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Alumni Newsmakers

From the Farm to Foggy Bottom

Dan Simons, BBA ’92, helped the North Dakota Farmers Union open an eco-conscious eatery in Washington, D.C., called Founding Farmers.

William Atkins

On Friday and Saturday nights, while his friends were hitting the town, Dan Simons, BBA ’92, worked at a G Street saloon called the Exchange and began carving his future career in the restaurant business. Today, Mr. Simons is still in the trade—and he’s incorporating some fresh ideas.

Co-founder of a restaurant and hospitality consulting firm, Mr. Simons returned to Foggy Bottom last year to open Founding Farmers, an upscale-casual eatery at 1924 Pennsylvania Ave., NW that uses fresh ingredients from local farms and creates simply made comfort food.

The North Dakota Farmers Union, a collective of American family farmers, approached Mr. Simons and business partner Michael Vucurevich in 2007 to help the group invest in and open the sustainable restaurant. Much of the restaurant’s menu—from organic meats, to handcrafted pastas, to succulent fish caught using sustainable fishing practices—is obtained from more than 20 farms along the East Coast. The restaurant’s interior takes sustainability to heart, too. It is the District’s first U.S. Green Building Council’s certified restaurant and the first full-service, “upscale-casual” LEED Gold restaurant in the United States with high scores in the categories of sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

“Working with NDFU has really opened our eyes to the business of family farming,” Mr. Simons says. “With Founding Farmers, we tried to retain values and elements of farming, with everything from casual server uniforms to country murals made by local artists. We are in the city but still retain the essence of the country.”

Coming back to D.C. and opening Founding Farmers near campus was like returning home for Mr. Simons. Although he majored in international business at GW, Mr. Simons says he realized early on that he thrived in the restaurant business. After working at the Exchange, Mr. Simons joined the local T.G.I. Friday’s his junior year and worked his way up to the company’s corporate training program by graduation. In 1994, Mr. Simons moved to California to work at the then-relatively unknown chain the Cheesecake Factory, where he met his mentor and future business partner Vucurevich. After moving to Dallas to help Vucurevich manage eatZi’s Market and Bakery, Mr. Simons returned to Washington in 2004 to launch their consulting firm, Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group.

Since opening last September, Founding Farmers has done millions of dollars worth of business, and it was selected as one of Washingtonian’s “100 Top Restaurants” earlier this year. Mr. Simons says the restaurant is 50 percent busier than expected, a problem he is grateful to have. “The restaurant business is really unpredictable, and that keeps you humble,” he says.

While the hustle and bustle of Pennsylvania Avenue is reflected in the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows, the inside of Founding Farmers shows its blend of modern and country decor, with a twist of sustainability. The tables are made out of reclaimed wood, the restaurant’s fabrics are recycled, and menus are printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks. The restaurant is also 100 percent carbon neutral, with low-flow water valves, energy-efficient lighting, and the purchase of carbon offsets. Through recycling and composting, the restaurant reduces its landfill output by 75 percent.

When Mr. Simons gets hungry he likes to order a few of his Founding Farmer favorites: the bacon lollis—slices of bacon on a stick glazed with cinnamon and brown sugar; spicy Ahi tuna poke salad with cabbage and a sesame vinaigrette; and Edna’s carrot cake, a generous slice topped with cream cheese frosting and a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Any of the menu’s varied items, from homemade ginger ale to skillet-roasted mussels, are fabulous because they are fresh, Mr. Simons maintains.

“It takes about 15 hours extra every week to purchase food the way we do, but it’s worth it because of the quality of the food,” he says.

The success of Founding Farmers has truly been a “dream come true,” Mr. Simons says. “To have a hit like Founding Farmers requires a blend of many things, including good food and hard-working people,” he says. “But you also have to have a healthy dose of luck.”

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—Julia Parmley