From monsters to espresso: Wilson alumni take on DC restaurant industry


Margot Durfee

Margot Durfee

Located in Northeast DC next to Union Market, The Village Cafe is in a converted warehouse with tall ceilings. The cafe is cozy and welcoming; warm sunlight floods through the windows near the front door and illuminates the steam billowing from espresso machines behind the front counter. On the wall behind the counter is a large shelf stacked with books, colorful art, and bags of coffee. Connected to the cafe is a Politics & Prose bookstore.

Kevon King, Mahammad Mangum, and Ryan Williams, the owners of The Village Cafe, were good friends throughout childhood. Raised in Southeast DC, King and Mangum attended the same elementary and middle schools before meeting Williams—who grew up in Petworth—at Wilson. After graduating, they parted ways: King to Virginia State University to study business and management, Mangum to Monterey Peninsula College to play football, and Williams to the Culinary Institute of America. What they didn’t know at the time was that they would soon return to DC, neither King nor Mangum completing college.

“[We] came back not really knowing what to do. We knew we wanted to start a business, but didn’t know how to bring it together,” King explained.

One of the main missions of The Village Cafe is to foster an environment where local entrepreneurs and creatives can collaborate, share ideas, and have access to resources like classes and workshops that will allow them to succeed.

“If you think about the most important social connectors, cafes are probably number one. Just think about how many great ideas, great businesses, [and] great relationships started over a cup of coffee,” said King. “Through the cafe, people will be helping us and we will be helping [them], and that’s what the true nature of a village is.”

The three of them are not the only Wilson graduates to become entrepreneurs. The school boasts many alumni who have started businesses, the most famous of them being Warren Buffett, who is currently the third wealthiest person in the world. And some, like Aaron Gordon, owner of the restaurant Little Beast, have gone on to own local food businesses.

If you’ve been near Chevy Chase recently, it’s likely you’ve seen Little Beast. Located on Connecticut Avenue, small monster-like creatures are painted on the restaurant front. An outdoor dining area with brightly-painted yellow and blue chairs, string lights, and heaters adds to the vibrant atmosphere of the family-friendly restaurant.

“I spent many years working in offices, but I’ve always done my own thing,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t really get along with any sort of a boss.” Gordon graduated from Wilson in 1991 and continued his education at the University of Virginia. After quitting his public relations job at age 24, he started a marketing company, before moving to the food industry. Since then, he has opened businesses including a frozen yogurt company, a cupcake shop called Red Velvet Cupcakery (located in Penn Quarter), and a cocktail bar.

“I wanted to open up a restaurant and I wasn’t afraid,” Gordon said. “I gave it a shot.” His most recent venture is Little Beast, coined after the nickname he has for his daughters.

When I went for dinner, I ordered flatbread with whipped ricotta, rosemary, and hazelnut with olive oil and honey drizzled on top along with a BBQ pork wood-fired pizza, which was all incredible. Upbeat music played in the background and the restaurant was packed full of people. But for Gordon, it wasn’t always like this.

“I won’t say I haven’t failed because I have failed,” said Gordon. “But I was able to keep on going from there without worrying about it too much.”

For the founders of The Village Cafe, there were also obstacles they had to push past. “There are always challenges, especially when you are three young, Black males in DC trying to start a food business,” said King. “Finding money in DC with no credit history [and] no prior business ownership experience is tough.”

King acknowledges that despite being five years out of high school, Wilson has left a lasting impact on him and his co-founders.

“Wilson, for me personally, saved my life… If it wasn’t for Wilson, I don’t know where I would be,” reflected King. “We definitely credit Wilson to a lot of who we are as people.”

The Village Cafe is far from King, Mangum, and William’s end goal. They plan on opening a larger location in Southeast DC, where they hope to support local entrepreneurs and give back to the community they grew up in. King believes that in order to achieve one’s goals, it is important to “Know what you want. Because if you don’t know what you want, it’s like starting a race with no shoes on.”