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In Washington, there's more than politics on the menu

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- Mary Ackley, who lives in the U.S. capital, had to keep an open mind while pursuing her dream of becoming a farmer. So she went underground.

It's in the cellar of a Washington pub that the 35-year-old grows microgreens, which are finding favor with local restaurants and residents.

“That’s some pretty beautiful basil,” the founder of Little Wild Things City Farm said proudly as she pulled out a tray packed with a lush carpet of tiny plants from neatly stacked shelves set up in the storage space alongside the beer.

Ackley -- who also harvests produce outdoors at a monastery minutes away -- is one of a number of Washington start-ups tapping into demand for locally grown and manufactured food in a city better known for power lunches of flown-in steaks and oysters.

“I definitely could not do this without supportive restaurants -- that's an important part of it,” said the former Peace Corps volunteer who is taking a year of unpaid leave from the U.S. Foreign Service to focus full-time on her urban farm.

Around town, others in the capital’s food start-up scene are toiling to see if they can make a living doing what they love.

Some, including Ackley, have turned to Union Kitchen.

The self-described food incubator has two locations in the city where members can, for a monthly fee, use a shared production space and equipment while taking advantage of services to help their business grow and get their creations to consumers.

On a recent weekday morning, the sun-filled, multifloor venue in a former warehouse in Washington's northeast Ivy City neighborhood was abuzz with activity.

Among those chopping, peeling, mixing and measuring out ingredients was Adam Kavalier, owner of Undone Chocolate.

The 37-year-old scientist, who got into chocolate-making during graduate school in New York, has since found Washington -- often referred to as D.C., for District of Columbia -- to be a receptive place for his endeavor.

“I have a lot of family and friends in the D.C. area and there was just a lot of opportunity,” he said, sifting through cocoa beans as he demonstrated the process of making the chocolate bars using only organic cocoa and sugarcane and some additions such as Himalayan pink salt.

“D.C. is a thriving place right now -- there are a lot of exciting things happening in the food community.”

Kavalier, whose bars he says are available at a number of grocery stores, specialty shops, restaurants and breweries and sell for $8 to $12 online, is upbeat about the future.

Currently, he said, the company is producing between 2,000 and 3,000 bars a month, but “we’re pushing to double that.”

“We're growing a successful business,” he said.

And that can have a multiplier effect for the local economy.

“It’s about knowing that locally spent dollars mean just a little bit more than dollars spent elsewhere,” said Morgan H. West of Think Local First, a nonprofit aimed at supporting and strengthening locally owned businesses and a sustainable local economy in the District of Columbia.

“For every $100 spent at a local business, $68 stay in the community. That drops to $32 for every $100 spent at a chain.”

- Hunger to make it -

But competition is fierce and has picked up over the past few years.

“It's a growing food movement and that means more people come in, which means there’s more competition,” said Jonas Singer, cofounder of Union Kitchen.

“I also think people realize that it's real, that they can actually run a successful business and that aspiration creates a hunger and you see more people being ambitious about it.”

One aspect helping food start-ups land on their feet in Washington is the purchasing power in the city, Singer suggested.

“I do think there is money here and there is a local interest and the combination of the two has allowed people here to be very successful.”

But success can come at a cost and takes commitment.

“You’ve got to just go all in -- everything has happened really organically for us and we've seen nice growth over the years but we also are working all the time, said Sarah Gordon of Gordy’s Pickle Jar, which has been around since late 2011.

”If you're not willing to make huge sacrifices for your small-batch company then it might not be for you."

Operating out of a bright space on a quiet street in the city’s Petworth neighborhood, the company's products include "Hot Chili Spears," ”Thai Basil Jalapenos" and a recently launched canned brine for cocktails.

”Doing everything by hand in small batches, nothing’s really quick," said Gordon as her partner and cofounder Sheila Fain worked away in the back production area.

”It's definitely a slow food."

As for being "Made in D.C.," the Chicago area native noted it was something to be proud of.

”It’s not somewhere that you think that people are manufacturing, so I think it's always a nice touch point for us."