Ratwani, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, first had the idea for Cause. As a hardworking 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 adviser 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," Vilelle 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 D.C.-area restaurateur named John Jarecki who, they say, offered free and valuable advice, and helped them recruit a chef and staff. Cause won't succeed, Vilelle said, without "great food, great service, good drinks, a good atmosphere."
So 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 us 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, Vilelle asks: "What happens when two psychologists open a bar?"
Main image with bar stools and sign by Neal Piper Photography. Second image of Nick Vilelle and Raj Ratwani by Benjamin C. Tankersley Photography.