Opening a restaurant under the best of circumstances can be difficult, let alone during a global pandemic. Imagine signing a lease for a new restaurant, in a seasonal vacation town, during the first days of an indefinite worldwide lockdown? Even as someone with years of industry experience you’d still be in uncharted waters. Fortunately, Danielle Pattavina and their team (Danielle prefers the pronouns they/them) at Seaweed’s were approaching the endeavor with a mindset radically different from the standards most restaurants use, and their innovative approach served them well in these unprecedented times.
Danielle is a seasoned industry vet, starting with their first job at a lobster shack at 16 years old and later moving to New York City where they were immersed in food culture — books, and chefs; and had a budding passion for natural wine. It was in New York working at Savoy, under chef Peter Hoffman, that Danielle became “totally charmed by food.” “That place was like school,” they said, “a cool learning kitchen. It set the tone for the [kind of] restaurants I would work in.” Danielle spent time in Brooklyn and the Cape before coming to Martha’s Vineyard to work at the Beach Plum Inn. Working in a kitchen that procured its food almost exclusively from the Island gave them a look into what locally sourced, “farm-to-table” dishes could be.
“I wasn’t planning on opening a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard; I thought that chapter was over,” Danielle said. But an opportunity to rent a small space on Kennebec Avenue from some very cooperative landlords (due to the pandemic), presented itself. To Danielle, it was an opportunity to try something that they had been dreaming of their whole career.
That dream meant a restaurant space that serves natural wine, and locally sourced delicious food, but most importantly a workplace that is respectful, professional, and provides appropriate compensation. “I don’t want to be a millionaire,” they said. “I want to create a place where I want to work, and a place where I feel safe.” The restaurant industry is notorious for difficult and at times downright abusive working conditions. In the early years of their career, Danielle experienced some of the ugly side of the restaurant industry, including hazing, body shaming, and worse. Seaweed’s is not the first restaurant to push back against this toxic culture, but they have taken thoughtful steps to cultivate a most positive place.
“Seaweed’s exists in part to have a queer space on Martha’s Vineyard,” Danielle told me. It is easy to take for granted one’s feeling of safety or comfort in any given situation, especially here on idyllic Martha’s Vineyard. But it is important to remember that there are many who live in daily discomfort or even fear. A statement from their employee handbook sums it up appropriately “Seaweed’s is an anti-racist, gender-affirming, safe organization. In our work to create a diverse and just food system on Martha’s Vineyard, we will intentionally embrace and uplift people who have historically not had a seat at the table.” Creating this space is not with the intention to alienate, but rather with the intention to welcome. Seaweed’s is a place of respect, and inclusion first and foremost.
In year one, there was no playbook to break down and rethink. “This was not a pivot; this was a complete business plan change,” Danielle said. Seaweed’s started with a very small team. At first they offered dinners to go, but the razor thin margins on locally sourced food in an environment where employees are receiving fair pay, would certainly not sustain their new business. Seaweed’s was fortunate to inherit a small patio with seating, a much desired feature, especially during the pandemic. “Our most coveted thing was our tables outside,” they told me. As the pandemic rolled on, the state eased restrictions on alcohol sales, allowing restaurants to sell beer and wine to go with the purchase of food, which helped tremendously. They started a weekly wine club, which will continue this year from June to October. The club features two bottles of natural wine a week, with the option to opt in or out at any time. As the summer of 2020 flew by, they found that they had gotten more comfortable rolling with the punches, their team worked hard to keep things moving, and their place in the community began to take shape.
Some customers come in with questions that Danielle points out are easily answered with a quick Google search. Questions about respectful pronoun use, or “Is it ok to say the word queer?” To Danielle this was not why they created this space, but they are happy to be a part of a respectful conversation. More importantly they have had tremendous support from the community they intended to protect and support. Although Martha’s Vineyard is a diverse place, Seaweed’s stands as a beacon for the queer community, and hopes to be a bigger part of the community as Covid restrictions are lifted. Danielle’s intention is to “create equity for queer people.”
As this spring turns into summer, and the pandemic restrictions begin to ease, there is a sense of excitement and hope for some normalcy on the Island. This year, Seaweed’s will be welcoming not one, but two new chefs. Talia Weingarten, and Jam Joseph, are both joining the team from off-Island as “co-chefs.” Knowing that this was totally uncharted water, Danielle wanted the two chefs to be a part of defining their roles. Talia and Jam were given the opportunity to create their menu, their work schedule, and even define their position, together. Most restaurants operate with a top-down mentality, with the chef having supreme rule over the kitchen. By having two chefs, Danielle hopes to create a healthier work environment for each of them. Giving the two chefs time to enjoy the Island and decompress will allow them to connect with the Island, and to come to work with the kind of positive energy needed to drive this one-of-a-kind concept. “It’s a tough business and I see how people wash out,” Danielle said. They’re hoping that the two-chef system will encourage more creativity, and knowledge sharing: “I’ve been able to shake things up more than I thought I could.”
Seaweed’s is now open for the 2021 season seven nights a week for dinner, and Wednesday through Sunday for take-out lunch. Located on Kennebec avenue in Oak Bluffs, they feature a frequently changing menu of locally sourced, thoughtfully prepared food, natural wines, and cocktails, with indoor and outdoor seating.
Seaweed’s also offers natural wine catering through their event company Tiny Shell Natural Wine catering.
If you find yourself in Cambridge, look out for their new shop “Momma’s Wine and Grocery.” It’s a “neighborhood convenience store” featuring snacks, beer and of course, natural wine.
Find out more about Seeweed’s” Seaweedsmv.com; 508-338-7954