It takes a village to open a restaurant–especially one that aspires to be a social, business, and creative hub like the new Village Café near Union Market. Founding friends Mahammad Mangum, Ryan Williams, and Kevon King are all DC natives who went to Woodrow Wilson High School. Although they gravitated towards different fields–Mangum in media and film, Williams in food, and King in hospitality–they came up with a business plan that’s wide-reaching enough to fit all their interests.
The trio want the cafe to serve its patrons more than food and drink, and are starting off by offering its back room for classes and local passion projects. That’s because while King and Williams grew up together in Wards 7 and 8, they experienced a dearth of basic amenities.
“Access to any resources was nonexistent at the time, from grocery stores to educational programs to resources for schools,” says King of the neighborhood he used to call home.
The cafe’s opening line-up includes sign language classes offered by Gallaudet University, children’s story time with neighboring bookstore Politics & Prose, a career skills workshop, and a Wilson alumni panel. On the menu, Village Café favors District businesses. Customers will find coffee from Southeast Roastery, and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch made from DC UrbanGreen produce.
The 23 year-old business owners also took inspiration from Richie Brandenburg, the director of culinary strategy at Union Market and an early mentor of Williams. The two met while Williams was still in high school—he went on a tour Brandenburg was leading at the then-new food hall. Williams mentioned his plans to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and cook under chef Nick Stefanelli at Bibiana–a name that jumped out to Brandenburg.
“He went ‘Oh yeah, I know Nick. He’s a tough guy,’” Williams says. After hearing that Williams didn’t have the proper knives, Brandenburg took him to a kitchen store and bought him a set. Years later, Brandenburg was ready to help at “full force” when Williams was ready to open his own place.
“We took a pitch book to him. He went through it, all the errors we made, made corrections, and took it to Edens [the real estate development behind Union Market],” says Mangum. “When he came back he basically said, ‘Let’s get you an opportunity to show people you can operate a business of your own.’”
The alley-like corridor café is essentially a trial run for the trio’s ultimate goal: a large warehouse facility in the Southeast where they can host pop-ups, exhibitions, and events for local businesses. Coffee is a great place to start, according to the guys.
“Cafés are the ultimate social connector,” says King. “You can make or break someone’s day with a cup of coffee.”
The Village Café.1272 5th St., NE; Open Sunday and Monday, 8 AM to 6 PM; Tuesday through Saturday 8 AM to 10 PM.