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According to the National Restaurant Association, one in three restaurants closes in its first year. But according to Joshua Lemaire and Amelia Ruvich, a unique and creative product is a key to success.

Owning and operating a restaurant can be a daunting endeavor, and the experience for this Fairhaven husband and wife has brought a series of challenges to match their stretches of prosperity. Since opening DNB Burgers in downtown New Bedford in 2014, the pair has faced bankruptcy amid the struggles that came with COVID-19, a failing infrastructure that forced them to relocate from their first address, and the current financial vexations of inflation.

But the couple is confident enough in their business instincts that they recently partnered with another local restaurant veteran to open a second downtown eatery — the seafood establishment Union Flats.

In addition to running the kitchen for 80 hours a week at DNB Burgers, Lemaire is a silent partner at Union Flats with Christopher Cronin, known in the community as the chef at the South Dartmouth’s Little Moss and Farm & Coast Market.


Both DNB and Union Flats are devoted to specialized menus with uncommon items. While DNB Burger offers gourmet specialty burgers and fries, Union Flats features locally sourced underutilized fish for its seafood dishes. Lemaire changes his list of burgers and sides every three months.

But the culinary world isn’t the only creative avenue for the couple — Lemaire is the bass guitarist for the local rock band Don’t Grow Old, while Ruvich boasts a degree in painting from the Mass College of Art. Some of Ruvinch’s paintings adorn the walls of DNB Burgers. Oh, and they’re the parents of three children under the age of 5.

These are the first restaurants Lemaire has owned, but not his first experience in the food industry. Before graduating with a certificate from Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge, he worked with local establishments including the deli at Antil’s Market, Elizabeth’s, Margaret’s, The Ice Chest, and the Pasta House, all in Fairhaven. He also worked as a cook at the Whaling City Golf Course in New Bedford, and the Boat House in Tiverton, R.I.  

Lemaire and Ruvich talked with the New Bedford Light about their struggles and successes over the last eight years, why they got into the industry, how they’ve maintained their integrity, and why they’ve decided to expand.

How does DNB Burger king Joshua Lemaire describe Union Flats? “Think what DNB Burgers does creatively but done with seafood.” Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Morin

New Bedford Light: What attracts you to the food industry? Was it always a dream to one day own your own restaurant?

Joshua Lemaire: No, it was not a dream. I came from a military background, so by no means was it culinary at all. I grew up on canned vegetables and Hamburger Helper. Both my parents worked. My dad was full-time military and my mom was full-time doing a couple of different things. It was always whatever would feed us, for my brother and sister. Whatever was easiest to feed us. I didn’t really do a lot of cooking at home at all. I’d fry up some bacon or put something in the microwave. Easy stuff.

NBL: What inspired you to open DNB Burgers in the first place?

JL: It was honestly Amelia’s idea first. New Bedford in a lot of ways, we feel, has been behind the trend bubbles. The whole variety of trends that are happening in big cities trickles its way down to this community.

Amelia Ruvich: I think back in 2012 there was definitely still a lot of room for people like us to come in and do something interesting. We were young, we were creative, we felt like we could do something impactful that would sustain us. We had nothing to lose, we had no children, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, we owned nothing. We opened the restaurant with no money, and a wish and a prayer. So to see it thrive and still be thriving eight years later … Why we do it and still do it can be bone crushing at times — the stress and the money, the taxes, the children. We still get that community that comes every week, the people that you talk to, that you get to know. You know who their kids are, that their mom died, they’re having a hard time. The nurses that would come in during COVID, at the height of it. There was a woman I would bring food to in her car every Friday, who was always in her scrubs. One day she started sobbing because she needed a place to get it out and I was a safe place for her to do that. And that sense of community and creating really good food with integrity keeps us propelled to keep doing it and opening a second restaurant.

JL: The original idea, back in the day, was that we saw that there was an industry — a niche that wasn’t currently being explored at that time. You could get fast-food burgers and you could get a burger at a multitude of restaurants in the community, but there was no one strictly doing burgers at that time.

The one thing that happened was that we went to a lot of restaurants — we’re foodies, we eat a lot — and we went to a restaurant in Newport called Mission. And Mission only did burgers. I had worked in restaurants where the menu is several pages. When we got to Mission they did three different burgers, their own hot dog and fries and a wrap. And that was it. It never occurred to me that you could have a menu that small and do really well with it. Once we saw that, we thought, “We could do that.” So we saw them doing it on a very small capacity that was very, very good, and it brought to mind that instead of trying to do two-dozen things well enough, we’re going to focus on one thing and nail it, to make it as perfect as we possibly can every time.

