New York City is a place where thousands of restaurants open and close within the same month every year.
In the Big City of Dreams, wide eye hopefuls put every penny they have saved into their dream of becoming the next Anthony Bourdain. Clearly, there are too many new restaurateurs who are only after the spoils of the billion dollar restaurant industry.
There’s only a few left like John Seymour, owner of Sweet Chick, the Big Apple’s current favorite destination for ol’ fashioned chicken & waffles. He puts his passion for food and the service industry ahead of everything else when it comes to Sweet Chick.
“I opened a coffeeshop that’s right next door to Sweet Chick and a little barbershop, which is my office,” says John with a smirk. After opening two successful Sweet Chick locations in the bustling Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the native New Yorker has new territory to cover.
“My wife also recently opened up another restaurant in Brooklyn called Pearls. It’s a Caribbean spot, on north 8th street in Williamsburg. My wife is from Trinidad, so it’s Caribbean, Trinidadian food.”
Sweet Chick established itself as a local hotspot for the millennial crowd and the New York hip-hop community simply by staying consistent — and catering to its patron’s personal tastes — outside of just their dining choices. It’s very likely that when you walk into either location, you’ll hear the sounds of Joey Bada$$ and Nas — who also became a partner in the business — blaring from the speakers. With that, there’s always a cheerful staff and ever-changing cocktail menu that caters to the young diners. But most importantly, the quality of chicken & waffles rivals the best of the best. We love Roscoe’s in L.A., but that’s fast food compared to SW’s handmade waffles and golden brown fried chicken. Sweet Chick also offers a bevy of comfort food staples like shrimp & grits and Southern style meatloaf.
As for Nas’ involvement, it all came together by a chance meeting set up through email by Mass Appeal CEO Peter Bittenbender. “Peter nonchalantly was like ‘I think Nas would be interested in some sh*t like this,’ says John about how he roped in the rap legend . But it wasn’t until the two ended up watching the NBA playoffs together in John Brooklyn’s apartment while his wife and kids slept in the next room when they officially sealed the deal.
VIBE: We know you are were born and raised in New York, but where are you from exactly?
John Seymour: I’m from 80th and 1st avenue in Manhattan. I grew up in the city — the Upper East Side, but we call it Yorkville. 1st avenue is a very Irish and German neighborhood around there. My father was actually a bartender right around the corner from where we lived. I used to do my homework sitting at the bar [laughs].
No offense, but you can’t really get more Irish-American than that [laughs]
Yeah, my parents are both from Ireland. Really, my family is how I ended up in the service industry with my restaurants. My father was the bartender that knew everyone in the neighborhood. It was just always natural to me.
It sounds like you must have heard a lot of things that you weren’t supposed to hear as a young kid.
[laughs] Yeah, it was a true neighborhood bar. All the guys in there were like the garbage men, doormen, cops, firemen — working class guys. And that’s how kind of how I got initiated in that type of world. I used to work for my father. And those dudes were probably my early role models, too. All the guys that were sitting around that bar… we had a lot of different characters. Work ethic wise, though, they really showed me the way.
You were like that one little bar back kid, you see in old school mom-and-pop bars?
Pretty much. Both of my parents worked nights. My mother’s a nurse. Then my father moved to day shifts as a bartender and into the early evenings, so no one was home. Me and my brother used to go to the bar and either do our homework or go down and get cases of beer for my father. He would send us down and let us open up bottles for the guys. So from early on, I just wanted to hang out in the neighborhood all the time.
When I was 15, I became a doorman at an apartment building. So, again, one of the benefits of having a father who’s like the Irish neighborhood bartender is that he knew the superintendents to all the buildings. He always helped me out.
I don’t think everyone reading this will know that New York City doormen make more than most people would assume.
I was making $500 dollars a week with a check with no taxes getting taken out. I had to lie and say I was 18, so all of the tenants in my building thought I was 18. I used to cash my checks at 15 at a different bar. That’s how I used to cash my checks back then. It was crazy. This is how New York was.
I knew all of the bartenders in the neighborhood. These Irish guys always let me bring my check in there and cash it. They’d serve me at f*cking at like 16 years old [laughs]. It was just different. I worked as a doorman up until I was 20.
Did you always want to be a restaurant or bar owner?
I think I kind of always wanted my father to own his own spot, and he always talked about it, but it just never happened. He was also one of my biggest inspirations in life, but he passed away when I was 19, and I think after that I was really just trying to hang out.
[You were] lost a little bit?
Yeah, I think I was lost, probably. Drugs and alcohol, all that sh*t. So I got sober for the first time when I was like 21 and became an electrician. Then I became sober again at 24. After that, I got into bartending actually. I started working at clubs and started making decent money. Still, I don’t know if I had the drive to really own my own business at that point. I was out at the clubs. All of my friends were promoters at the time.
Then I ended up meeting my wife. I’ve been married almost 10 years now. So that’s really what probably ended up putting the battery in my back to start my own business.
The ‘I need to support a family’ kind of thing?
Yeah, so I had stacked a little money, and I was really looking for the next thing to do. I literally looked on craigslist. I didn’t know where to start. All I really knew was the restaurant business to some extent. I worked in restaurants. I knew the customer service from nightlife style and the bartender perspective. But I didn’t know what else you do with money. Am I supposed to buy a building? I didn’t have enough money to do that. So I was literally on craigslist looking for businesses for sale — just doing the research.
One day I found this spot. It was a burger place in Williamsburg, and I had been living in Brooklyn for years. So I started talking to this guy about buying his burger spot, Kitchen Delight, but, instead I bought Pops, which is still Pops today. That was almost ten years ago, so Pops was my first burger joint in Williamsburg.
That’s crazy. I had some friends in college that were always raving about the handmade burgers there.
[laughs] Yeah, so with Pops it was like I want to make burgers by hand like my father used to do. We can do better. Same thing with Sweet Chick. I was like, ‘we can do this better.’ Let’s try and execute things better than the next guy. Looking back on it now, if you do that with anything you do, that’s passion. I watched Steph Curry’s acceptance speech for the MVP. I look at him and go like, ‘he’s talking to me!’ He’s like, ‘Yo, how can we be better tomorrow?’ You look at Steph Curry like how can he be better? Well, he’s going to go to work and try and be better. You may not always be better than you were the day before, but as long as you try. That’s passion and that pays off.
When did you realize that Sweet Chick had becomea destination spot? Where it’s like, ‘Yo, we’re going to go get some drinks and dinner at Sweet Chick and head out for the night.’
When we opened up Sweet Chick in Brooklyn, I was at the door a lot, just hanging out. I was bussing tables in the f*cking beginning. You know?
So people didn’t even know you were the owner.
Exactly. That’s when I knew. People that didn’t even know I was the owner would come up to me on the way out and say, “Yo, we had such a f*cking dope time here.” Then people would say it a couple more times. I would say to other staff or the manager, “Is that f*cking normal?” Like when I go to restaurants — even if I had a great time — am I really walking out like, ‘I had such a great time.’People were really feeling it.
I have to ask how do you balance owning multiple new businesses with your family life?
You know restaurant hours aren’t normal hours. It’s like I’m in the office in the day time, but I also need to be at the restaurant in the night time. But I also have to be up in the morning to take my kids to school, which I do every day. I have to be home for them when they get out of school and spend real quality time with my kids, too. I got to be there with them on the weekends. You’ll definitely see that I bring them in Sweet Chick [laughs]. Pretty much my family and businesses are all that I have time for right now, but the fam comes first always.
(Photos by Ian Reid)