The Corner Office: John Seymour, Founder of Sweet Chick
Words: Julian Mitchell
Images: Thuan Tran
Images: Thuan Tran
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
The birthplace of Hip-Hop, New York has bred many of the most prolific storytellers of our time, whose words have shaped and influenced generations. Narrating the realities of navigating the inner city while striving for success, rap is rooted in the belief that anything is possible. The genre transcends entertainment by providing a source of hope for hustlers, curious kids, and aspiring creators. By tapping into this universal hunger for more, Hip-Hop has proven to be a powerful tool for blending cultures and creating community.
For Sweet Chick CEO John Seymour, growing up inspired by Biggie, while watching his father bartend at the neighborhood pub helped the New York native develop a unique outlook on hospitality, while laying the foundation for an idea that would rewrite the rules of the restaurant industry.
"Sweet Chick was built on that sense of community, and my goal with the business has been to bring people together to share an enjoyable experience above anything else."
In a short stretch, Sweet Chick has evolved from a local Brooklyn hangout into a bi-coastal chain of restaurants celebrated for seamlessly blending food, music and culture to cultivate a sense of community that connects people from all walks of life.
Rooted in classic rap lyrics, corner conversations, a mellow vibe and signature Chicken and Waffles — Sweet Chick takes a Hip-Hop inspired step beyond the traditional restaurant. Walls are accented with artwork, notable quotes and a series of subtle nods to its many cultural influences. A park bench sits outside of the Ludlow location, a landmark where Seymour is known to post, welcoming daily chats amongst strangers and regulars alike. The concept of taking a New York-focused lifestyle approach to dining caught the eye of rap legend Nas, who became an investor and now stands alongside Seymour as Co-Owner.
In addition to a standout space in the East Village and two popular Brooklyn destinations, Seymour and his team recently expanded, opening the doors to their first Los Angeles location. Marking the franchise’s first footprint on the west coast, Seymour hopes and plans to see a Sweet Chick pop-up in every major city across the country.
I spoke with John about his come up, the vision behind Sweet Chick, and his blueprint for turning a neighborhood restaurant into a thriving lifestyle brand.
What experience or notable period of your life first sparked an interest in restaurants and hospitality?
John Seymour: I grew up in a bar, because my father was a bartender. Me and my brother used to lie to the kids at school and say my father owned the bar. We were somewhat embarrassed, because the other kid’s fathers were doctors, lawyers, teachers and so on. Additionally, deep down, my father always had the desire to own a bar. My parents are both from Ireland. I remember we used to go back to Ireland as kids, and we would always drive by this bar coming from the airport on the way to my uncle’s house. Each time we passed it, my father used to say, ‘I almost bought that bar.’ I always remembered that. It’s something that stuck with me since a young kid. He would half-jokingly tell me and my brother that if he had bought that bar, we would have grown up in Ireland. The truth buried under the joke is that he always wanted to own his own place, but never did.
My father was a neighborhood guy who was respected and well known in the neighborhood. Seeing how he brought so many different people from all walks of life together shaped my first understanding of hospitality. It was a traditional Irish bar, so everybody you could think of was in there -- the local cop, the garbage man, the guy who owned the deli down the block – the regular fixtures were always in there. But, regardless of the different backgrounds and stories, everybody felt like part of one family. That genuine neighborhood vibe and sense of community is what served as the inspiration behind my first restaurant, which I named Pops in the spirit of my father.
What was the inspiration behind it and describe how you got it off the ground?
John Seymour: My father used to make burgers for the guys in the neighborhood. He wasn't a cook or anything. There was no cook at the bar, but they had a little kitchen, and if he knew you and you wanted a cheeseburger, he’d make you a cheeseburger. He took pride in his cheeseburgers, too. So, when I came up with the idea, I literally went on Craigslist and I just started looking for available restaurants. I searched online for information about opening a restaurant, which is how I found out what key money was and other key terms tied to the restaurant business. I also learned through that process that you never know what it’s going to cost you until you start building it. That’s why people always say budget more than you really need, but nobody ever does, and then they're over budget.
