Mahammad “Moe” Mangum was just 21 years old when he came up with the concept for The Village Cafe. He approached fellow Woodrow Wilson alum, chef Ryan Williams, with an idea for a modern village – a kind of community ecosystem built within an incubator space for creatives. Together they designed a business plan that combined their two passions: food and the arts.
After a year at the Culinary Institute of America, Ryan got his start as an intern at the now-closed Bibiana Osteria. Head Chef Nicholas Stefanelli suggested he stay on after the summer and Ryan continued to train under Stefanelli who’s since earned a Michelin star for his latest restaurant, Masseria. With his fine dining stripes in tow, Ryan left the restaurant industry after three years to return to his roots.
Ryan has been in the kitchen for as long as he can remember. He started helping his mother with breakfast foods at age five and cooked his first dinner at eleven. His parents nurtured his talent and placed him in Brainfood, a nonprofit program designed to teach DC high school students life skills through cooking. Ryan was first introduced to Union Market when his cohort was given a tour of the food hall led by Richard “Richie” Bradenberg, then the Director of Culinary Strategy at EDENS, the real estate developer behind the Union Market District.
Richie recognized Ryan’s passion and when the high school senior mentioned his new restaurant job required a set of knives, Richie went out and purchased a set for him that same day. The two kept in touch and crossed paths again in 2017 when Ryan took a job at Brainfood, circling back to his foundation. He worked in their “Homegrown” division, creating and selling snack foods in Union Market to fund the educational operations. As the pair regularly ran into each other in the food hall, Richie became a mentor, always stopping to talk, workshopping ideas, fielding industry questions.
Ryan brought up the idea for The Village to Richie during one of their casual chats and to his surprise, Richie bit. EDENS was looking for a cafe to place next to their bookstore, the newest location of the beloved indie seller Politics and Prose. They began working on a proposal with the help of consultant Felipe Peres at Howard University’s Small Business Development Center. Moe and Ryan brought on a third partner to manage community outreach, Kevon King, and the trio successfully pitched directly to EDENS.
The Village has been open since fall 2018 and serves cafe eatery items all crafted with Ryan’s unique culinary sensibility. When asked to name what tradition best encompasses his food, he quotes the late Wu Tang legend Ol’ Dirty Bastard saying, “there ain’t no father to my style.” Instead, his food continues to be inspired by the experimentation he started as a kid. “I really want people to step into my house with every bite. At home I’m creating a bunch of different things and testing new recipes on friends and family. I get a lot of satisfaction from people’s reaction to the food. When they say it’s good, I tell them it’s made with love.”
The menu rotates seasonally other than a few mainstays like the chipotle aioli topped AM Breakfast Sandwich and The Village Blend coffee, a mix of Ethiopian Guji blueberry beans custom-made and roasted at Virginia’s Lone Oak Coffee Company. This winter they’re introducing several new items including a gingerbread brown butter waffle on the morning menu and a buffalo chicken flatbread in the afternoon. Both menus include gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options as well as fruit forward drinks like a spiced apple cider and a pink grapefruit rosemary lemonade.
The food is an entry point. A means of connection that invites strangers and friends alike into the space. But The Village is much larger than just the cafe, Moe and his partners are building an ancestral model of community. “In a sense, we’re trying to create a new term to what villages are. With a village, you have the water gathers, the hunters, the builders, the growers. I feel like that’s what we are – different components of people, passions and organizations that come together to create something.”
At their core, the Village seeks to be of service to the community. Kevon largely manages their outreach and educational components, programing entrepreneurship classes at Two Rivers Elementary School and talks at Dunbar High School. They partner with DC Summer Youth Employment and Project Empowerment to employ teens and teach returning citizens job skills. They plan to expand beyond Union Market and open a second, larger location that operates as a job readiness feeder program, offering skills training followed by job placement at restaurants and organization partners.
The third major prong of the business is showcasing young black entrepreneurs and creatives. As a concept space, Moe offers collaborators a platform to create freely. “It’s an empty canvas. I always try to get people to realize that you can build whatever you want in here. It’s cool for us to see them create here because our community usually lacks the resources and space to express ourselves and showcase our work.”
Moe leads the curation of the “Lab” located behind the café with an eye towards equity. “When I curate events with emerging artists, we usually don’t charge — especially if they’re not charging tickets. Or if it’s a workshop, book reading, panel discussion or community-based event, all of those are usually free. We actually work with them to have these events. If you want to use the space to further your community, we wouldn’t charge.” Their Weekend Pop Up series alone has showcased 100+ small black business over the last year.
Looking towards the new year, Moe has already locked in two new monthly events starting in January: a standup comedy show led by Joe Marshall of Studio Sonic and a “Last Fridays” marketplace featuring vendors curated by ALL THINGS BLK.
The café is open every day except Mondays at 8am. Stop by to grab a coffee and bite; you never know who you may meet. Moe loves that the village is ever-growing. “There have been so many people that have gained friendships from coming here. Have gained business opportunities, new partners….we get to see all that happen every single day.”
(Photos: Credit Shaughn Cooper)