We saw what people wanted. Our first menu that we put out had some ambitious ideas on it, but compared to what we became it was very tame. We had to earn the trust of the community before we could start rolling out big-brained ideas that I had. Some of them were duds, like anything else, but we certainly hit some home runs.

The husband-wife team of Joshua Lemaire and Amelia Ruvich, with the kids. Says Amelia, “We have a strong relationship. We’re good collaborators in so many ways, which is why it works.” Credit: Sean McCarthy / The New Bedford Light

NBL: What do you enjoy about the food industry?

JL: At this point, what I enjoy about the food industry is that it’s constantly evolving, it’s constantly revitalizing itself — pursuing new angles, finding new flavor combinations, new things that people get excited about. Ultimately I’m an artist, Amelia’s an artist and what we believe we’re doing here is making art with our food. There’s a certain level of satisfaction that comes from making something that is satisfying to us as artists that the customer can really enjoy as a consumer. It’s gratifying art that people can love to eat over and over again.

NBL: You change your menu every three months. What inspires you to make your creations?

JL: At this point I’d like to think that eating food at other restaurants is a big inspiration for me. The way I see it is that, art or anything that is creative-based, is based largely on the individual’s perspective. So I can come up with creations that sound good to me from my personal experiences in life, flavors or dishes that I’ve had in my life. But only so many ideas can come from so many experiences, so then I have to re-up on my experiences. So I like to go to other restaurants and perceive the perspectives of other chefs and other cooks who are creating things and see how they think, based on the food that they’ve served me. And based on that it helps convey to me and sway my perspective on food and flavors and textures. I’ll try some food and think, “Wow, I’ve never thought to put these flavors and ingredients together.” A certain meat that is cooked or marinated in a certain way, served with a certain vegetable or fruit that’s raw or pickled or whatever it might be. Seeing other people’s perspectives really helps send me in different directions.

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NBL: What are your thoughts on the current state of downtown? How have you seen progress since you’ve been a restaurant owner and where do you see yourself fitting in?

JL: Our pillar in the community is being “the burger people.” If you want a taco or a burrito you go to No Problemo. If you want really good baked goods you go to The Baker. If you want soup for lunch you go to Destination Soups. If you want boneless tenders you go to Rose Alley. So everyone has developed their own little niche, everyone is carrying their own equal weight, making downtown New Bedford what it is.

NBL: One restaurant can be a challenge. What inspired you to open the second restaurant, Union Flats?

AR: We first had the idea in 2019. We were thriving, we were doing very well. We had a lot of employees at that time. It made sense. “This is another thing that we can do here.” Using more sustainable products. Literally, cod is going to go extinct in our lifetime because we’re over fishing it, so we see the need. We have such beautiful things coming into our seaport.

JL: Think what DNB Burgers does creatively, but done with seafood. The same approach with a different vessel. Luckily, we have a chef partner, Christopher Cronin, who was originally the chef that opened up Little Moss and Farm & Coast Market in Padanaram. He’s a great chef with good ideas, so it’s a good collaboration.

NBL: What have you learned since 2014 about owning and operating a restaurant?

JL: Lots of things, good and bad. Before I opened the restaurant I knew that I would be working all the time, but I didn’t really grasp the idea that despite finding really great people who are very passionate about the craft, who are very passionate about the job, no one will ever, ever, ever care about it nearly as much as you will. No matter how much you incentivize it and pay people more and give them creative reign. People never care about it as much as you do.

There’s always going to be those variables that make a business very difficult, the obstacles that get in the way when you’re doing it. It’s not really for the faint of heart. There’s a lot of ups and downs, peaks and valleys. At one point you think, “Oh man, this is going great, I’ve made the right decisions. I’m serving great food, we’re doing good things, we’re into it.” And then the very next day there can be things like a broken refrigerator and the products inside of it went bad, or a staff member called out at the last minute and you’re going into a busy Friday night, or someone quits for whatever reason so you’re short staffed. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. Trying to understand it is futile. Trying to make sense of any combination of variables is a waste of time. You have to remember that you’re living in the moment, all we have is now and take it as it comes. You’re not going to close it down because you need to make money, you’ve got to sell the product. People want what they want and you’ve got to be there for your customers who want to support you.

The thought behind DNB Burgers? “Instead of trying to do two dozen things well enough, we’re going to focus on one thing and nail it, to make it as perfect as we possibly can every time,” says Joshua Lemaire. Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Morin

NBL: What are the benefits and challenges of owning two restaurants as a couple?

AR: We have a strong relationship. We’re good collaborators in so many ways, which is why it works. I’m also very strongly opinionated. Josh is also strongly opinionated and incredibly talented. He comes to me with ideas. I’m happy to sit and edit it to see if it makes sense financially or creatively, and vice versa. It’s hard not to let it creep into the marriage.

