NYLP: Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new start-ups, businesses and openings in the New York City Area. I’m Hal Coopersmith and in this episode we are going to Chinatown, to one of my favorite places called Dimes. Located on 49 Canal Street and 143 Division Street, Dimes is a combination of a fantastic restaurant, marketplace with artisanal items and fresh produce, and a deli to grab a quick bite on the go. I’m very happy to have the two co-founders Alissa Wagner and Sabrina De Sousa discuss how they came up with the concept, grew the brand, among many other great topics. So let’s go to the interview.
Stepping onto the Launch Pod, we have Sabrina De Sousa and Alissa Wagner. They are the founders and owners of Dimes Deli and Dimes Marketplace. Thanks for stepping onto the Launch Pod, Alissa and Sabrina.
Sabrina: Hi, Hal. This is Sabrina.
Alissa: Hi, Hal, this is Alyssa.
NYLP: Thanks for coming on.
Alissa: Thanks for having us.
Sabrina: Thanks for having us.
NYLP: So what is the concept of Dimes in your own words?
Alissa: Sabrina and I started Dimes to have a place that we wanted to go every day. We felt that there was nothing that represented how we like to eat in the neighborhood that we lived in which was the Lower East Side of Manhattan in Chinatown. So we started Dimes three years ago in September of 2013. It was a small storefront which we have currently expanded to be three storefronts.
Sabrina: I think Dimes today, now, really embodies the creatives that live in the neighborhood which is really nice to see. There’s a lot of crossover with fashion, and art, and music. It’s really great to just kind of witness that throughout the whole day when we’re there.
NYLP: And I’ve heard your food described in so many different ways: healthy, California-style, how would you describe it?
Alissa: I always joke that it’s actually North Jersey cuisine because Sabrina and I are both from Jersey and not from California.
NYLP. You wouldn’t know that, everyone says California.
Alissa: Yeah, well that’s why I say it’s North Jersey cuisine. But no, I think it’s just sort of balanced, and healthy, and clean, beautiful. We just want everyone to feel really good after they eat at Dimes, physically good and spiritually good.
Sabrina: Alissa really loves to layer her dishes with spices which kind of helps you not really use a lot of fat to mask flavors and stuff like that, so I think…it’s just really nice. We like to offer a menu that you don’t necessarily get too tired of and it’s something that you can eat everyday and not really think twice about, which is kind of like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go to Dimes and I’m going to have my go-to dishes.” But then, they’re always changing, and it’s very market-driven.
NYLP: And you said it was a place that you two wanted to go to. Where were you going before Dimes existed?
Alissa: Honestly, we were always going to Wholefoods and kind of making, you know, these random plates at the salad bar because there wasn’t any place that represented the way that we were eating. So yeah, we’d end up at Wholefoods or, you know, cooking at our own houses.
Sabrina: There’s also a few really great, old, old like crunchy, hippy places that we love that we kind of pay homage to on the menu, places like Angelica, it’s a vegan restaurant in the East Village and it’s been around for over 20 years and Souen. And then, I mean, I love Japanese food. I think it’s just so clean and you really just taste…it’s a purist kind of way of cooking which I think is really nice. That’s pretty much all I ate before Dimes.
NYLP: And I feel as though, at least in researching Dimes and having been there, that the city was kind of waiting for a Dimes to exist. Did you feel that way jumping into it?
Sabrina: Totally. We knew there was a void for that type of cuisine in the city. I think the reason why we’ve been pinned as like the California place is because there aren’t really many restaurants like that. I mean, more so now than three years ago. If you do compare it to other California restaurants, it’s very much a California-style of eating where it’s all very just healthy and lots of avocados which we do like.
NYLP: When did you come up with the idea and why did you decide to do it?
Alissa: We opened in September of 2013 and we started working on it about a year prior to that. Well, Sabrina was working on her own project at the time. It was going to be a juice bar and she wanted to have some food, and I had finished culinary school so I offered to help out with the food end of things and she agreed. So then we started working on the project that ultimately became Dimes. As we sort of talked more about it, we realized that our ideas were really symbiotic and the concept just kept growing and growing, and became more of a restaurant concept.
NYLP: What ultimately is the concept?
