Spoon University is a nationwide, all student-run online food publication. General Assembly hosts classes and events in technology, business, and design industries. Last night these two groups teamed up to pull off Taste Talks, a restaurant industry and entrepreneurship panel featuring an all-star cast of DC food scene celebrities. According to one of the event’s emcees, turnout for this panel surpassed the previous one in New York.
I’d chalk that up to a stellar menu of free samples. Before the panel kicked off at 7 pm, a meet, greet and taste was held in the spacious-yet-warehouselike penthouse venue. Many familiar names lined the room: the up-and-coming District Doughnut was there, with a sampling of citrusy key lime and indulgent dulce de leche donuts. Founding Farmers offered a helping of ahi tuna, dusted with cheese and perched atop a crunchy sesame cracker. Capital Kombucha passed out bottles of fizzy fermented tea to whoever could stomach it. (I chose the Granny Smith variety.)
The real knockouts were the rich, generously-filled lobster rolls handed out by Luke’s Lobster, and the chewy, chocolate-speckled cookies baked fresh from Blind Dog Cafe. The lobster rolls were piled high and dressed modestly, tender meat stuffed into a buttery bun. The cookies were large, chewy and still melty from the oven. I snuck seconds of both, with minimal guilt.
With the audience well-fed, we found our seats and prepared for the first of two sets of speakers. The first group spoke on breaking into the food industry and the logistics of running a restaurant. Summer Whitford of The Food & Wine Diva, Union Kitchen founder Jonas Singer, Chris Vigilante of Vigilante Coffee and Greg Menna of District Doughnut discussed their personal experiences in working in the food business.
Though all four are successful restaurateurs, they all had pretty much the same advice: if you don’t have to, don’t do it. Restaurants are tough to start, tough to run, and tough to make money on. “It’s a poor man’s game,” according to Vigilante, who is happy to make just a few dollars on each pound of beans he imports. And don’t even think about getting yourself a food truck. “Friends don’t let friends open food trucks,” said Singer, only half-jokingly.
The second panel was focused on the farm-to-table movement and food sustainability issues. Luke Holden of Luke’s Lobsters, Edible DC editor Susan Able, vice president of marketing for Founding Farmers Jennifer Motruk, and Jimmy Edgerton of 2Armadillos weighed in on how they keep their products fresh, seasonal and safe for customers. All of them talked a lot about “scalability” — that means growing your business at a sustainable rate, which means knowing how much of what to buy from where for whom.
While Motruk was pretty passionate about keeping things fresh, organic and seasonal in a restaurant, Edgerton was a bit more realistic. “If you have to use GMO products to start off, to get off the ground so you can do what you need to later on — sometimes you have to make sacrifices,” he told one audience member, then later apologized for crushing her dreams.
If there’s any message to take away from the event, it’s that the food industry isn’t glamorous. It’s not some all-you-can-eat buffet or wine bar where you can eat as much as you want, cook whatever you want, and rake in the cash with one foolproof idea. It takes extreme discipline, immense planning, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and some luck. Which leaves the question: Why does anyone do it in the first place? Lucky someone does, though, or we wouldn’t have 3-star restaurants, food truck burritos, gourmet gelato shops or 3am slices from Jumbo Slice. What a sick, sick world that would be.