Dame’s owners share recipe for growth, success

Damion Moore and Randy Wadsworth built Dame’s Chicken and Waffles on a friendship forged during college. (Photo courtesy of Damion Moore and Randy Wadsworth.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

By Cade Carlson

Dame’s Chicken and Waffles has grown from a small, local establishment to a successful regional chain in the span of a decade.

Since it opened the first location near the Warehouse District in downtown Durham, Dame’s has shown what can be accomplished with a unique idea and a well-thought-out business model.

The idea for the restaurant started back in 2009. Owner Damion “Dame” Moore was working for Blue Mountain Catering at the time in downtown Durham. He referred to the period as the “good old days” before much of the expansion and development turned the city into what it is today.

During that period, Moore also found out that one of his longtime friends, Randy Wadsworth, was moving back to the area. The two were roommates together while they were students studying business at UNC Greensboro. 

Moore and Wadsworth talked about doing something entrepreneurial together as the trust was already there, they understood each other’s capabilities and knew they could have a successful working relationship. 

“I reached out to him and asked him if he had any interest in maybe partnering up and doing something new in Durham,” Moore said.

That “something new,” was a chicken and waffle restaurant that would pay homage to jazz, a combination that makes sense when you learn both the food and the music grew in popularity during the Harlem Renaissance.

According to its website, the restaurant provides a jazzy environment evident in the music, artwork and even the menu. Whether it’s bee-bop, swing, classical or contemporary, jazz finds a home at Dame’s.

Moore introduced some menu samples and ideas to Wadsworth, and from there the two partners agreed to make it a go.

Before Wadsworth moved to Durham, he handled much of the business side of the restaurant while Moore was responsible for supervising the creative aspects and renovation of the restaurant space. 

Rather than hiring contractors or outside help, Moore and Wadsworth did most of the renovation themselves, including installing tile and restaurant equipment. The two also received some help from Wadsworth’s wife, who is a chef.

“She was a very big part of the product development initially,” Moore said. “So, it’s been like a family affair from the very beginning.”

Every bank or lending source they went to turned them down, which was typical for 2010 during the Great Recession. 

“We started that with our blood, sweat, and tears,” Wadsworth said. “We paid the money out of our pockets to get that going in downtown Durham.”

While paying for everything out of pocket was risky, it meant they could make decisions for the restaurant without debt hanging over their head. And when it began to turn a profit, Wadsworth and Moore were strategic about that income, too.

“We didn’t take the money and just start throwing it in the air and having a ball with it,” Wadsworth said. “We put it in the banks and let it sit and build up.”

Over time, as the popularity of the restaurant began to grow, the two friends began to think about expanding. And their old college stomping grounds – Greensboro – became a focus. 

“It was like a second home to us,” and it seemed likely their model would work well there too, Moore said.

All that was left was to find the right location. The partners found a great spot off MLK Jr. Drive in the south side of downtown, and the Greensboro restaurant opened in 2012. They focused on making all the necessary operational improvements as they do with any new restaurant they open.

Once they started to see some growth and success in Greensboro, they again looked for another new location.

In 2014, Duke University proposed setting up a small-scale version of the establishment on campus, known as Dame’s Express. 

This unique extension of the restaurant provided the opportunity for Dame’s to reach college students while allowing Moore and Wadsworth to try out new items such as cakes and yogurt. 

Eventually Dame’s Express closed down because of campus renovation, but the team’s expansion continued. In 2016, they opened a Dame’s location in Cary. 

“That’s been a great opportunity for us,” Moore said. “It addresses the Wake County market and a different clientele.”

The two also tried out a Chapel Hill location, which ultimately closed because the partners didn’t get the results they wanted from the location.

The pair planned to expand into Charlotte, but the pandemic put an end to that idea – for now. While this might have felt like a setback at the time, it also was an opportunity for the owners to take a moment and focus on Dame’s existing locations and their ties in the Durham community. 

The team and the restaurant are heavily involved in charity and philanthropy. In addition, Wadsworth said they have recently been getting involved in youth sports to help kids to stay out of trouble.

In all, Wadsworth said he sees the restaurant as a place people can go not just for a quick meal but to feel safe and part of the community. That’s one reason why it doesn’t sell alcohol or stay open late at night.

“We, from day one, have wanted to be a family-oriented restaurant,” Wadsworth said.

They also try to create that same sense of community for employees by hiring locally and making work fun while still providing what many believe is good customer service. 

Moore said Dame’s is a “90% scratch” kitchen with local vendors supplying fresh produce. The menu features chicken and waffles, of course, but also vegan options. 

The welcoming environment is something that has been well received by the community, including those who have had the pleasure of seeing the growth first-hand.

Over the years, Dame’s has been home to many celebrities and famous athletes including the Duke basketball team and its alumni, Chad Ochocinco, Hendon Hooker, Anquan Boldin, Chris Rock, and Marshawn Lynch to name a few.

Alexander McCall, a recent graduate from UNC-Greensboro, has been to both the Durham and Greensboro locations.

He said his first impression of Dame’s was that it had a “good vibe.” In addition, McCall was surprised that more businesses haven’t followed Dame’s model of expansion.

“I think people should do it more often. You’re giving yourself more exposure and you have more places to lean on,” McCall said.

Moore and Wadsworth are still open to the idea of expanding to Charlotte, but they are also looking at areas such as Knightdale or Wake Forest, being careful to find the right area for the next step.  “We’re 14 years old but our brand’s still very precious,” Moore said. “We’re still a relatively new brand as far as I’m concerned.” 

The Dame’s sign greets customers at the restaurant, which sits on the corner of W. Corporation and Forest streets. (Photo taken by Cade Carlson.)