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Building a Restaurant Where People Want to Eat — and Work

Sharing opportunities is central to the mission of Ed Szymanski and Patricia Howard’s upcoming NYC restaurant Dame. The fish and chips are great, too.

In 2019, Ed Szymanski and Patricia Howard were sitting on a bench in New York City’s West Village neighborhood when they shook hands and agreed to open Dame, a British fish and chips restaurant. The project would be a culmination of their many years in the restaurant industry — including Howard at Red Gate Bakery, Szymanski at Cherry Point, and both at the Beatrice Inn, where they met.

But on top of being a celebration of the duo’s careers, Dame is a restaurant driven by community. It began in February 2020 as a pop-up, pivoted this past winter to a grocery store that still sells sought-after fish and chips twice a week, and will open this June as an English seafood restaurant in a brick-and-mortar space next door. But Dame truly embraced its business model last summer and fall when it hosted a weekly pop-up series in which friends took over the restaurant space, with proceeds benefiting various charities. Howard, 29, and Szymanski, 27, see their restaurant as not solely theirs but one they can share with chef friends, former dishwashers, and current staffers who want to try out their own restaurant concepts or simply cook for a crowd for just one day.

Eater: What does a typical day look like for each of you?

Patricia Howard: We live together, and we just got a new apartment that’s a three-minute walk away from Dame, which makes our lives a lot easier. We signed a 10-year lease on the restaurant, and all of our eggs are going to be in that basket. It made more sense to be as close as possible should anything go wrong or if we need to get our early morning deliveries. We usually come in to work together, and right now, we’re running the grocery store, but we also have our build-out going on right next door to our current pop-up space. It’s very convenient to be able to pop in and check with the contractor, see what tasks are on the day’s docket, and then go help customers in the grocery store.

Ed Szymanski: First thing always is to see what the construction zones are like, and then I prep mise en place for the grocery store, or if it’s Friday or Saturday, I prep for the fish and chips, which is a lot of french fries that get cut and a lot of fish that has to be broken down.

On Fridays and Saturdays, we’ll do service until eight o’clock and then shut up the shop. Because this is the last time in 10 years we’re going to have the evenings to ourselves, we’ve been going out to dinner. We try to support restaurants as much as possible, but also, from a cooking perspective, you get a great exchange of ideas from eating out.

How did your weekly guest pop-up series start?

ES: It was very organic. When we first started the Dame pop-up, I was by myself in the kitchen, running up and down the stairs every day because the fuses kept blowing. It was a catastrophe, honestly. A friend of mine came in one day, and I was like, “Hey, do you want to cook on Sunday?” And he said yes. He wasn’t planning on opening his own restaurant, but he’s Galician and he wanted to cook Galician food, so he came and cooked in this tiny little kitchen, which has one stove and electric deep fryers and that’s it. His event was a huge success. We also used the event as a way of raising money for charity, which was a big part of our business model. The next week, I got in touch with an old dishwasher of mine who, during the pandemic, had been selling tamales out of his apartment in Bushwick, and I told him he had to do a pop-up.

There’s been a lot of talk about how people are going to change the restaurant industry and what could come out of the pandemic. We definitely don’t have all the answers to that, but this seemed to be one thing we could do to be part of a better future — using our platform as a West Village restaurant to highlight other people who maybe don’t have access to the space or the network, media, all that stuff.

PH: It’s cool that we’ve provided an incubator for people who want to open their own restaurant, and they can come here and do a pop-up with us. But [Tio Rey and Nemi Calderon from the Tamales y Tacos pop-up] don’t have the goal of opening their own restaurant. Just to give them a kitchen and a West Village restaurant on a popular block and let them have the stage for a day, it was really cool to see. It really mattered a lot to them.

What advice would you give someone who wants to do something similar to what you’re doing?

ES: If you’ve worked up to the point where you own a restaurant in New York, you have people whose stories haven’t been told or who haven’t had the opportunity to share their [expertise], whether it’s a line cook or sous chef or dishwasher or server. We’re seeing a lot of these micro businesses and people baking out of their homes, subway car churros, that kind of thing. There are plenty of people who want to do pop-ups in your restaurant.

