The business of being friends

26.08.2016 |  Text Lara Casselman |  Photo Jacqueline Harriet
smiling Alissa Wagner and Sabrina de Sousa
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Dimes co-owners Sabrina De Sousa and Alissa Wagner discuss how their New York-based restaurant, market and deli succeeded through their friendship and local community.

At the magical café, market, and deli trifecta Dimes, New York’s creative elite, food fanatics, seasoned locals and enlightened tourists wander in to live out their dramas, business plans, and friendships over California-inspired modern dining. The success of any business takes a village, but few entrepreneurs wear this truth with as much pride as Dimes co-owners Sabrina De Sousa and Alissa Wagner. Though the duo dreamed up the wildly successful concept on their own, they quickly pulled in friends and locals to help make Dimes the single most desirable Downtown food spot and community hub.

dimes interior

Dimes began in 2013 as a tiny café on the far edge of New York’s Chinatown and Lower East Side. It quickly expanded to a restaurant space across the street, remodelling the old location as a take-out deli and opening a boutique market next door. Despite its expansion, Wagner and De Sousa stay true to their earliest collaborators and friends like Cassie Griffin for ceramic decor, Meta Flora for alien bouquets, and Café Integral for their house brew.

This city has become somewhat like a village to us.

Sabrina De Sousa and Alissa Wagner

The duo also work with dozens of new local sustainable businesses and artists to do everything from supply groceries to the Dimes market, decorate the locations, and infuse a single cocktail at Dimes’ bar with edible perfume. Though many flock to Dimes for the eclectic health-oriented menu, most stay for the atmosphere and never seem to leave. We spoke to Sabrina De Sousa and Alissa Wagner about how they set out to make a restaurant, and ended up with a big happy family.

Alissa Wagner dreaming

At what point did the idea of opening Dimes turn from being a pipe dream to a possibility?

We started working on the business plan in the spring of 2012. Our doors were open in September of 2013. I don’t think it ever occurred to us that it wasn’t a possibility. We just put our heads together and worked really hard to realize our dream.

You set out to open a cafe and you ended up with a deli, a market, a restaurant—and a whole community…how did this happen?

Our growth has always come from an honest and organic place. It’s always been very important to us to have fun and we have always thought of Dimes as a platform for endless creative potential. The Deli and Market were both natural expansions of the brand, giving our customers the opportunity to explore the Dimes world through a different platform.

dishes created by Alissa Wagner

There are so many amazing restaurants in NYC but Dimes has really attained cult if not superstar status. Why do you think it rises above the crowd?

I think it’s the sum of all parts that makes Dimes an anomaly. It’s not just about the food, all elements are considered—the music, interior and even our website are just as important to convey the sense of our world. We don’t adhere to a rigid structure of what a brand should be and thus don’t play by the rules, so to speak. As a result we are able to explore new and unusual creative paths which allow for the unexpected. This fosters a strong energy in Dimes and keeps us from becoming stagnant. We are always looking for new inspiration and truly enjoy the surprises discovered through this organic process.

What are the challenges and also joys of working and collaborating with friends?

We’re very lucky to have a very yin and yang relationship so there are very few challenges. Since we’re friends, our collaboration already started from a symbiotic plane which makes it that much easier to realise our potential. There’s also a warmth and love that is brought to the table when working with friends rather than being strictly business partners. It creates a much more open environment with very few limitations and you work really hard to honour your friends.

alissa wagner working
organic grocery nyc

Has running Dimes changed your perspective on NYC?

This city has become somewhat like a village to us. We are so focused on our neighbourhood and on getting to know everyone who lives in our proximity. It’s really nice to have that kind of energy in a city that is always in flux.

What are your individual and shared responsibilities?

Alissa: I’m the chef so I run the kitchen and the catering department. Sabrina cooks with me too sometimes—those days are always fun. Sabrina: I manage front of house—the customer areas—and the branding side of things.

Wagner and De Sousa inside Dimes cafe

Your recipes unite foods and spices from all over the world. What is the process of developing a new menu staple?

Alissa: I usually begin with an ingredient that I want to work with, matcha for example. From there I find the best seasonal ingredients available and investigate which will pair best. Based on these choices I weave in other elements to balance the dish in terms of colour, texture, and flavour. Then we all taste, adjust, and re-taste the dish as necessary until it’s perfect.

What does it take to succeed in New York’s unforgiving restaurant industry?

Confidence, stamina and a sense of humour.

Alissa Wagner and Sabrina de Sousa in China Town

Beyond your personal dynamic, it seems that every detail of the Dimes business comes from a friendship—the local produce, the design objects, even the flowers. What was the initial idea behind this and how has it continued through your expansion?

Dimes isn’t just about the food—it’s important for our customers to understand the smallest attention to detail that we put so much emphasis on is never not considered. One may leave and only remember the stand up comedy playing in the bathroom or the beautiful ceramics that sit on the shelves. We will always be open to new ideas and it will always be a collaborative effort of friends that helped create the community within Dimes. It's so apparent that we live in such an industrious city. There are no limits to what defines Dimes exactly—it’s a time and a place in one of the most amazing cities in the world.

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