Founding Farmers, managed by Dan Simons, B.B.A. ’92, brings farm-fresh food to Pennsylvania Avenue.
By Julia Parmley
On Friday and Saturday nights while his friends were hitting the town, Dan Simons, B.B.A. ’92, worked at a G Street saloon called the Exchange. He spent most of his freshman and sophomore years learning the ins and outs of the trade. It was his first taste of the restaurant business — and he loved every minute of it.
After stints managing restaurants and co-founding a restaurant and hospitality consulting firm, Mr. Simons returned to Foggy Bottom last year to open Founding Farmers, a restaurant with an emphasis on fresh ingredients from local farms and simply made "comfort" food at 1924 Pennsylvania Ave., NW.
The restaurant is owned by a collective of American family farmers — the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU). Simons explains that the group approached him and business partner Michael Vucurevich in 2007 to help them invest in a sustainable restaurant that uses food and products from family farmers. The result is the District’s first U.S. Green Building Council’s certified restaurant and the first full-service, “upscale-casual” LEED Gold restaurant in the United States based on its sustainable material and resources and its water and energy efficiency.
“Working with NDFU has really opened our eyes to the business of family farming,” says Mr. Simons. “With Founding Farmers, we tried to retain values and elements of farming, with everything from casual server uniforms to country murals made by local artists. We are in the city but retain the essence of the country.”
While the hustle and bustle of Pennsylvania Avenue is reflected in the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows, the inside of Founding Farmers is large, bright and tranquil. The décor is a blend of modern and country. The high, raftered ceilings and hardwood floors are reminiscent of a barn, but the granite exterior, exposed pillars and low-hanging lights give the space a contemporary twist.
“We tried to create an environment like a modern farmhouse, a place you can enter and instantly feel comfortable,” says Mr. Simons. “Our menu and atmosphere work for all kinds of people. We’ve served everyone from businessmen and celebrities to families and students.”
Sustainability is a hallmark of the restaurant and is evident in both its design and its operations. The tables, which are a mix of booths, community seating and bar seating, are made out of reclaimed wood; the restaurant’s fabrics are recycled and menus are printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks.
The restaurant is also 100 percent carbon neutral, with low-flow water valves and energy-efficient lighting and the purchase of carbon offsets. Through recycling and composting, the restaurant reduces its landfill output by 75 percent.
Founding Farmers’ menu is an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary dishes. Offerings include “signatures” such as pan-fried chicken and meatloaf, a variety of meats and burgers, handcrafted pasta and fish caught using sustainable fishing practices. Appetizers include skillet-roasted mussels, fresh popcorn, and bread and desserts made in the upstairs dessert bar. Mr. Simons says that whenever possible, the restaurant’s produce, meats and ingredients are obtained from more than 20 farms up and down the East Coast. “It takes about 15 hours extra every week to purchase food the way we do, but it’s worth it because of the quality of the food,” says Mr. Simons.
The drinks at Founding Farmers are also unique. The cocktails are created by “bar chefs,” many beers are organic and fresh fruit and vegetables can be found in non-alcoholic concoctions such as cranberry-cucumber cooler and mint limeade. In addition, the restaurant filters and sparkles its own water, which is served in reusable glass carafes.
When Mr. Simons gets hungry, he likes to order a few of his “favorites”: the bacon lollies — slices of bacon on a stick glazed with cinnamon and brown sugar; spicy Ahi tuna poke salad with cabbage and a sesame vinaigrette; and Edna’s carrot cake, a large, moist piece of cake with a generous spread of cream cheese frosting and a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream.
Founding Farmers has done millions of dollars' worth of business since its opening in September 2008 and was selected as one of the Washingtonian’s 100 top restaurants earlier this year. Mr. Simons says the restaurant is 50 percent busier than expected, a problem he is grateful to have. “The restaurant business is really unpredictable, and that keeps you humble,” he says.
Though he majored in international business at GW, Mr. Simons says he realized early on that the restaurant business was for him. After working at the Exchange, Mr. Simons joined the local T.G.I. Friday’s his junior year and worked his way up to the company’s corporate training program by graduation. In 1994, Mr. Simons moved to California to work at the then-relatively unknown chain the Cheesecake Factory, where he met his mentor and future business partner Vucurevich. After a move to Dallas to help Vucurevich manage eatZi’s Market and Bakery, Mr. Simons returned to D.C. in 2004 to launch their consulting firm, Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group.
Coming back to Washington and opening Founding Farmers near campus was like returning home for Mr. Simons. “When I first visited D.C. in eighth grade, I was amazed by the city, and knew I wanted to go to school here,” says Mr. Simons, who now lives in Garrett Park, Md., with his wife, three children and two dogs. “GW really made the city home for me, and it’s been great to return. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.”
The success of Founding Farmers has truly been a “dream come true” for Mr. Simons. “To have a hit like Founding Farmers requires a blend of many things, including good food and hardworking people,” says Mr. Simons. “But you also have to have a healthy dose of luck.”
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Walk-ins welcome, but reservations are recommended. For more information, call 202-822-8783 or visit www.wearefoundingfarmers.com.