Sabrina: I think the concept is about playing with different elements that inspire us. For example, we always make sure that there’s the perfect sense of music to kind of capture the ambience of the space. And the design is a huge thing for us. We always wanted to make sure that the space was simple but that there were certain little elements of detail that really makes you search a little. So, you know, if you walk into the restaurant, everything is very whitewashed, and very simple, and timeless. But the tables, we decided to always change every year to kind of give it new energy. This series is 2.0 and it’s inspired by Ellsworth Kelly which we really love. So I don’t really know if there is like a set concept that we can just kind of pin down in words. It’s more just a feeling of what really inspires us.
NYLP: Do you pick out all the design elements yourself?
Sabrina: Yes, that’s the best part.
NYLP: So the best part, I think, of Dimes is that you’ve thought about, it seems, a brand and it doesn’t seem as though as a lot of restaurants in New York City are thinking that way. Why don’t you think a lot of restaurants are doing that way and how were you thinking about that?
Sabrina: I think a lot of restaurants are driven by chef egos, which I think is really amazing because a lot of places are pushing the envelope with different foods and, you know, dishes, which is what makes this city so incredible. But I think what we always wanted to make sure is that, you know, we’re relative to our peers, which aren’t necessarily just foodies, they’re artists. And I think those are kind of create really important things to consider.
Alissa: Yeah, and I think Sabrina and I have, you know, a lot of interest in terms of traveling, and art, and design. And yes, we love food but I feel like the restaurant has always acted as sort of a platform for all of those things to be explored. You know, we have interests outside of food and it kind of makes our work life more interesting when we can bring other elements into that.
NYLP: Right, so you go to your website, it’s a really fun website. You mentioned the restaurant itself, the design elements are changing. You even have a video, your Instagram’s interesting. How did all those pieces come together?
Alissa: Really organically. I mean, I think Sabrina and I have always just sort of like put one foot in front of the other and had fun with what we’re doing, which was the biggest thing and we didn’t think about it too much. You know, I think sometimes people overthink their marketing and it kind of…you can tell, you know, it’s very contrived. But whenever we’ve done stuff, it’s just sort of been out of like a fun gut kind of place.
Sabrina: And always, I mean, we always make sure we had a laugh through it all. It’s just, I think, it really shows when you take yourself too seriously and I think it’s been very receptive because people really understand or they can relate to the way that we approach those things.
NYLP: And I mentioned some of the ways that you extend your brand but use Instagram in a fun way. It’s not just about taking photos of food. How did that come about? Because I’m very impressed by that.
Alissa: That’s all Sabrina.
Sabrina: I think there’s only so much food pictures that you can take where, you know, you can’t really keep the attention span forced. So, you know, in the beginning, I was just like, “What can I do to make this funny or, you know, slightly more colorful?” And I would do these funny little cutouts and then put them over paintings that I really love, so that was like one phase of the Instagram. And then it was also, you know, furniture, I think, is really, it plays a huge role in the restaurant and there are so many designers that really inspire us in different shapes, so I always wanted to, you know, make sure that people knew those people and why we’re driven by the things that we do.
NYLP: So you’re more than just a restaurant, obviously, and we talked about that. But you have a restaurant, there’s a deli, there’s a marketplace. You had plans to have these all from the beginning or how did those come about?
Alissa: No, we weren’t even going to have dinner. We were just going to be a lunch spot with prepared food. And we were going to take six months off each.
Sabrina: Yes, that was a huge determining factor for us to open. We were just like, “Oh, yeah, Alissa, I’ll work six months straight and you’ll take six months off, and then we’ll trade.”
Alissa: Yeah, and then we’ll switch and we’ll travel the world.
NYLP: And so from half year employment, how did the business evolve?
Alissa: Well, the first day that we were opened, I was the only cook in the kitchen and Sabrina was the only waitress on the floor, and I think within like the first day, we were calling our friends to come and help us. It just was busy, which was great and it just kind of grew from there. Again, it wasn’t a plan, it was really organic. We had this tiny space with, what, six tables?
Alissa: Six tables. And we were just happy if we could fill that space and do breakfast and lunch there. And then after about six months, we’re like, “Oh, well, maybe we should think about doing dinner,” so we started doing dinner. Then a few months after that, we were like, “We need a bigger space,” and we started looking at another space, and it just kind of kept…it was like a tumbleweed.
NYLP: So bigger space for the restaurant and then how did you decide to add in those other elements?
Sabrina: We kept the original space and we figured that it would be a great way to kind of relieve some of the takeaway business that we were doing at the restaurant because there was a demand, to do both was a bit much. And also, just for the people that live in the neighborhood that wanted something faster and just take-to-work, we always had the deli in mind when we moved the restaurant across the street. But then the space next door became available and we decided to also open up a market. There was never an intention to do these things, they all just seemed to make sense at the time and now they make a great sense.
