New Restaurants Turn To Potential Patrons To Open Their Doors

When the Tribeca restaurant The Elevens opens its doors this fall, it won’t be all thanks to an angel investor like Bobby De Niro, a partner in nearby Nobu, or a deep-pocketed industry player like Jeffrey Chodorow. First–time restaurateur Scott Kester raised a significant chunk of the $1 million capital needed to open the 65-seat restaurant and bar by offering neighbors the chance to become permanent “seatholders,” a position which entitles them to priority reservations and lifelong discounts. The cost? $500. “We thought it would be a good idea to build a community at the same time as raising capital,” explains Kester, who attracted 150 seatholders and hopes to enlist a few hundred more before the opening.

The Elevens is just the latest example of a restaurant turning to its (future) regulars to open its doors. As banks reduce access to large-scale loans and traditional restaurant investors take fewer risks, restaurateurs are looking to their communities and to a growing swath of micro- financing sites to raise money. They do it through Kickstarter, using the crowd-funding site to raise money in exchange for promised gifts and rewards. And they do it through Kickstarter emulators like Credibles, a site founded early this year that allows supporters to pre-pay for meals and services; Small Knot, which facilitates small loans from supporters in exchange for perks like private party invites or cooking lessons; and Lucky Ant, which solicits funds from neighbors living in the same communities as the businesses. “I can’t imagine spending money on a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon or Dallas, Texas,” says Lucky Ant founder and Lower East Side resident Jonathan Moyal, “but I’d be happy to fund one here.”

While Kester promised his neighbors seats at the table, that’s small fries compared to what Eric Fenster, the owner of Berkeley, California restaurant Gather, promised before it opened in 2010. Fenster and his partners raised the $2 million to open their eco-friendly restaurant (located inside a “green” community center) by recruiting 62 friends and neighbors as investors. Each committed a minimum of $5,000 [Berkeley!]. Though the return on investment for the restaurant industry is notoriously dicey, the cost of entry made it easier for first–time investors to get involved, and it offered the restaurant a built-in customer base. To raise an extra $20,000 in working capital right before the opening, the owners sold discounted pre-sale gift certificates. All the fundraising paid off. Soon after it opened in 2010, the restaurant won Esquire’s Best New Restaurant award.

Many chefs and budding investors find restaurants the perfect place to align their capital with their values. Anthony Myint, whose award–winning San Francisco restaurants Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth both have formal partnerships with charities, included charitable donations as one of the perks during his successful $12,000 Kickstarter campaign for Commonwealth. He eventually raised about half the capital needed for the restaurant through the public sphere. Meanwhile, George Weld, the owner of Brooklyn breakfast favorite Egg, turned to Slow Money, a loosely organized group of investors focused on building sustainably minded businesses, when he started to raise money for his new restaurant Parish Hall. “Slow Money is more interested in making sure that we have a solid mission statement and actually do what we said we would do in terms of using local foods,” Weld explains. “It felt like a collaboration instead of trying to screw each other over.”

Pop Quiz: Andrew Kenny of The Wooden Birds

If you’re looking for a mellow soundtrack to rock you to sleep, you could always try the debut album Magnolia by The Wooden Birds. However, be aware that while the latest project from Andrew Kenny (American Analog Set, Broken Social Scene) draws you in with folky beats and a rhythmic pace, it is also unexpectedly chilling, enlisting help from songwriter David Wingo (scorer of David Gordon Green films) and hypnotic harmonies by vocalist Leslie Sisson. The band started as a concept by Kenny two years ago, with the album released May 12 on Barsuk Records. First, though, the Austin-based Kenny told us about his love for boobs, his affinity for the channel TBS, and having his dreams realized at a bar in Brooklyn in our airborne (but in no way rigid) Pop Quiz.

When you were in elementary school, what’d you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a train engineer, and that’s lasted nearly my whole life. Even now, I’d seriously consider a career switch if the opportunity presented itself.

Do you have any tattoos? I don’t. I can appreciate them on others, and for sure I have a few favorites. But when it comes down to it, I’d probably slip up and just get something like a seahorse parasailing with a dreamcatcher or something.

Are you superstitious? I say no. I’m a scientist. I feel like I’m too practical to enjoy the benefits of being superstitious.

First album you bought? I’d like to say it was Purple Rain because it was the first album that I freaked out over, and I still love it so much. But in all honesty, it was the GoGo’s Beauty and the Beat.

If you could have any super power, what would you choose? Okay, I’m supposed to say “super diplomacy” or something, right? But: no. Sadly it would be a tie for first between invisibility because of boobs or time travel because of dinosaurs.

How many times a day on average do you think about sex? I am often thinking about it, and I’m hoping that other people are too? I don’t even have to be involved. I can just be holding the boom mic or something.

What’s your guilty pleasure? I play both home platform and PC-based video games. It is a horrible waste of time, and I feel guilty every millisecond that I’m doing it.

Do you have a favorite bar in New York? Commonwealth. I lived in the neighborhood for a few years, and they put my music on the jukebox, which was a longtime dream of mine.

Ever been star struck? Of course! I get star struck all the time.

When you get good news, who’s the first person you tell it to? Sheila, my wife. Definitely Sheila. There isn’t a success or a failure that she doesn’t hear about first.

What do you always watch if it’s on TV? Jurassic Park, The Hunt For Red October, or Smokey and the Bandit. Like a moth to flame. My television does get channels other than TBS, by the way.

What do you normally sleep in? At home: Very little if anything. On tour: I’m Dr. PJ Bottoms MD. The doctor is IN.

Where’s the craziest place you’ve had sex? The ear? Kidding. I know what you’re asking, and I’ve never had the desire to have sex anywhere “crazy”. What’s wrong with me? But now someday someone is going to say, “Hey, your couch is crazy comfortable” and I’m going to smile a little smile.

What’s on your computer wallpaper? I rotate every few weeks. Right now It’s a photo of a man walking by some art and a photo of the subway stop in my old neighborhood, both in Brooklyn.

If you could be any literary character, who would you be? Chris Leo is one of my favorite author/musicians, and if you’ll forgive for a moment that the main character in his books IS him (more or less), then I would like to try his shoes on for size.

Where do you really want to be right now? I’m quite fine where I am at the moment, and that’s usually the case.

What’s the first job you ever had? I was a stock boy at Toys ‘R Us. It was the only job I was ever fired from. I was called into the manager’s office and shown a “best of” collection of security tape featuring me not doing my job.

Favorite Muppets/Sesame Street character? This is hard because there are so many great ones. Fozzy’s my favorite though because of his whole “my best isn’t good enough but I’ll keep on because it’s all I know how to do” kind of vibe. Also he’s the saddest muppet.