Food biz incubator Mess Hall kicks off with entrepreneur competition

D.C.’s newest culinary incubator project is looking to drum up interest with a new business accelerator competition.

Mess Hall, which I wrote about in May, is a 10,000-square foot shared commercial kitchen in Brookland that will include an event space, offices and other tools to help get culinary businesses off the ground. But first, founder Al Goldberg is putting together a contest called Launch Pad to reward one worthy entrepreneur.

Mess Hall is accepting applications for contestants and will select four finalists to make pitches to a panel of judges at an event in late September. The winner of Launch Pad will receive a six-month, all-access membership to Mess Hall, as well as mentoring opportunities, branding and distribution consultations as well as tax, web design and other advice.

They will also receive the opportunity to raise up to $500,000 in funds through EquityEats, a new D.C.-based crowdfunding model geared toward restaurant and bar businesses that will reward backers with stock in the new venture, rather than the free T-shirts or exclusive event rewards that are typical of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

Equity crowdfunding is a new concept made easier by the JOBS Act of 2012, which for the first time allows non-accredited investors — those worth less than $1 million or with household income of less than $200,000 — to buy stock in the offerings. But the Securities and Exchange Commission is still writing the rules that will govern equity crowdfunding. Even without the rulemaking, EquityEats intends to work with the Launch Pad winner on funding, as there are existing exemptions that can be filed with the SEC to allow a certain amount of investment from nonaccredited investors.

EquityEats CEO Johann Moonesinghe will be among the judges in the Launch Pad contest. After all, EquityEats also has a vested interest in seeing the winning concept succeed, given that the winning business could be among the first funded by its equity crowdfunding model.

Of course, there are no guarantees that EquityEats can raise $500,000 for the winner, but the crowdfunder plans to “tap into all the resources we have” to help make it successful, said Steve Lucas, the company’s vice president for strategy and communications. In addition, Moonesinghe himself plans to invest personally in the business chosen through Launch Pad.

The two concepts — one a budding incubator of local food businesses and one a mechanism for funding the same — are a natural fit for one another. The plan to team up on the contest actually came together in a matter of weeks, after Goldberg was introduced to EquityEats at a business networking event in June.

“Mess Hall is so in line with what wanted to do anyway,” Lucas said. “It was the first time we really thought about our position in the food and beverage business ecosystem.”

If the name has a familiar ring to it, that’s because a similar contest of the same name was held by the Ballston Business Improvement District earlier this year. The BID’s LaunchPad also in the past conducted a contest for tech ventures.


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