Pizza joints have long been a place for philosophical conversation, especially late at night, but few shops actually organize it.
At Broccoli Bar, though, deep thought is essentially on the menu.
A cross between a neighborhood pizza place, an urban watering hole and a TED Talk, the restaurant in the heart of the Shaw neighborhood hosts experts to moderate discussions on a range of topics, called Broccoli Talks.
“We’ve had people come to talk about everything from social empowerment to economics,” said co-owner Brandon McEachern.
That makes sense since Broccoli Bar grew out of the Broccoli City Music Festival that McEachern started with Marcus Allen and Darryl Perkins.
In October, the three partners joined with &Pizza co-founder Mike Lastoria to open up the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
It was important to McEachern and his co-founders to have a black-owned business in Shaw -- which is one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the district. Broccoli Talks are focused on attracting students with the goal of empowering, encouraging, and educating the local community.
“At the end of the day all it is is a conversation,” said McEachern. “And conversation can change the world.”
After all, it was a conversation that sparked the idea for Broccoli Bar in the first place. Lastoria and the Broccoli City co-founders were hanging out at South by Southwest when Lastoria asked if they wanted to collaborate on a new business venture. “And seven, eight months later we had a physical location,” McEachern said.
But talk is one thing. Action is another thing entirely.
Broccoli Bar had an opportunity to put its community-driven mission to work during the recent government shutdown. “Broccoli Bar was not only part of our fleet-wide offer of free pies to all furloughed workers for the first three weeks of the shutdown,” said Vanessa Rodriquez, Head of Brand at &Pizza. “But once we consolidated our efforts with Jose Andres and the World Central Kitchen’s "Chefs for Feds" initiative, we named Broccoli Bar as our official "Chefs for Feds" kitchen.”
For the remainder of the shutdown, which spanned a total of 35 days, Broccoli Bar became the axis on which many people’s world revolved. “Broccoli Bar performed a heavy lift,” said Rodriguez. In total, &Pizza and Broccoli Bar gave away 30,000 pies to federal workers in need.
“We live in a world that is all about competing, all the time,” said McEachern. “And I think that what Mike and Broccoli City did was show that we can connect up. We can link up by the arms prove that the best things grow out of collaboration.”
Community over competition is a motto that McEachern applies not only to Broccoli Bar but to the music festival as well. This collaborative spirit has accelerated the Broccoli City Music festival into an annual must-attend event, bringing together tens of thousands of people from all over the region. The festival has hosted names like Cardi B., Big K.R.I.T., Migos, Miguel, and Solange. This weekend, Lil Wayne and Childish Gambino will headline.
When McEachern thinks about community, he thinks about two things: food and music. Before he started the festival, McEachern, who lives in Los Angeles, existed between communities. He would get his haircut in South Central but he worked in Santa Monica.
“In South Central, you see liquor store after liquor store, and then maybe a McDonalds,” he said. “But in Santa Monica, there’s like avocados rolling in the streets. Everyone there is happy.”
Right away, McEachern made the connection between mood and food. “I figured they were happy because they had salad bars,” he said. “When you eat healthily, you feel good. I wanted to understand how could I bridge that gap without being preachy.”
To do this, he and his co-founder, Marcus Allen, turned to music as a mechanism for gathering the masses around healthier food. The festival uses its platform to spotlight vendors who sell healthier foods and cater to both vegan and vegetarians.
Now that Broccoli City Festival is in its seventh year, McEachern is bringing healthy food not only to the festival but to the streets of D.C. “This is a 365-day thing. It doesn't end when the festival is over. We keep going. We keep pushing. And we will keep leading by example,” McEachern said.
“At Broccoli Bar, you see in our ownership a white dude that looks like Jesus and three black dudes coming together to create a community space for everybody,” he said. “It shows you that anything is possible when good people connect.”