primarily recent immigrants—with the skills and certification they need to work in the hospitality industry. “Job creators” are useless if there is no one with training to fill the jobs. La Cocina provides our industry with qualified and eager workers—something that we desperately need.

More than that, however, La Cocina VA offers hope to our most vulnerable community in the DC area. Language training, conflict resolution, counseling and food assistance are all a part of the program. La Cocina VA wants our members to become impactful members of the community beyond their job, and they understand that the ripple effect of that can be far and wide.

I am thrilled to have been asked to serve, and I hope that I can offer help in taking the organization to the next level. We are currently planning an ambitious new center in South Arlington. There will be a café and catering company to serve the Arlington residential and business community as well as an expanded training center and a culinary incubator to help members learn about the possibilities of entrepreneurship—yeah, I am all over that last part…

From the tiny basement of a church two blocks from where I grew up in Arlington, in the next couple years La Cocina VA will grow into a powerful force for change right here where we live. Skeptical? Look no further than the Founder and CEO, Paty Funegra. She quit her job to start La Cocina VA, and in its short existence, they’ve been visited by Senators and Congressmen, and she has been invited to the White House to talk about the mission.

I hope you’ll keep an eye on our progress and come visit us when we open the center—coffee is on me. Wait, foget that. Pay up—it’s for a good cause.

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