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Allyson McDougal, Maisha Burt, and Paul Dahm Credit: Darrow Montgomery

What if you could whip out your laptop at a restaurant and fire off some emails without fielding dirty looks that make you feel like you’re breaking with decorum? An innovative new startup whose app launches today is transforming D.C. restaurants into coworking spaces during their off-peak hours. WorkChew offers an alternative to coffee shops, libraries, and places like WeWork and Cove. 

Here’s how it works. Washingtonians can choose between a day pass or two monthly membership plans. One allows you to WorkChew in restaurants concentrated in one neighborhood while the other, an all-access pass, lets you WorkChew at all participating locations. WorkChew is a noun and a verb, like Uber.

Fourteen D.C. restaurants have signed on so far: HalfSmoke, RedRocks on H Street NE, Bareburger, Homestead, The Ministry, Osteria Morini, MXDC, Pitango Gelato on Columbia Road NW, Kaliwa, Casolare, Cork Wine Bar and Market, Matchbox on 14th Street NW, Shaw’s Tavern, and Fare Well. Across the river in Northern Virginia, Cheesetique in the Mosaic District, Colada Shop in Sterling, and Red’s Table in Reston are also WorkChew locations.

Members open the app and reserve a dedicated space at a WorkChew restaurant, which guarantees them an outlet and access to high-speed internet. Most restaurants keep WorkChew hours between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the workweek, though there are some exceptions, like Casolare. Because the Italian eatery is inside a hotel that offers breakfast, its WorkChew hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Each participating restaurant offers WorkChew members a deal. At Kaliwa it’s 15 percent off all food; Casolare takes 10 percent off the whole check; and Cork Wine Bar offers happy hour pricing. “We let the restaurant decide what they want to offer members, understanding that as we get more locations, it’s going to become more competitive as far as where people decide to go,” explains WorkChew CEO Maisha Burt.  

Burt’s background is in big data, corporate strategy, finance, and investment banking. She has worked at commercial and investment banks as well as for the federal government as a contractor. She teamed up with co-founders Paul Dahm and Allyson McDougal to launch the startup. 

Dahm, the chief relationship officer, was previously the executive director of Brainfood. The nonprofit, which no longer operates, engaged teens by teaching them cooking and life skills and helped them find employment in kitchens. Local chefs often served as guest instructors and fundraiser participants, which helped Dahm develop a close network of contacts in the D.C. restaurant scene. He leveraged these connections to help WorkChew with its initial outreach. 

McDougal, the COO, was the third to sign on. She was building a company that would aid startups when she saw an ad for WorkChew on Instagram and joined. She had already made a habit out of working out of Junction Bakery & Bistro in Alexandria. “I reached out and said, ‘I’d love to come on board and help you guys scale,’” she says. “Over time it transformed into me coming fully onto the team.” 

After a quiet roll out in D.C. that began in June 2018, WorkChew was accepted into the Chicago-based startup accelerator The Food Foundry. Through the program, the team profiled potential customers and tested the market to find the sweet spot for pricing. Dahm says the Windy City is responding well to WorkChew, giving them forward momentum.

The trio is aiming to expand beyond these two cities. “There’s almost no place this wouldn’t work,” Dahm says, explaining that all WorkChew requires is a city with a decent dining scene and a diverse economy with a varied workforce. “It’s super scalable, especially because it’s capital-light. We’re not building buildings.” 

They’re optimistic about securing investment and going national because they believe WorkChew solves two problems simultaneously. First, it provides the ballooning sector of teleworkers, self-employed entrepreneurs, and other professionals who work remotely with a fresh option that’s dependable and competitively priced. 

“The future of work is changing,” Burt says. “More companies are comfortable with the telework aspect.” According to Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report, 43 percent of American employees work remotely in some capacity. That’s up from 39 percent in 2012. These figures do not include self-employed professionals. 

In the D.C. area, 32 percent of non self-employed workers worked from home or coworking spaces in 2016 “at least occasionally,” according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ most recent “State of the Commute” survey. Those working remotely aren’t just stereotyped millennials carving paths in emerging industries. According to several reports, the federal government is still the single largest telework employer.

