Sweet Chick’s John Seymour talks millennial hustle and how to succeed as a restaurateur in New York City
This chicken and waffles guy has long been hatching plans to get rich.
John Seymour has been hustling since he was a kid. As a teenager, he worked as a doorman, giving up college because the money was good. But Seymour also didn’t want to be just a hospitality employee forever. “I didn’t know how to fund a business but needed to do something” for myself, says the 39-year-old restaurateur from his Lower East Side office, a converted barber shop with vintage salon chairs still littered about.
So he ploughed into $100,000 worth of savings and borrowed $25,000 from a friend to open a Brooklyn burger joint. The burger place is defunct, but Seymour today runs Sweet Chick, a chicken and waffles chain he co-founded that has four outlets in New York and Los Angeles. While the dish is often seen as a staple of the Deep South, its modern variant may be traced to a late-night meal served in Harlem clubs during the Jazz Age. “As a native New Yorker, I take pride in that,” he says. “Chicken and waffles has a cult following and is symbolic of a certain kind of cool.”
Though the dish is dime-a-dozen these days, tapping into that musical cool has turned Sweet Chick into one of the buzzier casual dining spots around. It’s certainly no mere fast food chain: Bold faced names like Scarlett Johansson, Zendaya and Nicki Minaj have been spotted in its eclectically decorated eateries—Sweet Chick’s SoHo spot draws from steampunk influences. The Brooklyn-born rapper Nas is an investor who “hangs out and talks s—t” at the restaurant’s Williamsburg locale regularly, says Seymour, whose father was a barman in Irish pubs. “You can vibe out here and have a good time with comforting food.”
For his part, Nas says he put money in—Seymour won’t disclose how much and the rapper only says “it’s all good”—because of Sweet Chick’s “vibe incorporating music and building community.” Upon the recommendation of a business partner, Nas flew Seymour out to the 2015 SXSW festival for a chat. The two later connected over dinner at Sweet Chick and a Run the Jewels concert in Brooklyn before Nas retired to Seymour’s pad to watch a late night baseball game. Shortly after, they inked a deal.
“John is a standup guy, a New York guy,” the hip-hop artist told Moneyish via email. “He leads with experience, gratitude and vision of growth. He gives and has the respect of staff.”
Food aside, one secret to surviving five years, when 80% of new restaurants close down within that same time frame is focusing on the dining experience. That means being aware that social media is now a big part of the equation. “The food needs to look aesthetically pleasing,” says Seymour. “I love to see people take pictures and I go crazy if the lighting in our restaurants is too high. I want to art direct it, almost.”
You also won’t find Seymour disparaging the millennials who seem happier to spend their money on avocado toast and dining experiences than a down payment on a house. “They’ve a different type of drive” from those of his age, he says. “They know what they want to do and are more passionate. When I was younger, people just showed up for work and went home. Now, they want more.”
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