Dani Dillon is the Brooklyn-based founder of Lunch Group, an operations, curation, and impact consultancy for the food and beverage industry and the director of strategic operations for Pineapple Collaborative, the community for women who love food. She was previously the culinary and beverage director at The Wing, and has also worked as a chef for Irving Farm New York and Michelin-starred La Vara. Lunch Group recently launched a newsletter called Lunch Rush, co-edited by art historian and dog dad to A&A model Sandy, Jake Stavis, that seeks to reimagine the food and beverage industry. Dani and her partner, the furniture designer Ernesto Arias, are dog mom and dog papi, respectively, to Yuca, The Sato Project rescue and queen of Carroll Gardens.
Did you grow up with dogs?
My family always had Australian Shepherds. My family’s from Washington Heights here in [New York City], but I grew up in Western Massachusetts. Australian Shepherds very energetic, very smart working dogs. We had a nice country home, and they were able to run around and have fun up there. My mom did a lot of agility with Trooper, the Australian Shepherd they adopted. He was really good at it.
“I’ve loved all the Pit Bulls I’ve met in my life.”
I love that your mom did agility. That’s commitment!
That’s a huge part of what my mom does. Now, they have a mini Aussie named Eddie, and my mom does agility with Eddie, as well.
My dog and I have never done agility, but we’ve seen videos and it’s such a workout for the humans too. When did you decide to get your own dog, then?
Last summer, I took a book out to read in Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens, and they were doing a dog adoption drive there. There were all these different dog adoption agencies set up in the park, and there were all these different dogs. I saw one of the tables for the Sato Project, where I adopted Yuca from, and my family’s Puerto Rican and Irish Catholic, so I thought it was cool that these were Puerto Rican dogs. I had been dating my boyfriend for about a year at that point, and my roommate was moving out in the fall. So, I was in a transitional period, and I’m sure that set me up for adopting a dog subconsciously. I had a job working as the global culinary and beverage director for The Wing, so, economically, I felt I could afford a dog.
When I know I’m going to do something, I do it. I didn’t ask my partner whether he’d like to adopt a dog. It was more like, I’m going to do this. Now, they love each other, but at first, he was like, “I don’t understand why we are suddenly getting a dog.”
I emailed back and forth about the puppy that I saw. But puppies are a lot of work, so the adoption director said maybe I’d be better suited for an older dog. I didn’t get the chance to meet Yuca before she came into my life. The Sato Project sent me a photo of her, and shared that they thought she was around two or three [years old]. She had puppies with her when they rescued her. She was just right for the size of my apartment—35 or 40 pounds. And she was sweet. Apparently, she was good with everyone—dogs, people, cats. Just very easygoing. I also loved that she was a Pit Bull mix. That was appealing to me because I’ve loved all the Pit Bulls I’ve met in my life.
The first time I met Yuca was when we picked her up from the airport hangar in New Jersey. They flew all the the dogs over from Puerto Rico.
Was it love at first sight?
Absolutely. She’s so funny looking. She looks very much like a Pit Bull, but she has huge ears. She’s very compact and very small, but she’s 42 pounds. And she has really beautiful markings. I thought she looked amazing and very sweet. She was a little spooked the first day, but she was lovely right away. She’s the most loving dog to everyone. She wants to cuddle everyone. She gets excited for everyone she meets.
We put her in the back of the Jeep and drove her back to Brooklyn. That was it.
I love big ears, too. She reminds me of a bunny.
Absolutely. I call her Bunny or Baby Cow. She has the craziest little ears.
So cute. Pocket Pitties are adorable. You’ve gone through some big life changes during the pandemic. You left The Wing and started your own company, Lunch Group. How has Yuca helped you adjust or helped you stay grounded?
I stayed in New York City during the first quarantine and during the peak of the pandemic, when we had the field hospital in Central Park and the refrigerated trucks for bodies outside of the funeral homes. I would go on three walks a day with Yuca. Just going on walks with her was extremely grounding and centering during everything. It was a very volatile, very scary period of time. I was laid off from my job on April 3rd, and it was nice having Yuca there while we were all stuck at home.
