A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Give Away the Profits? For Mason Grads, Restaurant Is More Than a Business

By Buzz McClain, BA '77 on November 14, 2013

Clearly, they didn’t study business when they were students at Mason. Had they, perhaps at some point a professor would have noted that giving away 100 percent of the profits from your restaurant is not the best idea. But Raj Ratwani and Nick Vilelle most likely would have ignored the advice.

Ratwani, MA Psychology ’04 and PhD Psychology ’08, and Vilelle, MA Psychology ’04, last year opened CAUSE, the PhilanthroPub, in northwest Washington, D.C., with the mandate to donate profits—all of them—to local and international charities. It is a personal gesture for the entrepreneurs. Neither Ratwani nor Vilelle draws a salary from the restaurant.

vilelle and ratwani

Mason alumni Nick Vilelle and Raj Ratwani

“I was always driven by the idea of impact,” says Ratwani, who is a patient safety researcher for MedStar Health. “I thought there should be a way to make an impact, give back, and allow the customers to have fun and eat and drink.”

“The concept was brand new to us,” says Vilelle, an international development consultant. After earning his master’s at Mason, Vilelle left the PhD program early to join the Peace Corps where he worked in northern Togo in West Africa. “I saw there what can be done with just a few thousand dollars. And I saw in this business a lot of money changing hands.”

The concept has resounded around the country as others follow suit. “‘Cause marketing’ is becoming a popular thing now,” Vilelle says. “Some people do it for the right reasons, but they tell you ‘a portion of the proceeds’ will be donated; they never tell you what that portion is. We wanted to prove we could give away all the profits and operate sustainably for a long time. We wanted to set that example and go that far.”

Since CAUSE’s opening last October, establishments operating under a similar model have opened in Portland and Houston. Baltimore may be next. “Twenty groups from different cities have asked about bringing the concept to their town,” says Vilelle. “If we can have 20 of these or 50 of these, we can give away a ton of money. That’s the goal.”

The owners, who met at Mason and bonded over intermural basketball at the RAC, admit to knowing little about the food business. “We like to eat food, but that’s about it,” says Vilelle.

“In college I was a server for a summer. It’s a hard job,” Ratwani confesses. As such, the food and beverage end of CAUSE is handled by partners who are successful restaurateurs. The cuisine is American pub fare, “heavy on the fresh, local, and sustainable,” says Ratwani, even down to how the products are delivered.

An advisory board helps designate the beneficiaries, and customers indicate on their tab which nonprofit gets their donation. “That’s psychology,” Vilelle says. “The sense of ownership over the donation increases the likelihood you’ll remember and be excited about that organization and maybe tell your friends about it.” Exposure, he says, is often just as crucial to nonprofits.

“One of the things that sometimes gets lost in the story is that this place is ultimately about people coming in and having fun like they would at any other bar or restaurant,” says Ratwani. “People get really focused on the fact that 100 percent of the profits goes out, and they may think we’re asking for donations. That’s not the intent at all. In fact, you’ll never get asked for anything. The goal is for you to have fun like anywhere else.”

CAUSE is at 1926 Ninth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.; 202-588-5220.

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