If you’re not already one of the 150+ daily devotees crowding the curb to sample the eponymous Venezuelan treat at DC’s favorite food truck, Arepa Zone, don’t you worry – soon you’ll be able to fit it into your weekend Union Kitchen routine instead. The winner of this year’s Launch Pad competition – sponsored jointly by Mess Hall, Union Market, and restaurateur Ris Lacoste – will soon be opening their very own stall at DC’s favorite food mecca.
At the Launch Pad finale event on Sunday, Arepa Zone and its four co-finalists presented their business plans and doled out samples to a grateful audience while a star-filled panel (ranging from current superstar chefs Aaron Silverman of Rose’s Luxury and Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya to legendary Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora) debated which tastemaker would take over fellow judge Ris Lacoste’s space at Union Market.
Arepa Zone served up mouthwatering mini-version of the truck’s famed arepas – moist, fluffy cornmeal flatbread pockets stuffed with your choice of meat and cheese – and backed them up with a fantastic presentation of their business plan to expand their business from wheels to brick and mortar. Owner Gabriela Febres tugged a few heartstrings when she teared up showing before and after pictures of their food truck and explaining to the audience just how far they’ve come over the past 18 months. The Arepa Zone food truck was borne out of an existing business, Antojitos de tu Pais (literally “little cravings from your country”), which offers a variety of Venezuelan treats available to order online. She and co-owner Ali Arellano are very clearly dedicated to bringing delicious, homestyle Venezuelan food to their fellow countrymen and women in the DC area and to sharing their culture with the rest of us. We’re excited to follow these two as they set up shop at Union Kitchen and beyond!
Runners up to Arepa Zone were crowd favorite Bao Bros Bar, a fast-casual concept serving up the popular Taiwanese bao bun – steamed buns filled with braised pork belly, pickled veggies, cilantro and peanuts. Also in the running were Bene, a fast-casual Italian concept serving both home-style classics and innovative concepts; Half Smoke, offering the classic DC favorite and other American favorites such as funnel cake and shakes, with a focus on community engagement; and Whisked, an already well-loved local bakery that specializes in handmade seasonal pies, quiches, and cookies.
Michelle was born and raised in San Francisco, but has lived in DC since Le Diplomate was an abandoned laundromat and ThinkFoodGroup was still a twinkle in José Andrés’ eye. As a young girl, she was quite the picky eater, but after studying in Europe and traveling across Africa and Asia for years working in international development, there is now almost nothing she won’t eat and no distance she won’t travel for a good meal. At 30, Michelle fell prey to every foodie’s dream quarter life crisis: she quit her job and enrolled in culinary school. Michelle has been with GMF since 2015 and now works in food sales, marketing, and culinary development, she explores dreamy food destinations on her own time. When not traveling the world, you can usually find her in her kitchen cooking up a storm for her friends, sneaking bites to her pup, and sipping on a big glass of Napa Valley Cabernet.