PH: We firmly believe that this pop-up has been an amazing launchpad for the future of Dame. For other people trying to open a restaurant, if they’re young or they don’t have much of a budget, I would definitely recommend doing a pop-up first. We’ve created an audience of regulars, and it’s a great way to get your story out there. A pop-up is kind of a test run, and we did it for under $1,000. We bought all the outdoor planters and flowers, and we did it very scrappy.

A woman uses a laptop at a restaurant bar
A man stands next to a bowl of deboned fish in a restaurant kitchen

Fill in the blank: The past year and a half has been ________.

ES: Challenging is the first thing that comes to mind, but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s hard to look back fondly, even though on a personal level we’ve achieved a lot; there’s been a huge amount of suffering across the world. It feels wrong to say it’s been good in any way, but it’s been very eye-opening. We’ve come a long way; we’ve grown a lot as people and as a business and as business owners. The personal growth is actually what led to this pop-up in the first place. We started Dame Summer Club as a way of raising money for Black Lives Matter causes. We were out protesting everyday, but running a restaurant is something we knew how to do so we figured we could also do a pop-up to raise money for charity.

What is the most surprising thing you learned either about yourselves or the industry this past year?

ES: A lot of people we spoke to told us not to do this. Even pre-pandemic, a lot of restaurant owners were like, “Never open a restaurant. It’s the worst thing in the world. Don’t do this. You’re too young.” It’s been surprising to me that it’s not that bad. It’s definitely tough, but I don’t want other people to get the impression that they should never open a restaurant because it’s so difficult.

PH: There is this notion out there that opening restaurants is impossible, and don’t do it until you’re 50, and you need a million dollars, but people do open for cheaper and on a quicker timeline. We don’t have a million-dollar investment yet, but we have a few investors, mostly friends and family. We’re doing it on a tight budget, but it’s still going to be, we hope, a fantastic restaurant. We’re trying to come up with a way to package a how-to guide to opening a restaurant, our advice on opening a restaurant on a budget.

ES: Tip 1: Open a restaurant that’s 500 square feet or less.

What do you hope to accomplish in this next year or in these next few months?

ES: Open our restaurant is number one. That’ll be the biggest achievement of our lives to date. Patricia mentioned that we did take on some investors for this project, and they are all friends and family, so paying that back quickly would be a pretty important goal to us. Hosting a bunch more guest chef dinners and Sunday series events — we’re already putting our roster together for this summer. It would be nice to eventually win a Michelin star [but] probably not this year. We’ll get to that. First I just want to be cooking in shorts and running around outside and having fun with our customers.

PH: If our opening team is still with us in a year, I think that would be a huge accomplishment in this industry. We aim to be successful in creating a place that our best friends want to work at and can make enough money at and have enough free time and enough vacation. We want to create a place where everyone’s happy to work there. That’s a rare thing in kitchens these days.

What are some other ways you’re making change in the food world?

ES: Paying people more equitably, giving our employees room to grow beyond the four walls of the restaurant is a big thing. We’re committed to opening more restaurants with our staff and incorporating them as partners in our business, too, because we are very young and we have a long way to go and grow, and we want our core team to do it with us.

We’re bridging this thing between a restaurant being a place to get dinner and a community space. We’re not going to be like a true community center, but it would be nice if we could use our space to continue to raise money for charity and causes that matter to us and highlight other people. I think it really betters the staff you have, because sous chefs get to see a different side of cooking, and they can grow with that, too.

How can readers support your work?

ES: Come eat at the restaurant.

PH: We try to be as transparent as possible on our Instagram, and right now, we’re posting a lot about the build-out process, so definitely follow us on Instagram. If you ever have a question about how we’re doing what we’re doing, or if you’re a chef and you want to do a Sunday series with us, send us a DM.

ES: And if you’re an investor reading this, give money to everyone who did a pop-up at Dame. One thing that would be amazing coming out of the pandemic is if smaller restaurants get a real grip on the downtown New York dining scene again. If restaurants are filled with young and interesting operators, and the downtown New York money gives people the capital to do the right projects, that would build a new and I think much better restaurant community.

Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based photographer specializing in food, drinks, and events.

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