Nadia Agsen had considered giving up her Fort Greene studio — where she hosts her Pica Pica supper clubs and does pop-up prep work — until she was approached by a company called NuMarket to launch a crowdfunding campaign. “At first I was skeptical; it seemed too good to be true,” she says.
Agsen launched a campaign on June 21 in hopes of raising $30,000 — whether she will hit that number remains to be seen, but she plans to use funds for rent, tools like a dough spiralizer, as well as research for the Filipino bistro she dreams of opening.
For Agsen, it was NuMarket versus a bank asking, “Why should we give you money?” or giving up equity when she eventually tries to open a restaurant.
Founder Ross Chanowski does not consider NuMarket to be the Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or GoFundMe, for the hospitality industry. It’s a distinction he admits has been a hurdle from the jump. “They’re not donations; they’re contributions,” he says.
The company positions itself as a means for food fans to support their communities while getting something in exchange. For $100, they get $120 credits (20 percent) returned, which functions like a gift card, distributed over six months (which also gives the incentive to become repeat customers). Not unlike other crowdfunding platforms, there are benefits that have included pre-opening party invites and early access to products.
NuMarket takes nine percent of the campaigns, which tracks with its competitors (Kickstarter takes five percent of the total amount raised, plus a three percent processing fee, and 20 cents per pledge; IndieGoGo has a similar fee structure).
While NuMarket is not yet widely known in New York, the company, which first launched in 2021, has backed some of Boston’s well-known hospitality names: Wild Child, a natural wine store from the wine bar Rebel Rebel (which raised over $50,000), as well as a cafe and dumpling factory from Chinese restaurant Mei Mei (which raised nearly $50,00 in its first campaign in 2021, and subsequently $200,000 on a second round). Danielle Pattavina, of a general store in Cambridge, called Momma’s, said working with NuMarket was about more than just money (they raised more than $40,000), but resources the company provided, such as workshops on business success, that went beyond the campaign: “I couldn’t get a loan as much as I tried, I was rejected from a bank — this was basically my only option… the nine percent felt really fair when thinking about all the work they put in,” they said. “I firmly think Ross is doing something a bit groundbreaking, helpful, and necessary in our industry.”
To expand beyond his New England clients, Chanowski recently relocated to New York City, the country’s most competitive food scene. In the process, he faces somewhat of an uphill battle to convince New York food businesses to trust him versus a competitor.
“I believe restaurants can and should be profitable,” he says of the notoriously thin-margined industry. “Part of the issue is high-interest rates or investors with expectations and pressures that don’t support the success of the restaurant.”
NuMarket has yet to strike gold with the same big-ticket names as in Boston, but in New York, they’ve funded a nearly $5,000 campaign with cafe For All Things Good to help build out a nighttime bar program under the name Para Todo Mal, which was made possible by 42 contributors. Party wine bar Sauced worked with NuMarket to expand with a second location in the East Village and raise $6,265, from 71 contributors.
Not all campaigns have been fully funded: Ploo, a Mexican food stand inside of the Chelsea food hall Olly Olly Market, set a goal for $30,000, and to date has only raised $1,135 (businesses get to keep the funds even if they don’t reach their highest target, which some crowdfunding sites also allow). These are numbers that aren’t enough to get a restaurant off the ground — a small, inexpensive restaurant could cost around $100,000, while many top hundreds of thousands, into the millions. Instead, campaigns often target one-off projects, like raising nearly $30,000 for Williamsburg Mediterranean restaurant Lighthouse to add an industrial composter — others have raised funds for an espresso machine, meat grinder, or donut frier.
Chanowski, who is a cis-white man, previously launched a coffee start-up and said he was tired of seeing an uneven playing field for food businesses. “If you’re from a more privileged background, you’re going to have both information and people who will give you better terms [for a financial agreement],” he says.
Still, the public nature of asking for money is hard for some business owners to get behind, especially as so many are cash-strapped themselves: “I was ashamed to ask for money; I did not want to resort to crowdfunding, but I didn’t want to bring on investors, either,” an operator in Chicago told Eater in a recent report.
Restaurants are rarely transparent about who’s backing them — sensitive information that could come back to bite them (David Chang’s Momofuku was revealed to be backed by Hudson Yards’s Stephen Ross, a major fundraiser for Trump’s administration). That’s why some have looked to loans via apps like Stripe or the point-of-sale company Square — even if the greater anonymity comes with fees or repayment amounts with interest.
It’s as “hard as ever to raise money for a restaurant,” says Henry Goldman, behind Secret Garden Hospitality, which has helped businesses like Caleta, the new ice cream bar from Wildair and Contra alums, negotiate leases and raise capital. It’s due in part to higher costs for build-out materials and labor, along with rising rents — particularly in New York, where everything is already pricey.
NuMarket isn’t trying to make old systems obsolete, but rather, offer an alternative. It’s an opportunity, says Chanowski, for more “everyday people” to get involved.