Openings and Closings

The 1812 tests the potential of crowd-funding for backing a restaurant

There's not much Cajun food in the Mile High City, a lack that Johanna Cooke started lamenting after her husband, a native of Louisiana native, first made gumbo for her back when they were dating. Since then, Cooke, who has worked in the food industry since she was fifteen -- most recently at the now-defunct Novo Coffee by the Denver Art Museum -- has been perfecting Cajun recipes and dreaming of someday showcasing them at her own restaurant.

An opportunity for a partnership arose when Parker Wiley, a bartender and groomsman in her wedding, had his own plans to open a bar fall through. Cooke and Wiley teamed up and began drawing up plans for The 1812, a restaurant and bar that would pay homage to the South. "It'll be half-and-half restaurant and bar," Cooke explains. "In the bar, we'll have a pool table and dart boards. But we'll also have a huge dining area, and I'll be cooking a menu of spicy Cajun food."

Including that gumbo.

After the dinner hour, the space will convert into a dance floor and stage, where the partners will host live acts on a regular basis. "We want to support local bands," Cooke explains. "The music scene in Denver is amazing."

Their plan in hand, the partners began looking for a space, exploring real estate in Five Points, their preferred neighborhood. But after falling in love with a couple of properties, they hit a snag.

"We'd been trying to build a little momentum and get our name out there, so we were trolling angel-investor sites and working contacts," she explains. "But restaurants are a high-risk investment, and in this economy, we weren't finding the funding." But they didn't give up: Economic obstacles aside, Denver's s proven itself a good place to open a restaurant and attract customers, especially if you're doing something different -- like Cajun food.

So Cooke and Wiley decided to get creative, skipping the traditional funding routes and turning to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site that helps entrepreneurs raise money by removing the burden of finding one big investor. "My brother used it to fund a band tour," Cooke says, "So we asked, 'Why not use it for a restaurant?'"

Kickstarter allows a group to put its project up on the site, explaining exactly how much money is needed and what it's needed for. Then friends, family and even perfect strangers can make contributions, which range from five bucks to hundreds of dollars, to help the entrepreneur reach the goal amount. (On Kickstarter, if the entrepreneur doesn't reach that goal, the money is returned to contributor.) Entrepreneurs often reward contributors with goods or services -- a dozen cupcakes, if they're trying to set up a bakery, or a piece of art, if they're trying to fund a gallery exhibition.

Many projects on Kickstarter and other sites like it, such as IndieGoGo, are smaller than what Cooke and Wiley have planned, so they came up with the idea of using crowd-funding in stages to generate enough money to launch The 1812.

"The first round of Kickstarter will be for marketing swag," says Cooke, explaining that they'll try to sell that to generate more revenue. "If that works out, we'll use it again to raise money for a lawyer." That lawyer will then review details of their plan, lease arrangements and liquor licensing. And from there, they'll try another round of funding to garner the money to back an actual bank loan.

"We're trying to reach critical mass," Cooke says of that final step. "We need to have a certain amount of money in the bank to show that this is a serious project."

Whatever the outcome of the individual campaigns, Cooke is optimistic that Kickstarter will give the pair enough exposure to ultimately make the project work. "We're using Kickstarter as a marketing campaign," she says. "Hopefully, someone will see it and want to jump on board."

Cooke doesn't have a set timeline for when The 1812 will open in Denver, but she hopes to ink a deal on a space in the coming months. You can follow the restaurant's progress on its Facebook page, which is also where Cooke will link to the Kickstarter campaign once it's live.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk

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