And after a first pastry chef bailed out of the project, Sharlena Fong -- a petite woman with a straight-on gaze and a wicked buttercream -- entered their lives.
At first, May and Trattner were dubious that anyone with Per Se and Bouchon on her resume might be interested in the Nickel. "There's no way she wants to make croissants at the corner of crack and smack," Trattner said in June.
But Fong did -- lured in part by the idea that the opening of the restaurant seemed "like a big community effort." Plus, she said with a shrug, "I would rather walk to work."
Soon, Fong was figuring out how to make a vegan Sacher torte -- in order to appeal to one kind of downtown resident -- and testing out versions of peach cobbler on another, the inhabitants of the residential hotels nearby.
As they looked for cooks, servers and busboys, May and Trattner kept a special eye out for downtowners. Their head waitress, Ricci Petite, came from the Main Street Grill, a shuttered restaurant half a block to the north. A pastry sous-chef lived in the Alexandria, a block to the west.
The women also started talking with the nonprofit Chrysalis, whose offices were next door to the Nickel, about hiring some formerly homeless people to work in the restaurant.
Opening a restaurant in the age of the Internet is not the quiet, slow affair it once was. Curious bloggers and eaters post feedback and critiques with such alacrity that some restaurants are panned or swamped even before they are fully operational.
May and Trattner said they kept this in mind as they thought about how and when they would open the Nickel, waiting until everything was more than ready before testing the restaurant out on an invited group of investors and friends.
There were hiccups even after those invitations went out: Three line chefs were hired and then quit.
But the women pushed forward, and on a downtown morning not too long ago, May, Trattner and Fong woke up before 5 a.m. and walked the blocks from their apartments, along Main Street, to the Nickel.
Fong -- worried about what early morning on Main Street might be like -- carried pepper spray in one hand, keys in the other. But she said that she found the walk easier than she'd thought. The neighborhood was surprisingly empty.
"Everyone was either passed out or had gone home," May said. "The streets were clear and quiet. There was a beautiful glow."
A few hours later, half a dozen black-clad servers were lining the Nickel's tables with photocopied menus, filling sugar containers and making last-minute adjustments to the dining room.
At 9:45 a.m., bookstore owner Julie Swayze entered with Stella Dottir, the owner of a clothing store on Main. The women were quickly led to a corner booth. Soon after, Celia and Jim Winstead arrived, and grabbed the menus to take a look.
It would be weeks, months even, before they knew whether their gamble on the Nickel had paid off.
But May and Trattner seemed serene as they flitted from table to table, greeting friends with tight hugs and carrying out plates of Fong's freshly baked treats.
As May leaned against a booth, she wiped her brow and smiled.
"Eventually, it'll be for everybody," she said. "For now, it's for the neighborhood."