Arepa Zone Wins 2015 Launch Pad
Arepa Zone beat out four other proposed new eateries to win the second Launch Pad competition sponsored by Union Market, Mess Hall and RIS restaurant. They will take over Ris’ stall at Union Market free for 6-12 months beginning Aug. 31.
Launch Pad is a project to identify and launch a promising new culinary concept. The process began with 18 entries, chef and judge Ris Lacoste told DC on Heels. That field was whittled down to 10 then to the final five, who presented their concepts and food samples at Union Market’s Dock 5 on Sunday. Joining Lacoste on the judges panel were Al Goldberg, founder of Mess Hall; Patrick O’Connell, owner and chef at the Inn at Little Washington; Aaron Silverman, owner and chef Rose’s Luxury; Katsuya Fukushima, chef and partner at Daikaya; Nora Poullian, chef and owner of Restaurant Nora; and David Hall, a partner at Revolution Ventures, an investment firm.
Mason Dixie Buscuit Co. won the 2014 Launch Pad competition. It opened in December and has already expanded to Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C.
Arepa Zone, which is owned by Gabriela Febres and fiancé Ali Arellano, opened its food truck 1 1/2 years ago. It serves authentic Venezuelan cuisine including 13 kinds of arepas, a grilled corn patty stuffed with meats, cheeses and other fillings, cachapas, a sweet corn pancake filled with cheese or cheese and meat, and tequeños, fried Venezuelan cheese sticks serving with AZ dipping sauce – a yummy garlic-cilantro sauce. It also serves desserts like rice pudding and flan, and Venezuelan sodas.
During a breakfast for the media, judges and investors in June, Febres told DC on Heels that the menu at Union Market would be the same as the food truck, which was voted Best New Food Truck and Food Truck of the Year at the 2014 Curbside Cookoff Food Truck Awards. “Its already proven successful, although we may add additional fillings,” she said. The two started Arepa Zone because there was “no places to eat authentic Venezuelan food” in the DMV.
Febres and Arellano met when he was a distributor of Central American products and worked at the Venezuelan embassy. They currently prepare their food in a commercial kitchen in Sterling, Va., but are building their own 2,200-square-foot kitchen in in Fairfax, where the food for the truck and stall will be prepared and delivered to Union Market daily to cook and finish. Dishes will cost from $6-$8.50 Febres told the judges. They hope to add a second food truck and a brick and mortar restaurant in the future.
Prior to presenting their businesses to the judges, the finalists had access to advisors such as Top Chef Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery, We the Pizza and Bearnaise; Mike Lenard of Takorean; Danielle Vogal of Glen’s Garden Market; Terrell Danley of D.C. Central Kitchen; and Richie Bradenburg, director of culinary strategy for Edens, which owns Union Market.
The other finalists in this year’s Launch Pad competition were:
- Bao Bros Bar: Louis Grayson and Nelson Wong proposed turning the traditional Taiwanese street food into a fast-casual dining experience. Their steamed bao buns would be filled with the traditional pork belly as well as beef, lamb, chicken or tofu and combined with a variety of house-made pickled vegetables and sauces. Grayson said he would quit his job at Expedia and Wong at Booz, Allen, Hamilton if they had won. Bao Bros Bar was the winner of the People’s Choice Award.
- Bene: Mark Baik, Mini Suh and Jin Woo Park proposed a fast, fine-casual Italian concept that would bridge the gap between the relatively inexpensive chain restaurant and expensive fine-dining eateries . Bene would have served high-quality fresh pasta bowls. Although all have Korean heritage, they all grew up in the New York Tri-State area and met in school. Their menu included salads, antipastas, as well as classic and specialty pastas.
- Half Smoke: Andre McCain proposed a concept serving pork, beef, chicken and veggie sausages “assembly line” style like Chipolte in buns, bowls or on flatbreads with customizable toppings such as chili, kimchi and artichokes. He also planned to offer seasonal sausages such as foie gras, duck and smoked elk along with sides such as tater tots, Brussels sprouts and funnel cake for dessert.
- Whisked!: Already an established presence at four farmer’s markets and more than 30 retail locations including Whole Foods Markets throughout the DMV, Jenna Huntsberger planned to expanded her current menu in addition to current offerings of quiches pies and cookies.
In addition to the stall at Union Market, Arepa Zone also won a free membership to Mess Hall culinary incubator, mentorship from Lacoste and introductions to investors.
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.