Crowdfunding seems to express the essence of the Internet, the democratic promise that everyone’s voice may be heard and lead to real-world change.
Until recently, though, the practice was mostly confined to esoteric projects, wacky inventions that were unable to attract bank loans or venture capital. The idea of funding a restaurant on Kickstarter would have been unimaginable prior to the Great Recession, when any dining experience worth having was as elaborate and grand as possible. In the past few years, a new generation of chefs has embraced the idea of delivering superior food in inferior surroundings---a practice that might be viewed as shabby chic, or simply serving some steak along with the sizzle.
Consider this: In Robbinsdale, MN, chef Mike Brown raised $255,669 to fund two restaurant concepts called Travail and The Rookery; they opened last week, with lines around the block. Acclaimed Pittsburgh chef and James Beard semifinalist Kevin Sousa set an optimistic goal of $250,000 to open an eatery named Superior Motors---he raised over $310,000, in the most successful Kickstarter restaurant campaign to date. Birchwood Café in Minneapolis garnered over $100,000 to expand and remodel their operation, and Cleveland chef Jonathon Sawyer is currently soliciting funds to open a Northern Italian restaurant called Trentina.
It’s interesting that the New York City area, where astronomical building costs are legendary, has spawned a number of Kickstarter-funded ventures, including Thirty Acres, Littleneck, and The Musket Room (which now holds a Michelin star). Not all campaigns are successful, however. Chef Sarah Simmons started asking for money last summer to relocate her restaurant, City Grit; she fell short of her goal, and the project was unfunded.
The main reason Kickstarter works so well in this situation is that, unlike other traditional investment models, donors do not receive equity in the restaurant. This means that a budding restaurateur can maintain control over his or her business, and retain both profits and artistic license. Kickstarter donors may receive benefits in the form of VIP reservation access, special dinners or cooking classes---but they leave the operation in the hands of the chef, where it belongs.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, publsihed by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming in June from Lyons Press. For more information, go to amazon.com