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Prequel closed at 919 19th St. NW at the end of December to make way for redevelopment, according to founder Johann Moonesinghe. But the landlord isn’t the bad guy here. Prequel went into the new lease knowing it would only last until construction began, Moonesinghe says. The upside was very low rent that was a necessity for the Prequel model. The restaurant space hosted longterm pop-ups for chefs looking to test their concepts before launching brick-and-mortar locations.
“We didn’t charge the chefs to come in, creating a low-risk way for chefs to try things out and try out their menus,” Moonesinghe says. “In order to do that we needed a favorable landlord.”
Back in 2015, Prequel opened at 918 F St. NW under the parent company EquityEats. It was the city’s first equity crowdfunded restaurant—a novel idea for the District. Thanks to legislation passed in Oct. 2014, anyone, regardless of income, could give between $100 and $1,000 and expect a return on investment if the venture was profitable. Previously, the people backing restaurants were largely accredited investors with annual incomes of at least $200,000.
“Over time it wasn’t a great model for funding restaurants,” Moonesinghe admits. “I don’t want to give equity crowd-funding a bad name. If people are passionate about it, sure, it can work. But don’t do it to make money.” Investing in restaurants, at any level, is risky.
The crowdfunding aspect of Prequel was moved to the back burner as Moonesinghe developed a new company. inKind helps restaurants get the doors open through selling food and beverage credits to customers who typically need a couple years to fully redeem them. It gives restaurants looking to get their doors open an early influx of capital. inKind has now funded more than 400 restaurants.
Moonesinghe says one of Prequel’s lasting legacies is that the pop-up space schooled him on how restaurants are run, better positioning him for success with inKind. “I know more about restaurant operation and finance and what we’re able to do is help other chefs when they open their own places,” he says. “The lesson I learned was how hard it is to run a restaurant and how complicated it is.”
Prequel launched some major D.C. success stories, several of which then became inKind clients.
“I like all my children equally, but Kevin Tien was really special to us,” Moonesinghe says. He popped up at the original Prequel space before opening Himitsu with Carlie Steiner in Petworth. “When he was opening Emilie’s, he called me.”
Chef Hamilton Johnson also popped up at the original Prequel before opening Honeysuckle. While the restaurant in the former Vidalia space closed in August 2019, Johnson is now cooking at American Son. “He’s such a great human being,” Moonesinghe says. “He’s a great chef. He’s done so much personally since being at Prequel.”
Gravitas’ chef, Matt Baker, also utilized the Prequel space. So did Bluebird Bakery, Swizzler, and Fare Well. The last restaurant to use the space on 19th Street NW was a forthcoming Mexican restaurant that will be called Monterrey.
While Moonesinghe is fully engrossed in operating inKind, he says he won’t rule out relocating Prequel a third time if he can strike up a similar lease contract. “It’s not off the table at all, but we don’t have any immediate plans,” he says.