“Those people want to get out of the house,” Burt continues. “They’re sick of working from home where there are distractions. The only place they know to go right now are coffee shops. They’re packed all of the time. We want to fill that gap and also say that you have an alternative to a full-blown coworking space where you’re paying $300 a month.” 

WeWork’s “hot desk” prices in D.C. start at $350 per month. A “hot desk” means you choose a new spot every visit in a shared common area. Over at Cove, an unlimited access plan for a hot desk set-up costs $229 per month; AdvantEdge Workspaces charges $229; MakeOffices asks for $400; Spaces NoMa will run you $350; and Locale comes in at $159. 

Comparatively, WorkChew’s neighborhood pass is $24.99 per month and its all access pass costs $49.99. You can also buy a day pass for $14.99. “We think all people should have access to a workspace that’s predictable and flexible without a hefty price tag,” McDougal says. While some coworking spaces are high on aesthetic and come with amenities like printing and private phone booths, WorkChew argues its members get to work out of restaurants, which already aim to be inviting and attractive.

WorkChew seeks a symbiotic relationship with its restaurant partners. The second problem the company hopes to address is slow daytime business that can contribute to the financial strain restaurants face in increasingly oversaturated, hyper-competitive markets like D.C.

“It really is a partnership,” Dahm says. “Nobody is taking advantage of anybody. We’re solving a problem on both ends. There are not enough places to work and restaurants are getting squeezed. Real estate costs are crazy, margins are crazy. If we can boost their revenues by a little bit each month, we give them a little more runway.” 

More butts in seats creates the appearance of a popular restaurant, which often begets more business. “A lot of our restaurant folks, the first thing they’ve said is, ‘Can I put your people in the front window?’” Dahm continues. “They understand that people are followers. If a place looks busy, it’ll get busier.” 

WorkChew also tries to nurture a community among its members with message boards and networking events. “When you’re that mobile worker and you don’t have the profession that keeps you in your office from 9 to 5, you miss the catered lunches, snacks, and camaraderie with colleagues,” McDougal explains. The founders say they’re going to plan happy hours and other evening events at WorkChew restaurants, further driving diners in their direction.

“While I’ve never been an at-home worker, I think being able to have a network of places with delicious food that are welcoming to you coming in to do some work and use their internet sounds much more appealing to me than the alternative where the TV beckons,” says Kaliwa General Manager Nikki Gulick

WorkChew is a good fit for Kaliwa because business at The Wharf is often dictated by concerts and the weather. The Asian restaurant has plenty of availability during its WorkChew hours of 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. “We guide guests to the bar and chef’s counter because there’s an outlet at every seat,” Gulick says. “It’s easier to serve those guests without being intrusive, too. If you’re at a table, someone will come every 15 minutes asking, ‘Are You OK?’” 

“There’s a time in the middle part of the day where guests need somewhere to go and we have the space,” says Casolare General Manager Christopher Van Jura. “It’s a no-brainer.” He expects to see a bump in revenue but not necessarily from WorkChew members during the hours they’re clacking away on keyboards. “In all likelihood, they’re going to come back to whatever restaurant they’re utilizing and they’re going to have dinner or happy hour. It’s not about the ‘now’ money.”

Cork Wine Bar and Market Co-owner Diane Gross is banking on the same thing. “It’s always great if you can explore other ways of bringing people in that don’t know about your place,” she says. WorkChew members might peruse the dinner menu or spot the new patio and come back with friends or family in the evening. Mostly, though, she’s interested in spreading the word that Cork is open for lunch. “This is at a minimal cost, if any really, and probably more of a benefit,” Gross says. “It seems advantageous all around.” 

There is of course the concern that WorkChew members won’t spend money because they’re not obligated to. “But that hasn’t been the experience so far,” Gross says. “By and large, people are respectful of these situations.”

“We’re trying to build that culture,” Burt says. “In our messaging, when people become members, we reach back out and say we’ve built WorkChew to not only help you guys, but the restaurants as well. Although you’re not required to buy anything, please do spend because you’re helping local restaurants stay open, which helps the local economy.” WorkChew offers spending reward points to further coax members into ordering.  

“There’s a reason why ‘chew’ is in the name,” Dahm points out. “We want to appeal to people who like restaurants. If all you care about is coffee and a danish, maybe you’re not the ideal member. We want people who want to come to cool places and eat good food.”