Melissa Dilmaghani plays an interesting role in Katonah. She, along with her husband, own Old New House on Katonah Avenue, which began as a website 11 years ago. And she also serves as the event chair for the Katonah Chamber of Commerce. In this role, she organizes everything from the art strolls to this Friday’s annual chili cook-off. Plus, she’s a mom of two elementary school-aged children. Between running her business, taking care of her family and last-minute event preparations, she kindly sat down to chat with us about what it’s like owning a well-known rug store and planning one of the most popular events in town.
Photos by Amy Drucker
Katonah Connect: Let’s begin with the most important question: Do you like chili?
Melissa Dilmaghani: That’s a great first question. I actually don’t really like chili, so it’s hilarious to me that I’ve kind of become the Chili Queen. We eat a lot of vegetarian meals in our in our house, but my husband Dave and I will eat meat sometimes, just not very frequently. So, I guess if it’s a good vegan or vegetarian chili, I’m definitely game. But generally speaking, I don’t seek it out.
KC: So how did you first get involved with the chili contest?
MD: When I joined the chamber board around late 2019, they thought I’d be a great fit for the events committee chair. I thought that meant I would help with the sidewalk sale and things like that. I didn’t even really know about the chili contest because I had never been. Luckily, the person who had run the event for years was very supportive and helpful.
KC: But you’re still running it.
MD: Yes – I really have fun with it, and I love planning events.
KC: What was the first year like?
MC: Crazily enough, the first chili contest I organized was held in March 2020, about a week before the world shut down. We had begun to hear about the pandemic and that it might hit the U.S., but no one knew what was going to happen. It was just a lot of speculation. We had a really big crowd for that event – I think we sold out.
KC: What changes have you made since you took the reins?
MD: I’m kind of riding on the coattails of what was already in place, but I have tried to add a one-of-a-kind quality, including things that younger generations would really want. For example, this year, we’ll have a wine tasting from Quartz Rock Vineyard, a winery owned by Katonah residents. And we have other local businesses as well, like the Volkswagen picture bus and a bar serving Captain Lawrence beer. These additions make it less of a straightforward food event – it becomes a very local event.
KC : Have any of your ideas flopped in committee?
MD: When I first signed on, I was open to doing a lot of different things, but there are 15 people on the committee, and a lot of them wanted to keep the traditions in place. My favorite story is actually about Emma Cabaness, the 2020 winner. I suggested that the trophy should be handed down to the new winner from the old winner every year, as a tradition. But Emma said, “Absolutely not! I’m putting my prize on the mantle. There’s no way I’m going to hand it off to someone else!” I had no idea people were so passionate about this and collected their trophies! It took her saying that for me to understand how important this is to people. They really care about winning the Golden Ladle. It’s a point of pride, and I just find it really awesome!
KC: If you could pass the baton, would you?
MD: I love planning all the different events for Katonah. I really do have the passion for it because it’s so different from what I normally tackle. Especially the chili cook-off, which is so outside of what I normally do, or plan or anything, but that’s why I like it. It keeps me inspired and forces me to get out of my comfort zone. And I also really like booking live music in the gazebo because it makes me feel like a booking agent. It’s such a different role, and I enjoy wearing these different hats. I get to be an event planner – it’s the job I never had. It keeps me fresh and creative, because I’m learning new things, meeting different people and engaging with the community in a different manner.
KC: Let’s talk about Old New House for a few minutes. I’ll state the obvious: you can’t sustain a rug store with Katonah residents alone. So where do your customers come from?
MD: People come from pretty far away, actually. A lot of people will make a trip out of it. They often come from Massachusetts, Rhode Island or other New England areas. But we’ve even had people come from Washington, D.C. I remember one couple who lived in North Carolina and made a whole trip of it. They drove up and explored the area – they made a little vacation out of it.
KC: How do out-of-towners react when they first walk into your store?
MD: Some of our customers haven’t heard of Katonah and don’t know what to expect. Based on our website, they think we’re going to be a much bigger business, and they’re surprised when they our small mom and pop shop. But because Katonah is such a quaint town, it’s usually a very pleasant surprise and a really nice experience.
KC: What is your most memorable customer experience?
MD: Towards the beginning of the pandemic, our store was closed to the public, but we were working inside because people were still buying things online. A woman came to the door and began knocking profusely and yelling through the door for us to let her in. She didn’t have a mask and my employee, who was on the floor by herself, told the woman she couldn’t let her in because she didn’t have a mask. The woman responded, ‘This is ridiculous! Open up!’ And she began shouting that it was all a conspiracy. She was very angry and absolutely refused to put a mask on. Eventually, she went on her way, but it was quite scary.
I decided to alert the Bedford police that this woman was wandering the streets of Katonah, banging on doors, yelling at everyone and demanding to be let in. But they told me they already knew about her.
I asked them what they meant – had she gone to another store? And they told me that she called the police to report that we wouldn’t let her into our store! She then asked to speak to the mayor of the town, and when they told her Katonah doesn’t have a mayor, she began yelling and freaking out!
It’s so crazy that she actually reported us to the police for not letting her into our store, which is our right! And the fact that she wanted to speak to the mayor of Katonah because Old New House wouldn’t let her in to see rugs? I didn’t know we were that important!