Alissa: Yeah, I feel like now the three work so well together that it seems like it should’ve been a well thought out plan but it wasn’t.
NYLP: Sometimes, the best things happen when you keep your eyes opened. So how do they work all together?
Alissa: In one way, from like a branding perspective for lack of a better word, it really is a way to show our customer sort of all of those aspects of the business that we’ve been talking about. Like that, you know, art and design, and we can, now with the market, have products that our friends make that aren’t necessarily food-related but that are just beautiful objects that, you know, we can sell there, and that sort of opens up our world to our customer, on top of the fact that the market, we’re selling fresh produce there. We become our own supplier for the deli, so all the food that we’re buying for the market that we sell there, is also used to cook within the restaurant. So they work together functionally and conceptually. And then the restaurant is the place to go when you want sort of a more elevated part of that experience.
NYLP: And so for people who have never been to the marketplace, what are some of the things that you sell and what are some of your favorite things?
Sabrina: We sell all of our apothecaries. We have salt scrub and rosewater, lip balm, we have a candle that’s cedar, an erole that we really love. We have a really great roster of like Japanese products that are really fun, it’s just Japanese spices, and Yuzu, and really amazing soy sauce, and things like that, so we have amazing dairy products.
NYLP: What’s your favorite then?
Sabrina: I would say the dates because I eat one every time I walk past the date basket. It’s awful but it’s true.
Alissa: I eat the satsumas.
Sabrina: Yeah. But I think, I don’t know, we have also like a really fun beauty section which we curated. The bulk stuff is really great too. We have a Dimes chair that we design that we sell.
NYLP: The official Dimes chair?
Sabrina: The official Dimes chair.
NYLP: You mentioned on your first day, you were busier than you thought, why is that?
Sabrina: I just think we didn’t really…we had zero expectations. We knew that our friends would come and support but it’s hard to envision an idea and vocalize it, but it’s far harder to actually make it happen. And, you know, it was such a buildup and then, day one, we were just like, “Okay, now what? We just have to…”
Alissa: Yeah, and top of our friends, the neighborhood came. You know, it wasn’t just our friends. And I think I was like, “Okay, well my boyfriend will come and he’ll bring a couple of his friends,” and, you know, I think that’s what we thought the day was going to be like, but it was them plus people from the neighborhood that were excited that there was a spot there, you know, because at that time, there wasn’t anyone doing lunch really, it was really a quiet neighborhood.
NYLP: And how do you interact with a neighborhood? You mentioned that you live down there but there are also a lot of people who have been living there for years. It’s not traditional Chinatown, what someone would think about. How do you make sure that people feel good about what you’re doing and the crowds that you’re bringing in?
Alissa: I think, as business owners, she and I are very, very involved. You know, we’re there all the time and we’ve made it a point to get to know our neighbors and get to know the people in the neighborhood, the other business owners. And, you know, we always try to be inclusive and welcoming, and we’ve made that a point since we opened.
Sabrina: Yeah. I’ve joined the steering committee which is a community board based group of people, and you just really hear the voices of other businesses, and people that live there, and you know what you can do to make yourself better, so I feel very much like, “Okay, we opened this one thing in the neighborhood and what can we do to give back?” There’s also Young. He’s our lucky charm.
Alissa: Young is a 93-year-old man that lives next door. He’s a Chinese man that’s lived in the neighborhood for like 50 years, I think he said. Basically, sat on our bench, I think, pretty much since we opened, playing the Erhu, is that how you say it?
Alissa: He plays music and now he’s taken to bussing tables and pouring water for people on a volunteer basis.
Sabrina: For an egg.
Alissa: He’s done that every day for an egg. Yeah, he does that for an egg and like a finger of wine. And he’s about as neighborhood as he gets.
Sabrina: So I think we have an in.
NYLP: Right. So it’s good to stay involved with the neighborhood. And then another aspect of your business, it seems, and it’s not just me who’s saying this, but you’ve attracted a very fashionable crowd. I want to read something from The New Yorker, it says, “Dimes is where the cool kids want to be.” Did you think that you would jump off in that crowd?
Sabrina: Well, I mean, I feel like a lot of our friends are in fashion, so it kind of transcended from that. The reason why we are so loved by the fashion world, there are a few things, we’re women which is great. You don’t see that as much…I mean, it’s growing and I’m very appreciative of how many women are opening up restaurants. And then I also think the apothecary was a nice way to kind of connect the two. It was just like, “Oh, it’s they’re a restaurant but they make these beauty products, why?” And I think that helped kind of bring the curiosity of what we’re about. But I would definitely say that a lot of our friends are from those fields.