Even when things started to open up again, it was really nice to have her—it’s still nice to have her at home with me, to play with her or pet her when something’s really stressful or difficult. It feels like I have a friend who is just home with me. I work in food and beverage, and my career has always been working in restaurants and food and beverage, and food and beverage was an industry that was hit so hard from this pandemic.
When I was laid off, I knew it would be difficult to find a job similar to what I had been doing. Practically speaking, places were just not hiring. So, I started Lunch Group, which is an operations, curation, and impact consultancy for food and beverage business. It’s a way for me to be able to work and support those in the industry. And Yuca has supported me so much while founding a company with a mission of supporting and collaborating with other companies and restaurant workers. That is so important to me.
You eat and make great food. What does Yuca eat?
She eats Acana Singles Duck & Pear Dry Dog Food. There’s also a wet topper that she gets—that’s her core diet because I want to keep it consistent. We absolutely feed food scraps. She’s very food motivated and loves to snack. I cook a lot at home and I’m always giving her little pieces of what I’m cooking. She loves apples and little pieces of peas and carrots. She loves French fries. I know that’s a controversial thing to give dogs, but she loves a little French fry now and then. And Ernesto gives her little pieces of pizza, which I don’t do, but I appreciate that she loves a piece of crust.
Why did you name her Yuca, which is a root vegetable?
Yuca was Ernesto’s idea because she looked brown and lumpy. My partner’s from Costa Rica, and we both wanted to find a food to name her. It’s two syllables and she responds to it. And it’s open to a lot of fun plays on the name, like Yuca Frita—Fried Yuca. I call her Yuki a lot, too.
Do you consider yourself a dog mom?
I am wholeheartedly a dog mom. And Ernesto is her papi. He also embraces being a dog dad. When we first adopted Yuca, I was still traveling a lot for The Wing. I adopted her in Summer 2019, and in the fall, I went away to do The Wing’s London opening. I was gone for close to a month, and Ernesto was really the one in charge of taking care of her. I’m definitely home more now, but we have a lot of shared responsibilities. I take the lead on walks, but Ernesto gives her baths and plays with her and makes sure she gets a lot of cuddles. We’re very involved dog parents, and we identify as dog mom and dog papi.
Does Yuca understand Spanish?
We try. One thing we know is that she doesn’t know a lot of commands in either English or Spanish. But she definitely responds to the sound of people speaking in Spanish. When Ernesto speaks to his family in Spanish or I speak Spanish sometimes, she becomes more active in the room. She’s generally pretty lazy and chill, but if two people are having a conversation in Spanish, she reacts to it in a noticeably different way than how she reacts to people speaking in English.
One of my favorite thing about adopting rescues is how they transform and change as they become more confident around you. Did you notice a transformation in Yuca?
She’s always been pretty quiet, but over time, she opened up more and became more playful and willing to engage in play. She was definitely comfortable right away, but she was more coy at first. She’s all about playing now—she invites everyone to play. For training, I had a lot of ambitions in the months leading up to getting Yuca. I think that’s in part because of having Australian Shepherds. I was expecting those dogs—my parents had trained them to know so many different commands and do agility.
“She could get by with two walks a day, but she gets three or four. A tired dog is a happy dog.”
What I realized with Yuca was that I actually needed to focus on the very practical things for her first. Learning to walk politely on a leash. Learning how to politely interact with dogs versus charging over [being] excited to meet them. These are practical things for being a good city dog. It took a lot of work at the beginning because Yuca was not used to being on the leash. I haven’t put a lot of energy into any of the fun tricks, but she’s now very good at walking on the leash.
Tell us about some of Yuca’s clothes. She has some cute jackets!
A lot of her stuff comes from Love Thy Beast, which is a shop in the East Village and in the Hudson Valley, and I love it. It’s a woman-owned shop and small business. I found out that Yuca gets really cold—the first winter and fall were very jarring for her. She has a lot of flannels from Love Thy Beast, and a raincoat, and a few puffer outer coats when it gets really cold.
When we were training her, she walked on a four-feet-long leash but now she’s able to walk on a really cute red rope leash from Found My Animal, which is another small business brand that I really like. She has an orange Love Thy Beast bed in the main living room, and that’s one of her favorite things.
