Jan 2, 2024 - Food and Drink

A rare nonprofit fine dining restaurant will open in D.C.

The LEE Initiative founders Lindsey Ofcacek and Edward Lee

Founders Lindsey Ofcacek and Edward Lee. Photo courtesy of The LEE Initiative

A pioneering "nonprofit fine dining restaurant" M. Frances is opening near Union Market this spring from The LEE Initiative.

Why it matters: Think tanks and tasting menus rarely coexist — the founders are touting the restaurant as "the first of its kind in America" — and the place has lofty goals to create solutions for the many issues independent restaurants face.

Catch up fast: Kentucky-based celebrity chef Edward Lee (who's also behind D.C.'s Succotash) and industry veteran Lindsey Ofcacek co-founded The LEE [Let's Empower Employment] Initiative in 2017 with the goal of creating programs to make the hospitality industry more diverse, equitable, sustainable, and compassionate.

  • The organization evolved amid the pandemic and racial justice protests, distributing over 2 million meals to industry relief centers and donating $3 million in grants to Black-owned food businesses with the help of the Black Kitchen Initiative.

Zoom in: LEE's mentorship program for women in food and spirits — which includes six months of training and funded externships — inspired the idea for M. Frances.

  • "If the mentorship program is like undergrad, what if we did a high-level graduate program?" Lee tells Axios. "A full-blown restaurant where [students] can hone their careers in a real-life setting."
  • The name nods to mid-century American food writer M.F.K. Fisher. "She created the luxury in a time [WWII] that was very difficult to do so," says Ofcacek. "Luxury can be responsible and you can still be a part of your community."

How it works: The intimate restaurant and cocktail bar aims to recruit top chefs — locally and nationally — to run a yearlong residency program for up-and-coming talents. The collective will create local, seasonal tasting menus throughout the year.

  • Price is TBD, but Ofcacek says, "We're tapping out at $175. We want to be fine dining, not super luxury."

Zoom out: M. Frances is designed to be a live experiment and think tank. The nonprofit is teaming up with schools and big-name sponsors like Chase Sapphire and OpenTable to test best business and employment practices, from fair wage modeling to environmental sustainability.

All the findings — successes and failures — will be published in a public forum, with comparative research for different business sizes.

  • "It's creating a transparent roadmap for what it looks like," Ofcacek tells Axios.

Context: Nonprofit restaurants (mostly casual) exist across the country. Take celebrity-backed operations like Bon Jovi's JBJ Soul Kitchen, which allows customers to volunteer instead of paying for a meal, or startups like Denver's SAME [So All May Eat] Café, where guests can donate money or produce for their food.

The bottom line: The founders want M. Frances to feel like a special night out.

  • "We researched every nonprofit restaurant in the country, and went to quite a few," Lee tells Axios. "Many are driven by their mission first. Our main focus is to be a great restaurant. If you didn't know it was a nonprofit, you'd still come back because the food was so good."
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