NYLP: So you brought up being a female-owned restaurant, what have been some of the challenges that you think you’ve faced?
Alissa: In the beginning, we had a lot of challenges mainly with getting certain people to take us seriously. Most of that was in terms of finding purveyors, and equipment salesmen, and things like that who we would show up to these big restaurant warehouses and they’d be like, “Who are you guys, the managers or something? Like, you know, what do you want from me?” And they wouldn’t want to give us their time, they wouldn’t think we knew anything about the equipment we were trying to buy, and so they would brush us off. We kind of just persevered and found the people that were respectful, and we’ve grown a pretty solid base of people that we work with now and so it’s become a lot easier. But in the beginning, we just found that people didn’t really take us that seriously.
NYLP: What’s the most difficult thing about running a restaurant in New York?
Sabrina: There are lots. I just feel like you’re always hit with some new challenges. We’ve dealt with growing pains which has been like a huge learning curve for us. But you just really need to have the stamina to keep going because it’s constant and if you’re not passionate about it, then it’s so easy to get burnt out and just kind of lose it. And I think it’s really important for people to feel your presence in this space, I think that’s really worked to our advantage.
NYLP: What was one of the hardest growing pains?
Alissa: I mean, I think from my end, I can say staffing the restaurant. We have an amazing crew now and I think it took a really long time to sort of get that solid base of people who we clicked with, you know? You’re spending most of your time with these people and you’re asking a lot from them. Restaurant, it’s a really hard job and to find people that are passionate, and hard workers, and dedicated, and loyal people that you can get along with every day, that’s really hard. And I think we went through a lot of people before we got to where we are now. You know, now I feel like I’ve got this like fantastic kitchen manager who I totally trust and who I love working with every day. He’s actually been with us pretty much since the beginning. But, you know, for me, I think that was it, it sort of felt like it took a while to get to that place that you could sort of…I could go home and feel like everything was taken care of and I didn’t have to worry.
Sabrina: A challenge for me also is sharing responsibilities. I always feel like I want to do it all. And to my detriment, it hasn’t been very fulfilling in that way. Also, because we keep growing, there’s so many other bigger picture things that we need to think about. So that’s still something that I fight with at times, so I’m still learning but it’s hard to feel like you can be a power girl but you’re not, you’re just a person, so it’s important to figure out those things.
NYLP: And Alissa, you brought up bringing people on. What do you look for when you’re bringing someone on to Dimes? What makes someone a great fit for Dimes or for a restaurant?
Alissa: That’s a good question. I mean, honestly, the thing I look for the most is enthusiasm because I feel like you can’t teach that. You know, you can’t teach someone to be passionate, or excited, or, you know, they either have it or they don’t. You can someone technique and you can sort of teach someone…we’re always saying like make it Dimes, so that you can sort of teach someone the Dimesy way of doing things but if they don’t love what they’re doing every day, then it’s just not going to work. So I think enthusiasm and passion is probably the most important thing.
NYLP: And what is a Dimesy way?
Sabrina: Anything sort of weird. Anything unexpected and anything a little weird.
Sabrina: Delicious, number one.
NYLP: I read that you two met years ago. Did you always think that you would be opening up a restaurant together?
Sabrina: No, not at all.
NYLP: How did that come to be?
Sabrina: Well, we worked together, I want to say, 12 years ago.
Alissa: You were 20 when I met you.
Sabrina: Yeah. Yeah, so definitely 12 years ago. Now, everyone knows my age.
NYLP: Alissa just outed you.
Alissa: Sorry, edit that.
Sabrina: It can stay. Twelve years ago, this place called Lovely Day in Little Italy.
Sabrina: Yeah, NoLIta, sorry. I’m losing sense of anything.
NYLP: Time and space.
Sabrina: Because I’m always in, if it’s not in Dimes world, I have no idea of what you’re talking about. But yeah, so we met there 12 years ago, we were both waitressing, and it was a really fun place to just meet people, and we called it the Peach Pit because it was such a hang, and we kind of ventured off into our own little paths but we were always very close. And Alissa went to culinary school and I kept working restaurants, and doing a ton of traveling. And then we took a trip to Patagonia and that’s kind of where, you know, it all came into…
Alissa: Planted the seed.
