When Dan Simons and Scott Museles met, there wasn’t a single Founding Farmers restaurant. Fast forward 15-plus years, Simons runs a bustling food business under the banner Farmers Restaurant Group, and Museles oversees an equally bustling Restaurant Group at Shulman Rogers.
Introduced by Simons’ brother-in-law at a networking event, the two hit it off. At the time, Simons had created a restaurant management consultancy with Michael Vucurevich.
“We both have kind of grown up together in a lot of ways,” Museles said, recalling the introduction. It took place just as Simons was beginning to plan his entrepreneurial path for the restaurant group with Vucurevich, and Museles was starting his career at Shulman Rogers.
Not too long after that, in 2008, Simons and Vucurevich partnered with the North Dakota Farmers Union to open the original Founding Farmers restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C. Today, there are seven restaurants, a bakery, a distillery and even Founding Farmers food products — owned in partnership with farmers across the country. Behind the scenes, Museles, industry chair of restaurants at Shulman Rogers, has provided advice and helped guide the evolution of the restaurant group since day one.
“We are real partners in the pursuit of growing the company and doing it in a mindful way. It’s nice to have a relationship that goes back so far and has survived trying and difficult times,” Simons said. “We’ve had legal challenges. We’ve gone through a pandemic. We’ve struggled financially. Through thick and thin, Scott and the team at Shulman Rogers have been there with me. Sometimes they have to pull me, sometimes they have to push me, but they’re always with me.”
Making a ‘conscious’ decision about how to run the business
From the get-go, Farmers Restaurant Group took a “conscious capitalism” approach to its business operations. Conscious capitalism views all the elements of a business as equal stakeholders relative to planning, making decisions and pursuing growth. It really demands a reimagining of the employee role in a restaurant environment, said Simons, who is on the board of directors of the D.C. chapter of Conscious Capitalism.
“The only way to run a restaurant is from an employee-centric perspective. Conscious capitalism brings it to life” for Farmers Restaurant Group through the eyes of the farmer and the hands-on work of its 1,400 employees, Simons said.
“When you do that, you get to run a company that feels great and performs really well,” he said. Although he thinks all companies should use this business model, Simons likes that Farmers Restaurant Group has been able to prove the validity of putting employees on equal footing with other stakeholders.
That “mindful” approach also plays out in the way he and others in the company work with Museles and Shulman Rogers.
“People often say in business, you need a great lawyer. I’m not sure that sums it up properly. What you need is a great human who is excellent at lawyering but who wants to be part of the heart of your business,” Simons said, adding, “I really knew early on, this is the person I want as part of our beating heart, helping us make sure we do legal well, but that we do it as clearly sort of a woven in part of the culture and the ethos of the company.”
Keeping pace with Farmers Restaurant Group growth
For Museles, the restaurant group was his first restaurant client. Today, Shulman Rogers represents fast-casual restaurants, full-service restaurants, Michelin star restaurants — alongside a robust hotel practice.
“The restaurant scene here is just really vibrant, with lots of new restaurants coming in all the time,” Museles said. “Restaurants, like other businesses, need all the blocking and tackling legal services: forming the company, employment, intellectual property, protecting the brand.”
But there are definitely unique aspects too, and working with Simons closely has honed and informed his and his team’s knowledge, Museles said. For instance, within employment areas, restaurants face many specialized needs, he said, as they do in structuring the business to protect the brand and allow them to develop new brands. Plus, there’s the unique roles and agreements that take place with chefs, he added.
Shulman Rogers, which began in 1972 as a real estate law firm in Potomac, Maryland, today serves a wide array of business and personal clients. But even as it has expanded to a global firm, it continues to emphasize creating relationships with its clients that extend beyond the legal realm, Museles said, citing his partnership with Simons as typical for Shulman Rogers.
That might sound like what every law firm says, he noted, but then stressed that with deep roots in the D.C. metropolitan area, Shulman Rogers lawyers are long-time members of the communities where their clients live and work.
“There are lots of lawyers who can draft agreements, and good agreements, but it’s everything around that,” Museles said. “I get a lot of satisfaction from helping a client beyond the legal, whether that’s finding a construction company that they need to build a restaurant or helping locate investors to raise capital, that’s where I really have a lot of fun and find I can add a lot of value.”
What’s next for Simons, Farmers Restaurant Group (and Museles)?
“We’ve done it every step of the way together — me, you, Mike, the North Dakota farmers. And now we’re ready for this next 10 years.”
That’s how Dan Simons tipped his hat to lawyer Scott Museles and nodded to lots of new foodie-friendly ideas on the horizon for the Farmers Restaurant Group he co-owns with partner Mike Vucurevich.
“I’m going to need more of your help with some of the legal structuring,” he told Museles, who has been Simons’ legal partner since before the launch of the first Founding Farmers restaurant in 2008.
Most recently, the business launched a new catering company. But there are also plans for opening five or six more restaurants, Simons said.
The restaurant group also intends to expand direct-to-customer sales of its line of food products and spirits. The online grocery took root during the COVID-19 pandemic closures, when Simons and Vucurevich pivoted to provide income for employees who staffed their restaurants.
“This is why there’s Founding Farmers Chocolate,” he said. “We created it during the pandemic, and I think it’ll be with us forever.”