InPerson: Devin Byrne, New Bedford’s soup man

Chef Devin Byrnes has been serving hungry diners at Destination Soups in downtown New Bedford since 2008. He opened in a small storefront now occupied by People’s Pressed juice shop and cafe, and in 2012 moved about a block up Union Street to a larger location that previously housed a sandwich shop called On a Roll.

That move allowed him to greatly expand his daily menu of soups, sandwiches, and salads, as well as hire more staff. 

Byrnes has been an observer of the continually evolving downtown restaurant and business scene for going on 15 years. He gives back to the community by assisting charitable endeavors, and mentored Amanda Desrosiers of People’s Pressed as part of the EforAll (Entrepreneurship for All) program, which partners with communities to help under-represented individuals successfully launch businesses.

Here, Byrnes talks to The Light about his career progression to becoming an independent restaurateur, the burgeoning New Bedford dining scene, how his business weathered COVID-19, and the challenges of today’s economy. 

New Bedford Light: How long have you been in the culinary profession? What was your path to Destination Soups?

Devin Byrnes: Pretty much my whole adult life. Jeez, trying to think of a year – it’s so many moons ago. Even in high school I was working at Pizza Hut or dishwashing and things like that. So, let’s say since ’90.

My first job in a real restaurant was at Goosefeathers Tavern in Freetown. I was washing dishes, and then the pizza cook walked out or something. So next day, I’m trying out on pizzas and dropping [frying] mozzarella sticks or whatever it was. I kind of built my way up from there.

I think I’ve just proved myself to be loyal and someone who sticks around and tries hard. I think that you can really acquire a lot of knowledge and get a lot of trust that way. I’ve just sort of been promoted and promoted, and eventually I moved to New York and was making soups there. I was actually running a kitchen in the East Village.

I’ve sort of always been the soup guy. That started at Not Your Average Joe’s, where the sauté cook would have to make two soups a day.

That was back in the day of (executive chef) Doug Buker. He was a tough boss, but he was really good. I learned a lot, but he was no-nonsense. I’d like to credit, you know, everyone I worked under. I learned a lot from them.

NBL: When you opened in December 2008, the United States was struggling through the Great Recession. What made you optimistic about your chances of success?

DB: I don’t know. I just thought if I opened it small enough and had a small enough staff and just counted on myself and my skill set [I could succeed]. At some of these places, they do a massive build-out and dump tons of money into them. That wasn’t my style, and I didn’t have those means at the time. I was also looking for somewhat of a turnkey, and I knew that The Green Bean was there before. So, I didn’t have to build it out from scratch.

NBL: What strategies did you use to help Destination Soups ride out the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

DB: The service industry was hit hard, and I think with our model, it hit us a little less hard, just because we weren’t trying to get people into the bar to sit and buy a $30 steak. That’s not how we make our money.

We already were a takeout, mostly. I mean, we’ve always had a healthy takeout business; half or more people go out the door. … We felt it. It was tough. But I don’t know if I had a strategy.

Kim Ferreira, who at the time ran Coastal Foodshed, through Harvard Pilgrim had a feeding-the-seniors program with us and Tia Maria’s. It happened really early on, in March [2020]. … Kim kind of reached out this lifeline to us and Tia’s and there were some other initiatives that happened around the same time, but essentially, we were getting paid to make soups for seniors and then there was a delivery service that would bring them to people who were in their homes. It was money coming in. …

I was talking to … Craig Paiva, a friend who owns No Problemo … and I said, “This kind of reminds me of old-school downtown when I first opened.” Not many people around. You know, I’d come out a lot of times and the streets would be empty.

So, I cut back the staff, cut the hours, did a lot of things myself … it’s just kind of funny how it was very reminiscent of early on.

NBL: How has the recent inflation affected your business? Have you had to raise prices?

DB: We just raised prices, but I feel like it wasn’t aggressive enough. I’m always torn. I want to try to be the affordable downtown neighborhood staple where you kind of know what you’re going to get. It’s fairly proletarian in the sense of the whole model by design. I’m not saying I dumb it down. I definitely I think some of my specials and stuff are nice and pretty interesting and creative, but I’m not presenting a five-star experience. It’s a grab-and-go place for working people, for the most part.

I’m aware of what New Bedford’s demographics are, and I don’t want to price people out. That’s been a conscious thing of mine. But, also, the price of chicken has like doubled in a couple of years and all my packaging has gone up.

I don’t really think inflation is a new thing. I saw this kind of happening as things were opening up, things were already getting harder to find and going up in price. I feel like now, as a consumer in my daily life, going to the market myself … I’ve noticed it really strong, I would say in the last few months, where I’m like, ‘OK, that’s a dollar more than it was last time I was here.’ … So, I think what people need to understand is when they come to a restaurant, we’re experiencing that, just on a larger scale.

NBL: There are many more restaurants in downtown New Bedford than when you opened, and more on the way. Do you welcome that competition?

DB: I think right before COVID, we were in a really good spot. I think there was some real traction going on downtown, and I think we’ve lost some of it. We’re starting to get the some of that mojo back a little bit. But yeah, you’re right, there’s a lot of restaurants — and a lot of great restaurants.

I think in in terms of mom-and-pop places, it’s a healthy scene. I think what you’re seeing now, which is interesting downtown, and this is in the last few years, is some more of these consolidations, these restaurant groups coming in. So, I don’t know that that’s a great thing for downtown, but I think it’s also part of a progression that I’m not surprised to see. … There’s more of these entities that are controlling more than one location. So, they can hire, they can move workers around. They can have job fairs for their … cycle of restaurants, they probably have a little more buying power for certain things … probably just a little more power in terms of what they can pay people.

I think that’s a little challenging, that aspect. I’m not so concerned about the independent, mom-and-pop places that pop up, because I think that’s just normal, and that’s good. You want places to eat opening up, and time will tell whether it’s a good idea or not. If they’re around and they survive, then that’s good, and the market’s able to support that.

NBL: You’ve always been supportive of local charities and fundraising events. Is that something you’ve been able to continue?

DB: I think it is, maybe perhaps to a little bit of a lesser extent. We still pretty much say yes whenever we can. Obviously, the last couple of years have been a little more challenging.

We have the pay-it-forward wall. That started early on during COVID when one of our customers gave me a donation towards paying it forward. And I was like, ‘What can we do for this?’ I had heard about these [boards] before, so we did these Post-Its. [Customers donate the cost of a food item, and people in need can choose from the board.] That’s kind of taken off. If it’s looking really healthy, we’ll use some of the money to buy supplies like toilet paper for PACE and other community support agencies to distribute. 

In terms of my time, I would say I’ve been a little more discerning, because the silver lining for me personally through COVID was my work/life balance has never been this good. We’re closed on weekends, so I’m home with my family. I have two small kids. We close at 4 — I mean, that doesn’t mean I’m out at 4, I’m usually here till 5:30 or 6 — but I’m still home for dinner most nights.

NBL: After all these years of making soup, are you sick of eating it? If not, what’s your favorite?

DB: No, no (laughing) because I think we have enough variety. So, whenever I want to make something that I want to eat, I just make it up. We’ve had over 100 different soups over the years. My favorite soup is lemon pepper chicken rice, and it’s also very popular.

Destination Soups is at 149 Union St. in downtown New Bedford. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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