Elaine Chon Baker
Elaine Chon-Baker, the Northern Virginia investor who has helped bring several restaurants to fruition in recent years, is taking local food funding to the next level with a $5 million venture capital fund to seed restaurant projects.
Chon-Baker is heading up the fund, called Mokja Ventures, and is working with D.C. natives David and Nick Wiseman, the cousins that founded DGS Delicatessen as well as restaurant consultancy Roadside Food Projects. They are actively raising money and currently vetting their first investment opportunities, Chon-Baker said.
Mokja Ventures takes its name from a Korean word that means both “let’s eat” and “shepherd,” depending on pronunciation — something that pulls from Chon-Baker’s Korean heritage. The name came at the suggestion of her father, while her family sat around the dinner table, she said.
Through Mokja, another D.C.-area hospitality veteran has resurfaced: Michael Sternberg, who is serving as a special adviser. Sternberg, who co-founded iconic D.C. spots such as The Caucus Room and Sam & Harry’s, most recently served as CEO of Star Restaurant Group, which has managed restaurants throughout the region.
Chon-Baker, who has invested in chef Tim Ma’s Water & Wall restaurant, along with Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, among others, has been looking to make it easier for startup restaurants to raise money, she said.
“Raising money for a restaurant is probably one of the hardest jobs,” she said. “It’s challenging for everyone who has to do it, whether it’s your first or your fourth restaurant. So it made more sense to be able to do something on a larger scale.”
The fund’s diversity will be attractive to investors looking to get into the restaurant space, said David Wiseman, who has a law degree from Washington College of Law at American University in addition to his experience in the restaurant business.
“With the fund, you get the benefit of buying a market sector, and of portfolio diversity,” he said. “If one fails, it’s not going to be as personal because your risk is spread out. And, the more deals you have, the more market experience you get, and that makes you a better investor.”
The risk part of the equation is a personal one for Chon-Baker, who has set out to debunk the notion that restaurant investments are inherently risky. An IT management consultant with a background in IT startups and telecommunications companies, she’s been known to challenge her tech investor counterparts on the number of true successes they have had. (She’s gotten a lot of stammering responses.)
“With investment into any fund, you have your risks. We’re no riskier than any other startup and so it’s who do you trust to be the steward of your money and to make you money and do the right things by you,” she said.
Mokja Ventures aims to provide above-market returns for investors, but also to foster entrepreneurship and a more diverse restaurant scene for the D.C. area, according to its mission statement. The fund aims to "support and help incubate local entrepreneurs who are improving the local community and economy, bring excitement as well as nourishment into diners’ lives, and broaden DC’s culinary profile."
Mokja will fund one or two of its own concepts, but mostly outside restaurants: everything from fast-casual to full-service restaurants in the casual to upscale-casual space. Chon-Baker and the Wisemans are looking for operators that combine culinary talent with innovation and business acumen — the fund’s motto is “in the company of good people.”