A Q&A With the Creators of Cause DC, Opening Wednesday (Pictures)

The duo behind the Ninth Street “philanthropub”—opening Wednesday at Ninth and U—discuss the practicalities of giving away profits.

Do-good restaurateurs Nick Vilelle and Raj Ratwani. Photographs courtesy of Benjamin C. Tankersley Photography.

Nick Vilelle and Raj Ratwani are the cofounders of Cause DC, set to open October 24 at 1926 Ninth Street, Northwest. All profits from the business will go to charity; patrons—whether there to toss back a few cocktails named after famous human rights activists or chow down on a “seriously eclectic” mix of sandwiches and other pub fair—can pick which featured charity they’d like to support. Among the first round of causes: Higher Achievement, Common Good City Farm, and Agora Partnerships.

It’s the first restaurant industry endeavor for Vilelle or Ratwani, but John Jarecki and Dave Pressley of Light Horse
in Old Town Alexandria are managing operations, and Cause’s advisory
board consists of management and industry professionals—among them a
former CFO of Hardee’s.

100-seat “philanthropub” features reclaimed church pews, recycled apple
barrel bottoms (used as bar stools), and portraits—the work of school
kids in Northeast DC—of the human rights leaders for whom the cocktails
are named. Light Horse chef Adam Stein has created a sustainably focused menu
that includes General Tso chicken wings, sandwiches such as the chicken
confit patty melt (with Gruyère, house sauerkraut, and Russian
dressing), and “trotter tots” made from fried pigs’ feet.

We sat down with Vilelle and Ratwani to talk about food, charity, and the challenges of restaurant ownership in Washington.

How did Cause come about? It sounds like an idea hatched on the back of a cocktail napkin after a few drinks.

NV:  It really was.

RR:  We were at Clarendon Ballroom on the rooftop after Nick got back from the Peace Corps, and I kind of threw this idea at Nick, and it just took off.

NV:  I just saw all this money changing hands. After living in a small village in West Africa, I was like, “This is like a year’s salary that somebody just spent on a beer tap! How do we solve this?”

Do people tell you it is too idealistic?

RR:  People at first tend to think that, yeah. But when we actually have a chance to talk to them, people start to be like, “Oh, they aren’t messing around.” We plan to compete on every level.

NV:  The combination of people that we have put together—we are pretty practical about it, pretty deliberate.

Neither of you had any experience in restaurants—an industry with a notorious failure rate. What makes you think you can be a success?

RR:  We are not restaurant people. We knew we needed to align ourselves with a good team. So John Jarecki and David Presley, both from the Light Horse in Alexandria, are essentially running our operational side. They have an awesome track record, and we have been working with them since the get-go.

NV:  We are also really fortunate to have Adam, because he really focuses on sustainability and already has relationships with local farms. Sometimes we have crazy ideas and they just have to tell us no. Other times they’re like, “Oh, I never thought of that.”

How do the donations work?

NV:  When you get your bill, you will be able to check [off] which organization you would like your profits to go to. Three are local, and one is international. We want to know if people want to give their money locally or internationally—if everyone is saying local, then we will just go local.

RR:  We are going to be donating out of the gate. We aren’t drawing any salary. Our goal is to give away over $100,000 in a year, split across three to six organizations every quarter.

What’s the ultimate goal for Cause DC?

RR:  Our objective for the whole space is that is should operate like any other bar or restaurant. Our slant of donating profits to charity may get people in the door, but if you don’t have good food, good cold beer, and awesome cocktails delivered at a reasonable price, then you are not going to make it.

NV:  We kind of see this as the pilot program. So right now it is just about seeing if it works. If it does great, then we’ll think about taking it to other cities. We would like to make a brand out of this.

How will you know if it has been a success?

RR:  For me, the point where I was internally super happy was actually the Saturday before my wife went into labor. We were making it our last night out and went to grab pizza. I got off the Metro and saw a guy in a Cause T-shirt. At that movement I was like, “This is pretty damn awesome.”

NV:  For me, I think it will be when we write the first sets of checks to those organizations, knowing what that is going to create and the impact that is going to have.

Cause DC. 1926 9th Street, Northwest. Opens October 24 at 8 PM.

See also:

A Q&A With Chef Geoff Tracy About His Move to New York

Constantine Stavropoulos on His New Spot, the Coupe, Opening This Week

A Q&A With New Westend Bistro Chef Devin Bozkaya