Kera Carpenter had an idea and so I spent much of last week talking to strangers.
Kera is the owner of Domku, a little Eastern European/Scandinavian restaurant in Petworth with wonderful food. She is a Midwestern liberal, a throwback who believes in citizen action to promote community development. That’s why she opened a restaurant in Petworth nine years ago and is now preparing to open a coffee shop in Anacostia. And that’s why she devotes a generous portion of her time to eleemosynary work in the food business.
Several years ago she asked me whether, if I could open Bread Furst, I would help her begin an apprenticeship program for would-be food entrepreneurs in the city. She had opened Domku, “wishing I could find out how to set up a business;” and when she heard I might open a bakery again, she introduced herself and her idea to me.
Kera imagined there are many people around here who want to be in the food business but don’t know how to change their careers in news or lobbying, government service and the like. In her fantasy, they would, if given a chance, rush to take internships in an actual food business start-up. They would change their lives,make time, and volunteer that time to work for me so that they could learn the processes of starting a small business.
I half believed her. The food business, after all, is filled with career-changers. If you stop by the Culinary Institute of America or any cooking school, you’ll see a lot of grey in the hair of the students.
Indeed, most of us bakers are career changers, not Steve Sullivan of Acme in the Bay Area, not Nancy Silverton in Los Angeles. But many others are dropouts from more dignified professions. (I exclude myself as I scarcely dropped into more dignified fields and have spent a lifetime changing careers.)
Nevertheless, I was skeptical – no, I was more than skeptical. But Kera was appealing to the faith I held 50 years ago. In 1963 I was on the White House staff helping to develop the community action program that became the core of the War on Poverty, the signature of The Great Society.
You may not remember or may not even have been in this world when that Sixties crusade that was full of promise was overrun by the War in Vietnam. It turned out to be the swan song for those who believed that government can be used to help people who really need the help of government.
Kera, far too young to remember that, found a different way and small business development became the outlet for her idealism. After having seen the impact of Domku on Petworth and the blooming of Bloomingdale and Shaw where food businesses are now opening, she saw neighborhood restaurants as a catalyst for economic development.
I promised Kera that if I could start it, Bread Furst would give her a first mentoring program.
Several weeks ago Carpenter wrote a press release announcing the opportunity, and to my surprise it was mentioned in a modest way on the Internet. Then to my greater surprise, that modest publicity brought 71 inquiries.
You know that opening a business is a very big job that includes a lot of big jobs – financing, construction, equipment, staffing, design, training, menus, packaging, marketing, recipes, production organization, data processing – it’s everything required to put together an organization that didn’t previously exist.
What’s a fellow to do?
A restaurant company with a multiple locations, a going concern like Passion Hospitality (D.C. Coast et al) can bring for help people from its other restaurants. A big company like Steven Starr (Le Diplomat) can assign people from its ample organization. These are companies with revenues some of which they can devote to expansion.
But a start-up is different. I don’t have revenues and I have to raise and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance what I must do to open Bread Furst. I have to find ways of extending myself without spending the money I raise for starting up.
Several weeks ago I got a first gift. The daughter of Washington’s greatest chef, Jean Louis Palladin asked me to take on a friend, a young software salesman yearning for a food career – Anthony Piscitelli – bright and eager to volunteer his time.
Then Anthony, Kera, and I spent much of last week sitting in my living room interviewing the 18 final applicants for Kera’s apprenticeship program that will begin on November 1st.
I will continue this story in an upcoming essay.