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Cultivate Ventures Bets Big on D.C.'s Food Scene

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Caesar Layton (left) helped found Cultivate Ventures to help entrepreneurs in D.C.'s food industry. His first clients include Sona's Conan and Gen O'Sullivan (middle), and Ali Cherry (far right) of Snack Packers.
WAMU/Rebecca Sheir
Caesar Layton (left) helped found Cultivate Ventures to help entrepreneurs in D.C.'s food industry. His first clients include Sona's Conan and Gen O'Sullivan (middle), and Ali Cherry (far right) of Snack Packers.

In a way, Washington, D.C., might not seem like the most obvious place to march to the beat of your own drum. After all, how many people look at life in the nation’s capital and say: “Everybody’s in the government. Everybody’s got their stable 9 to 5. Everybody works 35 hours a week”?

And sure, says 37-year-old Columbia Heights resident Caesar Layton; for many of his fellow Washingtonians, “That’s fine. I mean, that’s a great life for a lot of people.”

But what interests him… are the other people.

“There’s this whole ecosystem of crazy entrepreneurs that are running around,” Caesar says. “And they’re creating new companies, and they’re failing, and they’re getting right back up and they’re creating another company and they’re failing, and then they create one that succeeds and then they’re like, ‘Oh, that was boring,’ and then create something else!

“Gives you a lot of energy,” he continues. “It’s great to hang out with people like this.”

Thing is, Caesar’s doing a lot more than just “hanging out” with these folks. As founder of Cultivate Ventures — a brand new D.C.-based venture firm — he’s helping them start businesses in Washington’s burgeoning food scene.

“I have worked in the local food space in D.C. for four years now and looking at it for about twelve years,” he explains. “And we were always wondering, how can we help the local food businesses in D.C.? How can we attract more attention to all the innovative and exciting things that are going on in the general D.C., Maryland, Virginia area?

Among Cultivate Ventures’ initial clients are an organic tomato farm in Frederick, Maryland; Maketto, the new culinary marketplace coming to H Street Northeast; and the spot where I met up with Caesar: Sona Creamery and Wine Bar, the first cheese-making creamery in the District. Co-owner Conan O’Sullivan walks us in to a temperature-controlled room adjacent to the wine bar and points to an enormous stainless steel vat.

“It holds about 264 gallons of milk,” he says. “Filled to capacity it’s about 3,500 pounds. So it’s like parking a car in here!”

Conan opened the wine bar with his wife, Gen, in Capitol Hill earlier this year. The creamery should be kicking in to gear soon.

“Because we’re the first creamery ever in D.C., there’s no road map on how to build this thing,” Conan explains. “And so, for us, we’re just buried in operations. So how do we reach out to our community? How do we grow? How do we do these type of things — even on the regulatory side? And that’s where Caesar has really stepped in and saved the day.”

The three-member Cultivate Ventures team has decades of experience in business consulting — including finding investors and raising money. But as Caesar Layton points out, start-ups like Sona often require more than just capital.

“We can help them look at technology and how that can improve the business,” he says. “It can be: ‘Are you talking and communicating with your customers correctly? Have you thought of a new distribution channel that’s different than what your original business case was based on?’”

And actually, with Caesar’s help, Sona has! The creamery’s cheese is now on local restaurant menus, and may soon be available through an online grocer — even in the concessions at Nationals Park.

“A lot of times in entrepreneurial support, that concept is ‘Okay, we’re going to train you to do this. And goodbye, have fun,’” Caesar explains. “Or ‘we’re going to raise money for you and that’s the end of our relationship.’

“But we think that entrepreneurs really need a long-term partner,” he continues. “We don’t charge a consulting fee; we’re not a consulting company. So, if we don’t do what we say we’re going to do, we don’t get paid anything. This is not a one-night stand. We’re lovers. So it’s pretty snuggly!”

And Ali Cherry woman knows that “snuggliness” well. A few years ago, she founded the D.C.-based snack-delivery company, Snack Packers.

“We’re focused on corporate wellness because we realize people spend more than a third of their waking hours in the work place,” she says. “So companies will purchase from us, and we will deliver healthy snacks to them on a weekly basis or whatnot for their offices nationally.”

And while she feels she’s gotten Snack Packers to a pretty good place (“It’s a solid product. We’ve got revenue. We’ve got customers,” she says), the problem now is “I don’t really know how to take it to the next level!”

So she’s partnered with Cultivate Ventures to look beyond the office and sell her healthy snacks “direct to consumers, potentially through some wholesalers, and through different channels that we haven’t yet explored. So it’s exciting to see what fruits we bear.”

Caesar Layton says what draws him to an entrepreneur like Ali Cherry, or Conan and Jen O’Sullivan, is how someone like that gets an idea “and says, ‘Screw it. I’m going to do it, regardless of the risk.’ And they go blindly into the abyss, and they struggle and they survive.”

And all the while, he says, they get to be their own boss.

“I told my wife a few years ago, ‘You know what? I’m just going to do whatever I can not to have to wear a suit and not to have to actually have a real job. And if I never have to go back and work for the man again I will be pretty stoked.’”

Nowadays, with Cultivate Ventures, he’s surrounded himself with other people just like that.

“We’re all just doing our own thing,” Caesar says. “And we are in it to win it together.

“And if we win, we win big. And if we lose, well, that was our own fault. So, it makes it a little bit more interesting.”

Music: "Bad Man's Song" by Tears for Fears from The Seeds of Love


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