A New Restaurant Crowdfunding Platform Offers Profits, Not Just Perks

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For four years, Brittany Frick and Greg Kakaletris have talked about opening a seafood restaurant of their own. Inspired by a more than 100-year-old San Francisco institution called Swan Oyster Depot, they envisioned a small counter spot where the people cooking the food are also the ones serving it. Guests would sit on stools and chow down on smoked mussels, charred octopus salad, oysters, crudos, and other seafood dishes. They named it after a type of fisherman’s knot: Albright Special.

Kakaletris brings 10 years of front-of-house and bar experience at places like Estadio and 2 Birds 1 Stone, while Frick is former chef de cuisine at Doi Moi and executive pastry chef at Estadio. But finding a way to fund the restaurant hasn’t been easy. Neither has many deep-pocketed connections that could bankroll the more than nearly half-million dollars they need.

“It’s very difficult to ask somebody for this amount of money and say, ‘Just trust me,’” Kakaletris says.

Then Johann Moonesinghe, one of their regulars at Estadio who became a friend, told them in August he would be launching a crowdfunding platform called EquityEats, which connects wannabe restaurateurs and investors. Unlike other crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, EquityEats allows people to earn profits, not just perks. It also provides bookkeeping and other business support for the restaurants.

“There’s so many creative people out there, but they fail because they don’t know how to manage payroll and income and all that stuff,” Kakaletris says. “EquityEats helps those people with that to allow them to just be this creative force.”

EquityEats officially launched Monday with four offerings, including Albright Special, a bakery, a lobster and burger joint, and a seasonally focused American restaurant. The platform aims to capitalize on the growing interest in restaurant investing, which has helped D.C.’s dining scene boom, and make it easier for entrepreneurs without rich uncles or millionaire friends to fund their ideas. For investors, it’s an easy way to find out about restaurants seeking funding without having to worry about how to structure an investment deal, and it lets them track their potential return online. Of course, the idea sounds good in concept, but it’s so new that no one knows whether EquityEats can bring in enough big bucks (one of the restaurants is seeking nearly $1 million) or whether its restaurants will return the profits they project. But if it’s successful, the platform has the potential to greatly influence what kind of restaurants are able to open in D.C. and how they get there.

Before EquityEats, Moonesinghe founded two tech companies and invested in a number of tech startups. One of his ventures, Zemble, was a “group text messaging meets social network website” that never really went anywhere. He also co-founded a blog sharing widget called madKast that ultimately sold to another sharing widget company called ShareThis. He’s also invested in 14th Street NW bar Black Whiskey and an arcade bar in Los Angeles called EightyTwo.

One night while having drinks at Black Whiskey just after it opened, in the spring of 2013, Moonesinghe and Steve Lucas, now the vice president of strategy and communications for EquityEats, started talking about how Moonesinghe had essentially helped crowdfund the bar by bringing in friends as investors. They agreed that a lot of people would also like to be able to back their neighborhood spot. But as an investor, Moonesinghe knew Black Whiskey opened with barely enough money to get by. He and Lucas began to do some legal research to figure out how to structure a platform that would make it easier for restaurants and investors to find each other, while making sure the businesses weren’t undercapitalized. Chief Technology Officer Jason Pinto and lawyer Andrew Harris joined the founding group.

Initially, EquityEats set out to allow anyone to invest. But the Securities and Exchange Commission requires a cumbersome amount of paperwork, extra disclosures, and additional costs for businesses to accept funds from anyone who isn’t an “accredited investor” with a net worth of $1 million or an income of at least $200,000 over the past two years. Ultimately, the legal restrictions were too burdensome, so EquityEats is only allowing accredited investors for now.

That could change in the near future: The Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act of 2012 included a crowdfunding provision that will allow anyone to be an equity investor within certain limits. The SEC is still writing rules to implement it, but when it’s complete, EquityEats hopes to open up investment opportunities beyond the rich.