JL: It’s definitely difficult, depending on the situation, to leave things at the restaurant. We’re leaving the restaurant to go home together, depending on what it is and whatever might be happening. It’s hard to shut it off right at work.

AR: Creating a work/life balance with the kids has been pretty difficult. Right now I’m home because logistically I have to be and Josh is working 80 hours a week.      

NBL: How did you keep your head above water during COVID?

AR: PPP loans saved our asses, to be frank. Without that money, that help, we would not be here. We just wouldn’t be. It didn’t even remotely cover the losses we took over those two years, but it helped us keep the lights on, keep our most important employees paid, and keep our house lights on.

JL: There are some restaurants that closed down, because their model doesn’t make sense for takeout, whatever they’re serving. Our model, as burgers and fries, we already did a swift takeout business before COVID, so we were already kind of equipped to do that. We closed down for two weeks once COVID happened to just silently freak out at home and figure it out and put a plan together. Then we got back at it — strictly takeout only, obviously no one inside, curbside only. So at that time we were the only restaurant on the street that had reopened. No Problemo was closed, Ming was still closed, Pour Farm, Café Arpeggio. Green Bean wasn’t even open yet.

We were getting ready to open on a Friday night, and it was our first time ever doing online ordering. We advertised like crazy and we didn’t understand exactly how the program worked and how the system worked. So we were opening at five o’clock. At 4:45 nothing was really happening, it was a ghost town on Purchase Street. There was no one, there was parking everywhere, it was great. We soon began to notice there were a bunch of cars on the street, and we thought “That’s weird.” So at 4:50 we were prepping, getting ready, and there were even more cars. At five o’clock on the dot the ticket machine began spitting orders, because people were flooding us with orders! We thought we’d have some warning — we had 45 orders right at five o’clock and all the people were outside waiting. It was wild.

We didn’t do inside dining for a long time, but we pivoted to do take away goods. So a lot of restaurants turned themselves into a market and we sort of did the same thing. We were still offering burgers and fries, but we filled a case with raw cookie dough, cookies, chicken pot pies, chicken wings and raw french fries. People would come in and get their burgers and fries for now and they’d get their food for tomorrow as well. We did that for maybe four months.

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AR: As a small business we had to pivot, pivot, pivot. We had to change our perspective, our business model. But we found a new way, like always.

NBL: Do you have any intentions of expanding further?

JL: No, no, no. I’ve been cooking since I was 17. This is enough. I grew up in a military background, it’s not like I inherited a skill from my dad, like a lot of people do.

AR: This for us is enough. We’re idea people. We have a million ideas but right now we’re just like all we have is now. Live for today. Things are harder now, things are expensive.

JL: Things are expensive now. A bag of potatoes hit 70 dollars in June. We press and blanch our own fries every day. So it’s not like we’re ordering a stabilized product of frozen fries that is uniformly, consistently priced. We’re also experiencing a drought in this country and have for several summers in a row now. So that vastly affects all of the produce, all of the proteins. Getting stuff is more difficult, it’s way more expensive. And ultimately, too, even staffing is really difficult. You hear a lot of people saying, “Oh, people don’t want to work anymore,” and it’s like ‘“Why don’t people want to work anymore?” It’s not that people are lazy. People want to work. Also, as a society, we went through a collective existential crisis which is now making people realize that “I could catch this and die at any time. All I have is now. Why am I going to go to work at a job that I don’t necessarily enjoy and believe in for a dollar amount I can’t live off of anyway?”

People want to get paid more, and they don’t want to struggle and I get that. A lot of people left the industry.

AR: What we’ve learned to do is to find a new way. We shrunk the business. Moving to here (Purchase Street) was a lucky mishap, because trying to run that giant business with 5,000 square feet during the pandemic we would have been toast.

JL: We moved out because the building (Elm Street) was falling apart. It was dilapidated.

AR: Here we have a reasonable amount of seats, our staff is a quarter of what we were, but they’re incredibly dedicated. They’re invested in our success.

NBL: It seems like you’ve had some fortuitous experiences.

AR: We have our people, our customers who like what we do, who appreciate what we do and understand the integrity of what we create.

JL: One thing we were unwilling to sacrifice, even during the pandemic, is our integrity. We cut and grind our own beef and portion it, and cure our own bacon from scratch and all of our sauces and all of our pickles. We could have easily pivoted and instead of making all of these different types of mayonnaise, we’ll just buy it. Buy our bacon, pre-portioned hamburgers, have frozen fries. We could have easily done all those things. But we’re not those people. I would not want to come to work every day if that’s how it was going to be. I want to feel good about what I do every day, and ultimately we didn’t sacrifice the integrity of our product. We are still unwilling to waver from that.

Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.

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