Cause: Eat, drink, be merry, do good

IS2C6024 smallImagine a bar and restaurant that, like Newman’s Own, gives all of its profits to charity.

Beer and benevolence, it’s been called. Drafts and donations. More fun, in any case, than salad dressing.

That’s the idea behind Cause, a philanthropub (“a bar where having a good time helps a great cause”) that opened last October in the U. Street/Cardozo neighborhood of Washington, D.C., at 1926 9th St. N.W.  I’ve been three times–first to kick off the new year with the D.C. chapter of Net Impact, then to interview founder Nick Vilelle and this past week to have dinner with my wife.

Cause isn’t alone. “Have a pint, save the world,” says the Oregon Public House, which plans to open soon in Portland, a hub of both craft beer and NGO activity. In downtown Houston, bar owners came together last year to open the Okra Charity Saloon; customers, who get a vote with every drink, decide which charity should receive the next month’s profits. The ideas for these charity pubs evidently arose spontaneously and independently. They’re the latest in a wave of mission-driven businesses that blur the lines between the for-profit and non-profit worlds.

Cause is currently supporting four DC-based nonprofits: Agora Partnerships, Common Good City Farm, Higher Achievement and Martha’s Table. New groups will be chosen every three months. It’s hard to know, for now, how much money will flow to each group, but Cause promises to release its financials. “Everything we do, we want it to be done in a clean and transparent way,” Nick Vilelle told me.

Nick and Raj
Nick and Raj

An unlikely story lies behind Cause. Founders Nick, 33, and Raj Ratwani, 32, became friends a decade ago as grad students in psychology at George Mason University. Nick, an organizational psychologist, went on to a stint with the Peace Corps in Togo and then worked in Swaziland with a nonprofit called TechnoServe that helps entrepreneurs. He’d come across “great grass-roots organizations”  in the global south where a few dollars goes a long way, and wanted to suppor them.

Raj, who has a PhD. in cognitive psychology, first had the idea for  Cause. As a hard-working grad student, he wanted to make more of a difference in the world but didn’t have much money or time. “But no matter how busy I was, I would find time for a beer with my advisor or my friends,” he recalled. He wondered if there would be a way to socialize and have an impact at the same time.

Getting from idea to reality took about five years. Maybe their most creative business idea was to buy the building for Cause, and to do so in a neighborhood that’s gentrifying. About  2,000 new residential units are under construction within half a mile of Cause.

“We spent a lot of time looking for a neighborhood where we could have immediate success, and also have upside potential,” Nick said. “I think we’re in a good location now. I think we’ll be in a great location in a year, a year and half. That was strategic.”

They raised about $900,000 from investors, mostly friends and family, to buy the building, and another $150,000 in startup costs. The investors have downside protection if the restaurant fails, so long as the building appreciates in value along with the neighborhood. If the place is a big hit, they won’t be beholden to a landlord who can raise the rent.

They also met a successful DC-area restauranteur named John Jarecki who, they say, offered free and valuable advice, and helped them recruit a chef and staff. Cause won’t succeed, Nick said, without “great food, great service, good drinks, a good atmosphere.”

_MG_1270So how’s it going? Cause got a very nice review from Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post restaurant critic. On Yelp, Cause has about three dozen reviews and averages 4.5 stars. My wife and I enjoyed the lentil soup, great salads, a Shroom & Oat burger and, especially, the hand-cut fries dusted with Vermont white cheddar. Yum! Here’s the menu.  There’s a nice vibe to the place–a big table next to use was occupied by a group from Water for People, planning a fundraiser, and across the way was an Americorps gathering.

As for the nonprofit beneficiaries, they are selected by an advisory board, and you can see that a lot of thought went into the criteria. Although diners can vote at the end of the meal for the group they want to support, the owners will endeavor to make sure that all the charities come away with roughly the same amount of money. The exposure they get may be as valuable as the cash.

So far, so good, for a couple of idealistic young guys whose collective experience in the restaurant business adds up to just about zero.

Joking, Nick asks: “What happens when two psychologists open a bar?” We’ll see.

Photos:  Bar stools and sign at top by Neal Piper Photography.  Nick and Raj by Benjamin C Tankersley Photography. Crowd at bottom right by Edward Perry.

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