I ended up finding a guy on Craigslist that was selling an existing burger shop. He told me that he had two places. I didn’t like the block that the place he had for sale was on. I knew the other spot, because I lived up the block from it, and told him that's the spot I want. After a lot of convincing, I talked him into selling me the place, which I ended up turning into Pops. I knew that I could take it, rebrand it and make it better -- and that's what I did. I bought the place from him for pretty cheap. I didn't really know what I was doing. I had never really run a restaurant. It was a small little takeout burger spot. I just took it over and learned as I went.
Seeing your father’s aspirations growing up and developing a passion for community as a kid – Were you always entrepreneurial or did the desire to start a business evolve over time?
John Seymour: I have always been entrepreneurial in spirit, but I wouldn't necessarily say I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. There was just a turning point at which I made the decision to act on being an entrepreneur. I liked the idea of it, but when I met my wife, I started thinking about the reality of having a family one day and the importance of leaving a legacy. That’s when it became clear to me that I wanted more and what that looked like – it wasn’t about just getting more for myself, but building more for my future. It was time to take a chance. I'm not a gambler, but I think we all reach a point where you have to take a risk and bet on yourself. I’m not a gambler, but I am a risk-taker. I never wanted to gamble with my money. If my money is involved, I want to make smart decisions and invest in things I know will make my money grow. In life, you can’t win big without being willing to take a risk.
"When I started thinking about restaurants and began asking anybody that was in the restaurant business...they all told me not to do it. Instead of giving up...I took that as kind of like f*ck you, I’m going to prove you wrong."
What was the turning point at which you realized it was time to take a risk and build a business of your own?
John Seymour: Before opening my first spot, I was a bartender. I was bartending at a lot of the popular New York night clubs. A lot of my friends were promoters, so I was in the scene and connected to what was going on in the city. After working in the clubs for a couple of years, I was making good money and started stacking it. Even when I was making good money bartending, I always wanted more for myself. But, I never really knew what I wanted or wanted to do. It wasn’t until I met my wife that things shifted. She put the battery in my back to take a chance and figure out what more looked like. That set me on the path to opening my first Pops in Brooklyn, which ultimately kicked off my career.
How do you personally evaluate if a risk is worth taking or not?
John Seymour: Every decision is different. You want to take as educated of a risk as you can. You want to be as informed as possible. The Internet has been a lifesaver for me. When I don't know something, I tend to become obsessed with figuring it out. I'll go online there and search tirelessly until I find the answer. If you want it, you have to go out and get it, period. In some cases, no matter how educated you are, the risk is still going to be there. Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and go with your gut.
There's no perfect formula that is going to show you exactly how much money this business is going to make, or exactly what problems are going to arise. Anybody who invests in anything will always say there's always a risk, no matter how promising a company is. There will always be a level of blindness involved unless you can see the future.
When it comes to mentorship or seeking advice about starting a business – What did you learn throughout your process?
John Seymour: People aren’t trying to tell you how to get your own. If they have their own jet, mansion, or private island -- people aren’t usually trying to tell you how they really got it, or how to get that for yourself. When I started thinking about restaurants and began asking anybody that was in the restaurant business or familiar with the industry, they all told me not to do it. Instead of giving up or getting discouraged, I took that as kind of like f*ck you, I’m going to prove you wrong. What do you mean don’t do it? You're doing it. I felt like I was being dissed. I thought it was simple -- you open a restaurant, you sell your product and you make a profit; like opening a sneaker store and selling shoes. Because of my background, customer service came natural to me.
After opening Sweet Chick, it just confirmed my belief in myself. You have to do your own research and trust your gut. Seek advice to add perspective to the ideas or decisions you believe are best, instead of asking with the intent that people will help make the decisions for you.
How important is investing in yourself and doing the groundwork in the beginning to set you up for success down the line?
John Seymour: People ask me about partnerships and trying to raise money for their businesses all the time. What I tell them is that nobody is going to give you money if you're not putting any of your own money into it, even if it’s just $10. There's something about having skin in the game and showing people that you’re willing to do what it takes to make your vision a reality, regardless of who signs up to help you. I stacked up some money and I wanted to do something. When I started out, I didn’t know how to make money. I didn't go to college. I don't have a traditional background. It sounds like a weird thing to say, but a lot of people experience it. I had to ask people that I knew were doing big things what I should do with my money and how to make money. What I learned from that process is that you can seek advice, but nobody can really tell you what to do. You have to find your own way.