Sabrina: What’s the story, we were like in a hostel, had the worst food, and we were just painting this picture of like our dream restaurant and that’s pretty much how it all started. And then once we came back, we were like, “Hey, we can actually do this. We have the skills, we have the experience, you know, we know people that would support us.”
Alissa: Then we figured out how to write a business plan.
NYLP: All starting from an Argentinian hostel?
NYLP: So what was part of the business plan?
Alissa: Well, the funny thing was we wrote this business plan that was like a page long and we showed it to a friend of ours who had written business plans before, and he laughed and he laughed. And he was like, “Okay, you need about a million more pieces of information,” so he kind of told us what we needed. And between him and a lot of internet research, we made a really thorough business plan that had our whole concept basically. I mean, really, honestly what we wrote in our business plan is not too far off from what the restaurant came to be.
Sabrina: To this day. I think it’s fun to look at it…
Alissa: It is.
Sabrina: …in hindsight. Like, oh yeah, we’re still that business plan. I think it’s also really nice to have a visual exploration of what you’re trying to create for the sake of having a business plan, which equals dollars essentially. But I think that was a very important thing.
Alissa: It was very important.
Sabrina: Yeah, we took a bunch of photos. That was really fun.
Alissa: Yeah, we did lots of photos. We did tons of projections which I don’t even think I could do today. I don’t know, I mean, we did a lot of reports.
Sabrina: A lot of menus.
Alissa: We did a survey.
Sabrina: We did a survey. We had our friends…
Alissa: We did a Google Survey.
NYLP: And what were the results?
Sabrina: It was mainly just asking people how they like to eat lunch.
Alissa: And what they would spend on a daily basis.
NYLP: How do you divide the responsibilities between you two?
Alissa: Well, I am the chef so I deal with everything kitchen-related and I also do maintenance stuff. And I’m like, I do all the basement stuff and the cooking.
Sabrina: Yeah, Alissa always takes over the catering which has been a huge part of the business as well. And I do accounting. I crunch the numbers, which isn’t always fun to kind of have that weight on you, but it’s great, no complaints. Anyways, so I do that and the branding. Lately, I’ve been trying to do a lot of collaborating with other people. I think it’s really important to connect and to see what other creatives are doing in events and things like that. I make the apothecary to this day in my apartment.
NYLP: How did you come up with the name?
Sabrina: Uh-oh. Well, the name is…
NYLP: I’ve heard various explanations, so you have to give the real one, get the real one.
Sabrina: Okay, so how it started, we were trying to come up with a name and we were just kind of spewing things out, and nothing was really making sense. And the owner of the restaurant that I worked at the time, this place called Northern Spy. Kristoff had just had a baby, and he named his baby Penny. And I was like, “Penny, Penny, no. Nickel, nickel, dimes, dimes, dimes!” So it just kind of started from there and then the more we thought about it, it made sense to…who we are, we’re women and, you know, street cred dimes, you’re a female, you’re a 10, a perfect 10 which is healthy food. I think it’s just very tongue and cheek. It’s like apple. It means nothing and everything at the same time.
NYLP: So the biggest complaint that I’ve heard about Dimes is that it’s too crowded. Everyone, I feel, wants a Dimes by them or something else by you two. Do you have any plans to expand?
Alissa: Not today.
Sabrina: No, I think we really just want to focus on the three spaces that we have now. And, I mean, there’s so much room to make it better, you know? We have so many ideas and I think if we just focus on those things, I mean, perhaps in the future, we’ll open another one.
Alissa: We’re firming up our roots.
NYLP: And where are you located?
Alissa: 49 Canal and 143 Division Street.
Sabrina: Both in Chinatown.
Alissa: Both in Chinatown.
NYLP: How do people find out more about you and Dimes?
Alissa: You can visit our website, www.dimesnyc.com. And you can also visit our Instagram, which is @DimesTimes.
NYLP: Well, Alissa, Sabrina, thank you for stepping onto the New York Launch Pod and sharing your time with us. I think that everyone is excited to go to your restaurant, your marketplace, your deli, order it off of, where can people get it?
Alissa, Sabrina: UberEATS.
NYLP: I think everyone’s excited to see your collaborations with other artists. And look forward to joining you at your location.
Sabrina: Thanks, Hal.
Alissa: Thank you, Hal.
NYLP: If you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod or want a transcript of this episode, go to www.nylaunchpod.com follow us on social media @NYLaunchPod and leave a review on iTunes. It really helps other people discover the show.SHARE THIS: