Tucked away on a quiet, unassuming street in Chinatown is an outpost of attractive people with even more attractive food. Dimes, a relatively new cafe-restaurant run by Alissa Wagner and Sabrina de Sousa, offers the downtown crowd an alternative option to Dim sum and stir-fry. This denizen of health food has something for everyone, with a little bit of meat and a lot of veggies, serving as a menagerie of sorts for duo’s circle of creative friends. We hung out with the Dimes girls at home for this installment of Secrets of Success and got some insider info as to where they're headed (literally) next.
How was Dimes born? Did it come to you in a dream?
Sabrina: Actually, it did! We both wanted to do something like this but never spoke about it to each other. I was loosely formulating ideas to do a kind of juice bar with some prepared to-go food.
A few years ago, Alissa and I took a trip to Patagonia. We were literally at the end of the earth and there was barely any fresh produce available when we tried to cook. One night, we were sleeping on bunk beds and were dreaming up the perfect restaurant . That’s kind of where it all started, I remember that night so well. When we returned Alissa approached me and asked if I ever needed help with the food aspect of things, that she would love to be a part of it.
I’m interested in the location— did you live in Chinatown before? How has the neighborhood influenced Dimes and vice versa?
S: We’ve lived in the neighborhood for a long time. We were originally looking to tap into the lunch customer in Soho. I knew from personal experience that area lacked good restaurants. I thought that would have been a good start to turn Dimes into our vehicle. We soon realized the rent was incredibly expensive and were feeling somewhat disenchanted by the whole project altogether. One day I looked out the window and this tiny little place had a myriad “For Rent” signs in Chinese. We checked it out and as soon as we walked in, we said, “you know what, this is it.” We can learn from our mistakes and take risks to do what we really want .
Alissa: It was much more manageable. It just felt right in a way that all these other spaces we looked at didn’t have that same energy.
Dimes also carries some items in the restaurant to sell, how did that come about? How do you choose who to carry and source— you have ceramics— I have the rosewater spray.
S: It all kind of happened naturally. I was making apothecary, it was just a hobby project. I had a real passion for herbs and their medicinal properties. I thought the apothecary could be a cool, cute little line for the restaurant. All the ingredients are organic and edible so it kind of just plays around our philosophy altogether — the rosewater spray, we also use it in a fruit salad. And for the other things like the ceramics, our really good friend Cassie Griffin makes them. We thought that it would be a really nice feature to have these beautiful little pieces on the wall that you can not only look at but you can take them home as well.
What do you think is the hardest thing about Dimes or what are some challenges that you could have never foreseen?
A: I can go on and on... staffing is always a really difficult issue. It takes a lot of my time; more so with the kitchen than the front house. Space— space is a big issue for us, we thought that it would be easier to have a smaller restaurant to get our feet wet, but it’s just a constant tetris puzzle of trying to make things fit and work in an efficient way.
S: Having the boss voice.
A: Especially when we hired front of house in the beginning. We weren’t a known entity then, so we just hired a bunch of our friends to help us and get us off the ground. They all still work there and sometimes its tricky to go from friend to boss.
How would you say that your roles are divided? Do you have separate tasks?
S: We knew that Alissa would be the chef and create the menu and woman down the kitchen and I guess I kind of had to take the role of...
A: ...Accountant! [Both laugh] Office manager... which she’s fantastic at.
It seems like you had this overnight success, how has that been? I mean you outgrew your space so quickly. Do you have plans for expansion?
S: Yes we do, actually, it’s official, we’re expanding.
Breaking news on ALLDAY, hot off the presses!
S: We’re moving Dimes to a bigger location where we can really expand and develop the menu the way we always wanted to.
Is it going to be in Chinatown?
Both: Yeah, it’s across the street.
So not too far, I was worried.
A: And then we’re turning the current location into a market with prepared foods to-go.
The menu is so different from a lot of restaurants in New York, how did you start with that—what’s the inspiration behind it? You are both from New Jersey, but you have a very Californian vibe.
A: I guess we’re Californian girls at heart.
S: We just wanted to create a menu that’s wholesome and interesting— this is how we eat and we knew that girls like us didn't have many options— it's not that complicated...why don’t other restaurants offer this?
A: Sabrina and I have been friends for a long time, and before Dimes, we would always succumb to Whole Foods and just eat the buffet for lunch. I think with the menu, we started with this idea of the grain bowl because it was just such a perfect meal— and acai bowls as well— and it just developed from there. We started sort of simply and then once we took the temperature of the neighborhood, we grew the menu accordingly. We never intended to have sandwiches but now offer them once we learned our customers wanted them.
Do you have a point of inspiration for the menu?
A: Sabrina always has great ideas, we work on it together. I’m a huge fan of Ottolenghi’s cooking. When we first opened we wanted to do market style, counter service. It started in that kind of realm. I’m really inspired by Mediterranean cooking and the variety of Middle Eastern's use for spices.
What is your secret to success?
S: Always keep your chin up. There are moments where I second guess myself- It takes a lot of grit to run a restaurant.
A: I would also say one thing; people are always saying it’s really difficult to have business partners but I can’t imagine not having one. It can be so overwhelming at times and its so important to have someone to get advice and feed off of. I think our strengths compliment each other. Sometimes I have no idea what to do about something and she has the perfect answer— and I’m sure vice versa. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone.