, a new culinary incubator in D.C. more than four years in the making, opened its doors Saturday night for the finals of the Launch Pad
, a competition for culinary entrepreneurs. Four finalists—Singer's Significant Meats
, Mason Dixie Biscuit Company
and Lulu's Nitrogen Ice Cream
—competed for the grand prize, with Mason Dixie ultimately rising to the top. FruitCycle won the audience favorite award.
Mason Dixie, cofounded by Ayeshah Abuelhiga, Mo Cherry and Jason Gehring, won up to a $500,000 investment from new crowdfunding platform Equity Eats
. Johann Moonesinghe, CEO and cofounder of Equity Eats, will be personally kicking in $10,000.
Mason Dixie also gets a six-month unlimited membership at Mess Hall as part of the prize package
Each finalist was given eight minutes to pitch to the audience of approximately 250 invited guests. Guests and the panel of five judges—Alisia Kleinmann, founder of industree
, Sarah Gordon, founder of Gordy's Pickle Jar
, Brandan Skall, founder of DC Brau
, Moonesinghe and Joe Clark, senior vice president of Eagle Bank—had seven minutes to pepper the finalists with questions.
Abuelhiga was "speechless" when she found out Mason Dixie had taken home the grand prize. The company, which raised $33,000
via Kickstarter in August for a pop-up biscuit shop, is currently in residence at EatsPlace
, another D.C. culinary incubator tentatively set to open in October.
"We offer food that is more local, more homemade and more accessible," Abuelhiga said during her eight-minute pitch. "We focus on approachability, affordability, portability and hospitality." She also revealed that "Mason Dixie has been scouted by Brooklyn and Raleigh, N.C. [to launch their business in those cities], but we want to open in D.C. first."
The audience favorite award, which seemed to have been created on the fly at the event, gives Fruitcycle CEO Elizabeth Bennett a three-month unlimited membership at Mess Hall. Bennett quit her job to focus on Fruitcycle full time after the finalists were announced at the beginning of September. The audience seemed stunned by the amount of work she had been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. Fruitcycle will create locally sourced snacks from produce that would otherwise go to waste, and create jobs for disadvantaged women.
While the judges were deliberating, attendees had the chance to sample food and beverages from other D.C. culinary startups—some of whom had entered Launch Pad and not made it to the final round.
Mess Hall, which spans 10,000 square feet, offers community kitchen, demonstration, storage and office space in Brookland. "I wanted to start up a food business and I'm still not sure what this will become," said Mess Hall founder Al Goldberg. "Tonight is about local, handmade foods."