For now, though, buy-in starts at $2,500 to $5,000, depending on the restaurant, with only a limited number of the smaller investments available. If the restaurant doesn’t meet its goal, it doesn’t get any money. The restaurants have a 45-day deadline, although Moonesinghe says they’ll be experimenting with what timeframe works best, and there’s some flexibility if a place is close to reaching its goal and falls just short.

At least 75 percent of the profits will go to the investors until they get their money back, which typically takes at least two to three years. After that, 40 percent of additional profits will go to investors. EquityEats doesn’t get paid until the investors have all been paid back, at which point the company receives a 20 percent cut of the 40 percent returned to investors. Realizing that people invest not just for the potential profits, but for the cachet, the restaurants will also offer perks, like an invite to a VIP party, free food, or cooking classes.

Each campaign will be capped at 100 investors, which is a lot more than most restaurants have. More backers, though, means more cheerleaders.

“If we can find 100 people who are willing to invest $5,000, that has a lot more merit than one person who’s willing to invest $500,000. Because that’s 100 people in your local community who believe in your concept, who want to see it succeed, who are going to come there,” says EquityEats VP of Restaurant Operations Patrick Vacca, who used to work for big-time Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr. Vacca will also oversee one of the restaurants seeking funding, Lighthouse, whose menu will be limited almost exclusively to burgers and whole lobsters. The restaurant is actually owned by EquityEats as a sort of experiment to see first-hand how the platform works from an operators’ perspective.

Pastry chefs and husband-wife team Tom Wellings and Camila Arango, who are seeking funding for their Bluebird Bakery, believe EquityEats will not just find them more investors, but the right investors.

“I feel like they help find the right fit...It’s not someone who wants to come in and change your vision or change the goal that you have,” says Arango, echoing a common concern of restaurateurs about investors. “We don’t want someone who’s going to come in and say, for example, ‘I want you to put a cupcake on the menu.’”

Putting the whole thing online makes it easier to ask for cash, too. “It’s also hard on a personal level just asking someone to give you money,” Wellings says. “It’s always an awkward conversation. It’s never very smooth. No one ever comes up and goes, ‘You own a business? Can I give you some money?’ It’s always weird.”

In addition to helping restaurants find investors, EquityEats will also assist with operations behind the scenes—from accounting (for an extra fee) to real estate negotiations to vendor sourcing. EquityEats has software for the restaurants’ point of sales systems that gives them analytics about cash flow and profits. The restaurants have the option to feed that information into a portal where investors can see in real-time how their restaurants are doing. Investors will also receive quarterly profit and loss statements from EquityEats.

“It provides transparency to an investor that I think gives people more confidence,” says Amy Troutmiller, who is looking to raise $970,000 for an American restaurant called Sussex Drive with her business partner and chef Adam McFarland. Often, investors “give their money, and the doors open, and then they don’t really know what’s happening,” she says.

EquityEats has also vetted the four restaurants’ business plans and made sure they set goals that will leave them at least three months of operating capital after they’ve paid to build their spaces. “You’re raising enough money to be fully capitalized and be successful when you open,” Moonesinghe says. He believes EquityEats will “dramatically reduce the failure rates” of its restaurants.

Of course, restaurants are still risky investments. But that isn’t necessarily stopping a new generation of investors attracted to the glamorized notion of restaurants and prospects of a big payday. “People want to invest in restaurants because it’s tangible, it’s an experience. It’s not just looking at a stock exchange ticker and seeing your numbers go up and down,” Troutmiller says. If EquityEats succeeds, it will be in no small part because it’s harnessed the desire of Washingtonians to be a part of what’s become a culturally cool and economically important force in the city.

D.C. is ultimately a test for EquityEats. If all goes well here, Moonsinghe and his crew hope to expand to San Francisco or Los Angeles, then New York, Atlanta, and beyond. “Eventually,” Moonsinghe says, “the goal is we’ll be raising for thousands of restaurants a year.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo of Equity Eats’ Andrew Harris, Johann Moonesinghe, Patrick Vacca, and Steve Lucas by Darrow Montgomery