This is Dhanny and Joe Palma, the co-owners of My Kitchen. Although they grew up in different environments- Dhanny was born and raised in Trinidad and Joe is a first generation Italian American who was raised in Brooklyn- both Dhanny and Joe had a passion for food and understood that meals were always an experience that you shared with family and friends. After meeting through a newspaper ad and building an extremely successful catering business which they ran together for almost 20 years, this husband and wife team decided to take on a a new endeavor: a restaurant/banquet hall, aptly named My Kitchen, where they decided they would serve customers as if they were having a dinner party at home and welcoming guests into their kitchen. Having been in the corporate food industry for many years, Dhanny and Joe wanted to create a relaxing and inviting space where the focus is on good food and good company and nothing else. Dhanny and Joe’s passion for food and love of entertaining has allowed them to build a business with the customer in mind every step of the way. Every facet of their restaurant centers around the question: “how would we want it done for us?” and is executed based on that answer.
Dhanny and Joe met in 1993 after Joe put an ad in the newspaper looking for someone who was good with computers to help him run the catering business he had just started. Dhanny, who was working as a broker at the time, felt unmotivated in her position, worn down by her commute and was looking for a change when she happened to see the ad and reached out to Joe to say that she was interested and to set up a meeting. They quickly became the best of friends and started building their first business, Culinary Concepts. They worked out of a commissary kitchen in Astoria and although they struggled at first to pay the bills and themselves, they grew their reputation as a reliable vendor with delicious food and began working with corporate clients like Meals on Wheels and Delta. Together they grew the business into a multi-million dollar company with 25 employees, creating pre-packaged meals and catering corporate lunches, meetings and parties. However, over time they began to see changes, both in the food industry and outside it, that were effecting the business. Less people were ordering corporate catering and more were going out for lunch and dinner and renting out venues for holiday parties. Delta filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and their profit margin with Meals on Wheels was getting smaller. They were getting by but they weren’t making money and they knew the end of the business was coming. So in April 2012, they decided to make a change and close the business.
After closing Culinary Concepts, Dhanny and Joe weren’t sure what their next step would be so they floated around for a few months. They used commercial kitchens to cater for some of their corporate clients and Joe went on a few interviews for chef positions. But after being self-employed, Joe was frustrated at the idea of working under someone else and felt he would be moving backwards. So one day, after Joe came home from an interview feeling defeated, Dhanny said let’s just find a new place and start again, so they began looking at retail locations with a broker and were introduced to My Kitchen. It was an existing business that was being sold and when they walked into the location, Dhanny says, it immediately “felt like it was us”. However, unlike their corporate catering operation, they wanted this new business to be on their own terms. They felt that the food industry had been very difficult on their family life and general well-being in the past, so they set out to run a business that worked for them and allowed them time to see their children and granddaughter, take a vacation or take a mental health day whenever they wanted. With that in mind, they signed the lease for the space in November 2012 and re-opened My Kitchen.
Dhanny and Joe turned My Kitchen into an Italian-Caribbean fusion restaurant that also does corporate catering and events, such as weddings, baby showers, birthday parties and corporate events. Because it was extremely important to them that this business be more relaxed than other restaurants, where customers come in and eat their food, they strive to make customers feel like they’re dining in their home away from home. Every dish is made to order by Chef Joe and served by Dhanny. They have no wait staff, bartenders or line cooks other than a sous chef that helps Joe in the kitchen. There’s no rhyme or reason to their menu, it’s just good food that they would eat and the specials each day are inspired by the dishes that they’re in the mood to eat or create. There’s also no rush when you dine at My Kitchen. As Dhanny notes, they would rather have a handful of really happy, satisfied customers than crowds of customers that are annoyed that their server isn’t giving them enough attention or feel that they’re being rushed out so a table can be turned over. At My Kitchen “there’s more to life than the in and out” of customers. Their focus is to create a dining experience that demonstrates the passion and love that they have for food and for creating meals that their customers love. They run the business not to make money but because they genuinely enjoy working together and they love what they do. And they want to share that love with their customers; their business being successful is just an added bonus.
Since Dhanny and Joe have so much experience in the food industry and really understand it, they don’t have the same fear that many new business owners have, which is that if you’re not open, customers won’t come back. They know that the personal touch they add by cooking and serving the meals themselves has created a loyal customer base and guests continuously come back to dine with them. And with the different areas of their business (catering and on-site events) they always have something to do if the restaurant isn’t full. Both Dhanny and Joe know that they way they operate My Kitchen is way outside the norm but they’ve put their time in in the food industry and now want to enjoy their hard work by cooking and entertaining, which is what they love to do. For Dhanny, it feels like a lot of people have forgotten what it is to go out and dine. It used to be a special time when you would enjoy the company of one or more people, without focusing on your phone or worrying about anything beyond the food in front of you. With each meal, My Kitchen tries to bring back that significance and remind its customers that a meal is an experience to take part in.
Although Dhanny had it in her mind that they would only work for five more years when they signed the lease for My Kitchen, they’ve now been in business for six years and don’t have any plans to close. “Maybe next year we’ll stop”, Dhanny says as she laughs and even though she says that a part of her would love to, she doesn’t think she and Joe could ever stop working in the food industry altogether. They love meeting and hosting customers and a lot of their customers have become good friends. One couple they met even became the godparents to their daughter. Right now though, they’re enjoying what they do and wake up each day excited to see what it will bring. So they’ll keep working until they’re ready to move to the next chapter.
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