Q+A: Doni DiGiovanni, Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill

We can't get enough of SUGARCANE raw bar grill - the food, the the cocktails (and mocktails!), the beautiful shady patio with the view of the Brooklyn Bridge and Jane's Carousel. This Empire Stores gem is a globally-inspired, shared plates concept featuring an open fire grill, raw bar, and traditional kitchen. 

We sat down with SUGARCANE raw bar grill's East Coast Sales and Events Manager, Doni DiGiovanni, to chat about life as a figure skater, last minute moves to Miami, and what makes DUMBO's SUGARCANE raw bar grill fabulous. 

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill Interior
Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill Interior

Tell me about SUGARCANE raw bar grill.

SUGARCANE is a global shared plates concept. It’s dishes from all around the world. The original location was founded in Miami. Timon Balloo is the Executive Chef of SUGARCANE and is like the Godfather of food and wine in Miami. He’s really special.

For this location in DUMBO, we have three kitchens. We have a raw bar, we have an open fire grill and we have our traditional kitchen. Our Market Stalls, adjacent to the full restaurant in Empire Storesjust opened up as well. We serve daily soups, sandwiches, sushi, and fresh oysters daily. When people come to the restaurant it has a very lively, sexy energy to it and that energy translates to the food. I’ve literally seen so many different flavors come through and there’s something here for everyone.

How does SUGARCANE develop its menus?

We are all about sustainability. We work with a lot of local farmers and vendors. In terms of developing the menu, it’s all about what inspires Timon [Balloo] in the moment. He is always on the trends but is also ahead of them at the same time. Because he is so passionate about what he does, it really translates into the food. He’s always giving you something out of the box. The food is always thoughtful.

We are all about sustainability. And Chef Balloo is always giving you something out of the box. The food is thoughtful.

Sugarcane Grill Mural
Sugarcane Grill Mural

How did SUGARCANE come to DUMBO?

This location is historic. It has Empire Stores, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and you cannot beat this view [between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge]. The neighborhood really inspired us. SUGARCANE opened in Miami and Miami is really New York’s backyard. You have all of the New York snowbirds that flock to Miami to get away from the cold and the winter. In that process, we have gained a following of New Yorkers from clientele coming to our Miami location. Plus, we are originally a New York based company. They started with Sushi Samba years ago. With all of those influences, it really made sense to the managing partners to come to DUMBO. People requested we open a location here and we made it happen.

How did you come to SUGARCANE?

I’ve been with the company for a total of 7 years now. I started at the original Miami location. I was there on a vacation at the tail end of my trip it was the last day I was there. I went to the restaurant. The experience was fantastic. I turned to one of my friends and I said “If I ever moved to Miami I would work for this company”. Three months later, on a whim, I moved down to Miami and I’ve been with them ever since. In my background, my grandmother was a chef. I’ve always had a respect for what happens in the kitchen. It’s really where my passion for food started for me.

Doni DiGiovanni
Doni DiGiovanni

What made your experience at SUGARCANE Miami fantastic?

I was in Miami for about a month and I went to SUGARCANE the second to last day I was there. A friend of mine, who I really respect and who makes great food and restaurant choices, brought me to a lot of cool places that were off the grid in Miami, including SUGARCANE. At the time, Miami was just starting to be known for food and that culture. Regarding my experience with Sugarcane specifically, the fast-paced environment and the knowledge they were a New York run company resonated with me. The food was also fantastic and the service was something way above the rest, especially at the time. My friends around me always say “Your mind is so powerful since you said ‘I’m going to work here if I move here’” after I joined the company.

​I was born and raised in New York. So coming to DUMBO was a homecoming for me when we were opening this location.

What was your journey towards joining the company?

I’m really sales and events focused but they had a Floor Manager position available. I met with Dana Riccobono, who has now become my mentor and someone I respect very much. We sat down for an hour long interview and talked about food and food culture. We hit it off immediately. Now at this point the Sugarcane team is like family to me.

What do you do for SUGARCANE in Dumbo?

I am the East Coast Sales and Events Manager. I handle both Miami and Brooklyn. I was born and raised in New York. So coming to DUMBO was a homecoming for me when we were opening this location. I’ve always had my eye on ‘how can I be a part of this location?’. I handle all sales and reservations from 10 people up to 400 people. I also handle corporate and private events.

The patio at SUGARCANE raw bar grill
The patio at SUGARCANE raw bar grill

What are the highlights of hosting events in SUGARCANE?

What I loved about this location is that it’s so versatile. Within the space, you can host a number of different styles of events at the same time. While we’re throwing a wedding party in the chef communal overlooking the open kitchen, we can also have a corporate cocktail buyout of the main lounge and bar space. All of the events within the open format of the space really lend to each other and make for great energy within the general dynamic.

What was your career like before Sugarcane?

I was a competitive figure skater when I was young. Figure skating really is a big part of my past. It’s made me a lot of who I am. It’s contributed to my work ethic, my drive, my determination, and my ambition. Being a 12 year old kid and getting yourself up to get on the ice at 5:30am teaches you that you really create your own path. In my current sales role, I’ve learned that you really drive your own business in sales. It comes from within you. Food and wine, in particular, has always been a big part of my life due to my grandmother. I was always around the kitchen and paying attention. When I got back from skating, from tour, I had to get back to the ‘real world’ as they call it. I went into Public Relations for about four years and I woke up one day at 28 and realized that what I loved about working in these firms is the event side and creating moments for our clientele and for just people in general. Seeing people’s reactions is extremely rewarding. At one point, I almost went into the culinary side. My grandmother who is very wise literally said to me, “Sweetheart. Cook for the people that you love. You’re a front of house guy.” and I took her advice.

We'd love to hear about a special DUMBO SUGARCANE moment!

So many. I had the opportunity to work with Condé Nast and Vogue this year. From my PR and fashion background, this was something I had always wanted to do. I really pinch myself because I think there are people in hospitality because they have to be. I’m here because I’m passionate about it and that resonates with our guests and the clients I work with. Many of them have become my friends. I’m still making memories and I think the best is yet to come.

DUMBO is so rich in art and culture and Sugarcane is really putting it’s stamp on the food side.

What's the best way for Dumbonians to enjoy SUGARCANE?

My favorite meal at Sugarcane is the brunch. You can come in and have a $29 brunch and receive our signature dishes, the goat cheese croquettes and the bacon wrapped dates. Then you get to choose an a-la-carté item. Additionally, of course, you can order items from the raw and sushi bar that you can order for the table. You can sit on the patio with a mimosa and stare at the bridges [Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge] while you have phenomenal food. We also have our happy hour on Monday to Friday from 4pm-7pm. You can come in, have fresh oysters and our signature drink, The Spice of Love, or a Strawberry Balsamic for $7.

And finally: is your favorite place in DUMBO?

I mean Brooklyn Bridge Park and this restaurant [Sugarcane]. DUMBO is so rich in art and culture and Sugarcane is really putting it’s stamp on the food side. We’re really proud of that. It’s my second home. I even ended up getting married at the Brooklyn Bridge One Hotel. When I get off the F train at York and turn the corner to the park and Empire Stores my breath is taken away. I just fell in love with this area.

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill is located at Empire Stores on 55 Water Street.  To make a meal reservation, please go to the Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill website or call 718.473.9555. To make a reservation for a private event please go here

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