We love Love Thy Beast, too. They were pioneers of cool dog accessories.
It’s so important, especially at this moment, to support small businesses. We have a shampoo that I love that we use to give her baths—Kin + Kind Kin Organics Jasmine & Lily Oatmeal Moisturizing Dog Shampoo. She smells so good. I used to give her very precious toys, like hand-knit monkeys, but she destroys them immediately. So now, I’m open to all sorts of toys because she will just rip them apart.
We love that you have such good taste and values that extend to your dog. Tell us about Yuca’s gorgeous doghouse—which we can’t buy as easily.
Ernesto made the house. He’s a furniture maker and he makes the most beautiful things. We made it for Yuca because she does not like crates. She has a big fear of being in a crate, but we still wanted to give her a little space in the house that was protective and safe for her. Ernesto built the doghouse to be functional and comfortable for her. We have a heating pad in there during the winter. We also wanted it to be beautiful for the room and fit in nicely with the rest of the apartment. Yuca loves it. She puts herself to bed and stays in there all night. It’s made of wood—Ernesto works with a lot of hardwood. What’s unique about this one is the curve on it. It’s not just a box, so it feels really special.
She has her own room! Is the bed custom then?
It’s a standard bed. Ernesto was sure to take the dimensions of the bed into account because we knew we wanted to change the beds, if necessary.
Amazing! Does Ernesto make a lot of pet furniture?
He usually sticks to making furniture for people, but when we shared this piece, everyone was asking him about it, both cat and dog owners. So, he definitely will be making some pieces.
What do you consider your biggest extravagance for Yuca?
Her walks. I always aim to give her a 30-to-40 minute walk three times a day. When I was working pre-COVID, it was definitely a financial extravagance to have a dog walker come every day. She could get by with two walks a day, but she gets three or four. A tired dog is a happy dog.
it’s something that I really prioritize in my day. No matter what, I’m going to do those three walks. My clients know that, and know that I will be offline for an hour midday to do that long walk with her. It’s a special time for her and an important time for me to spend time with her. On those walks, I am fully unplugged. I don’t listen to music. I don’t even have my phone on me. I am fully with her on the walks and very present with her. It’s so important and fundamental to the relationship I have with her.
“She has so many fans, and she really does love everyone. She’s fully there for any new relationship.”
We saw on Instagram that you also go to the Gowanus Community Fridge together.
Yuca is a full volunteer of the Gowanus Community Fridge. There are some really incredible mutual aid fridges happening right now across New York City, and Gowanus is just one of them. It’s organized by a group of independent organizers in the community to address food insecurity in our communities. In the beginning, Yuca and I went Monday through Friday every morning to do the fridge organizing, cleaning, bringing food, and making sure it was all in order. Now we do it two times a week, but it’s always on Yuca’s morning walk.
She knows what we do there. She’s very good about sitting and waiting patiently while I do the cleaning. It’s amazing to see how food passes through that fridge. It can get a major drop of food, and within a few hours, be entirely empty, which is a testament to the need in our communities for this kind of initiative. It’s really cute to see Yuca hang out by the fridge and kind of understand what we do when we’re near it and have that sense. Like, okay, this is a part of what we do on my walks.
Do you ever take her out to restaurants to eat outside?
We do more takeout and eat in the park because she loves people so much. She does not want to be under a table for very long. We love Ugly Baby for Thai. We love Frankies, which also has a great pizza shop—Yuca loves the pizza from there. One of our newer discoveries where I’ve brought Yuca is the Anti-Conquest Bread Company, which is started by Tyler Lee [Steinbrenner]. Yuca loves Tyler and loves picking bread from Tyler. That’s one of our favorite little trips.
There’s actually a tattoo shop right by where we live called Smith Street Tattoo Parlour, which is really well-known for traditional tattoos, and she has several best friends who are tattoo artists. One of her best friends is Frank, who is a tattoo artist there. He told us that he thought she was the queen of the neighborhood. She has so many fans, and she really does love everyone. She’s fully there for any new relationship.
Photography by Tayler Smith