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Grillmasters in the Making: Howard Economics Class Friendship Sparks Local Food Truck Success

District Flames Logo (Courtesy/

While other students were trying to master the basics of aggregate demand and supply during their economics class, Julius Powell was busy crafting his business plan. 

Powell always dreamed of starting a restaurant after graduating, and after organizing a successful cookout with classmate Tete Ikpeme, he didn’t see the point in waiting. He felt it was time to jumpstart the business idea.

“I’ve always had an interest in business,” Powell said. “I said, ‘We can really make money from this. Let’s start our own business,’ and we took it from there.”

Today, Powell and Ikpeme are the proud owners of the food truck and catering company, District Flames.

In 2017, Powell, a University of the District of Columbia (UDC) student, met Howard University student Ikpeme during an economics class through Howard’s consortium program. The program allows business majors from UDC and Georgetown to attend classes at Howard and vice versa. During their time in college, they threw one successful cookout — with help from Powell’s childhood friend on the grill — and decided to keep going. After a few successful events, Powell convinced Ikpeme to make their dream a reality.

Powell (left) and Ikpeme (far right) at a Juneteenth event for feeding the homeless. (Courtesy/District Flames website)

Powell and Ikpeme then enrolled in free food safety classes at UDC. From there, they catered small events such as house parties, school events and government agency functions. The business didn’t take off until a year later when Powell’s university invited the team to cater a back-to-school event. Since then, District Flames has catered events for UDC, DC government agencies, Howard’s Yardfest and Homecoming tailgate, and even for the Washington Commanders.

What makes District Flames’ food unique, Powell said, is its strictly charcoal-grilled food.

“Most people fry everything,” he said. “People haven’t [experienced] the authentic taste of grilled food. The way we marinate our food, it’s unique. Where else can you get grilled food every day? I don’t even know.”

District Flames blends traditional grilling with experimentation, featuring a diverse menu of wings, burgers, fried salmon and seafood baked potatoes. Their best sellers, the lavender teriyaki lamb chops, deep-fried salmon sticks and sweet chili wings, are examples of how adventurous the business owners are with experimenting with flavors.

The popular sweet chili wings with macaroni and cheese and cream corn. (Courtesy/District Flames website)
One of District Flames’ best sellers: lavender teriyaki lamb chops, topped with micro greens and a side of their homemade macaroni and cheese. (Amber V. Smith/101 Magazine)

The journey to becoming successful entrepreneurs wasn’t always easy, Ikpeme told 101 Magazine. 

“Starting on our own with no investors, we struggled with [securing] funding and building a new customer base, as well as balancing our various responsibilities,” he admitted.

Ikpeme’s partner, on the other hand, said they were eventually able to find their footing by relying on hometown connections. Powell, born and raised in the nation’s capital, was a former high school football star at Calvin Coolidge High School. His personal relationships, some of whom are with business owners themselves, helped their brand grow.

Unlike some other catering companies or restaurant owners, Powell says the COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a successful period for them. Even though the world was on lockdown, people still wanted a taste of District Flames’ grilled wings and lamb chops. At the time, the catering company didn’t have a website or any food delivery apps like Toast, Ubereats or DoorDash. Instead, they handled all their orders through Instagram.

“Our customers would see a post on our page and then send us a [direct message] with their order,” said Powell. “There weren’t many big events at the time, just personal parties and weddings. That’s how we kept going.”

Powell shared that they used their personal vehicles to deliver food to customers throughout the DMV area.

Although they struggled to secure investor funding at the start of their business, the profits made from catering events and meals served during the pandemic allowed them to save enough to buy a food truck in cash.

Powell said they were able to buy their food truck in cash, something most food truck owners are unable to do without financing. (Amber V. Smith/101 Magazine)

“We didn’t have to go the route of [finding outside financing] or taking out a loan,” said Powell. “Everybody can’t do that. Every [business owner] isn’t fortunate enough to save up enough cash. Sometimes they have to fight those battles with the banks and ask for loans. We sacrificed a lot so we didn’t have to do that.”

They say the sacrifice and hard work have paid off for Powell and Ikpeme. Operating the food truck and catering company is now their full-time job. They have been able to hire a team of chefs to help with the grills. Powell even fires up the grill himself sometimes.

Both owners have since taken their talents and food to even bigger venues such as the DC Black Food and Wine Festival, Pharrell Williams’ “Something in the Water” music festival, and the popular Food Truck Friday events in Georgetown and Anacostia. This past summer, District Flames was one of the official food truck vendors at the Commanders training camp.

Nite Swim Pool Party attendee ready to try the famous lamb chops. (District Flames/Instagram)

But this is only the beginning for Powell and Ikpeme. The owners are currently in talks to expand to other cities, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina, Houston, and Los Angeles. They also have plans to open a brick-and-mortar location for food storage and carryout orders.

When they aren’t catering events, patrons can find the District Flames food truck stationed near UDC and Howard’s campuses. 

“They [UDC and Howard campuses] were a core foundation to our grand rising,” Ikpeme said. “We aim to preserve the enjoyable catering experience for current and future students who often prefer it over on-campus food as it was during our college years.”

For Powell, both campuses have sentimental value. 

“Those places will always be home for us,” he said. “That’s where we started. That’s where we’ll always be.”

Follow District Flames on Instagram to see what spots and upcoming events the food truck will be hitting up next.

Amber Smith

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