Seeing the rapid rise of Sweet Chick -- What have you found to be the keys to launching and running both a successful and scalable restaurant?
John Seymour: Running a restaurant, you learn that the customer experience is really the most important aspect. To be successful, more specifically, you have to create an all-around experience. It’s also about hiring great people and having them buy into the brand that you're building. Those are the staples, and I feel like we have solidified both with Sweet Chick. You have to hire people that genuinely share your vision and are willing to invest in it. As we continue to grow, these things become even more important. It’s very hard, but I feel like we're a different breed.
The restaurant business is so transient. It’s probably the most transient business there is. Most people that work in a restaurant are doing it because they're ultimately trying to do something else. That’s where we’re different. I think our retention of staff is probably the highest percentile in the restaurant industry. We have people that I've personally hired from the original Sweet Chick that are still here five years later and want to continue growing with us, which is dope. At the end of the day, while the customer is the most important person, our employees are really the most important people. We set a high expectation for our employees, because without them being happy, the customer is not going to be happy.
Sweet Chick is championed for creating a real feeling of community and connection to the culture of each neighborhood – How important is that element to the success of your business?
John Seymour: Sweet Chick was built on that sense of community, and my goal with the business has been to bring people together to share an enjoyable experience above anything else. There are so many different aspects you have to hit in order to have a great space. For me, building a community is definitely at the forefront. I'm not a chef by any means, I'm more of a hospitality guy. Coming up watching my father is really where that came from. It wasn’t about having the best drinks, or the nicest looking establishment, it was about building a real community. From an early age, I knew the fixtures in my neighborhood. Once people stepped into the bar, it’s like everyone was Marty’s kids. The cop was there, but the criminal was there, too. It was a place where they could all meet and see each other as people, first.
What have been some of your biggest inspirations behind the space and experience you’ve created with Sweet Chick?
John Seymour: Hip-Hop is a big inspiration for us. We live by the line, ‘went from negative to positive, and it’s all good.’ That's something we say amongst our staff. When somebody comes in, anything can happen. It’s our job to make sure that if something negative is impacting our customers, we turn around their day. It's our job to make sure that if anything goes, at any given time, we can create a positive solution. We also believe in just doing dope sh*t. If we think it’s going to be fun, interesting and different -- let’s do it.
I’m all about keeping a positive mental attitude. I believe in thinking anything is possible. You have to keep a positive mental attitude. If you do that, everything else falls into place. You also need hustle. You have to hustle hard at all times, regardless of the circumstance. That’s how you win. As we grow the company, there's always going to be more money and more value in the company. That's not what drives me. What drives me is creating a dope space for people. I’m driven by seeing people chilling, having a good time and feeling a part of the community. I didn't set out to be in the restaurant business. I probably could have gone into some other type of business and still been as happy. It’s really just about creating something that's fun, unique, creative and different.
How do you maintain that authentic spirit of community as your business continues expanding to more locations across the country?
John Seymour: I'm from New York City, so being connected to the community is a natural part of who I am. Before I was doing anything, I was hanging out on a stoop, in the streets on a corner, or in a park. It probably sounds normal to people, but it’s not. Connecting with people is important to me, and that's what I like to do, so when I'm hanging out at the restaurant, everybody that comes in instantly feels like family. That welcoming feeling changes the entire atmosphere. I like learning from and about new people. I like meeting new people and creating that community. That's the best thing for me to see in any restaurant.
People often ask me, what do you like to do in your off time? I like kicking it on a stoop and talking sh*t with whoever’s around. That's what I like to do. That spirit also translates to my business. It brings people together. From employees to patrons, it reflects the culture we’ve created here. It’s a culture of family, and being connected to the neighborhood. It’s like hanging out, kicking it on the corner. Sweet Chick was designed to be a community space. Some people just come for the food, and that's great. We’re a restaurant first, so we're in the office all the time discussing how our food can be better. We can’t just sit down and be like cool we got a great product and we're done. But, we also want to do fun things that resonate with the people around us in our community.
What would be your word of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs or business owners from a similar background looking to bring their dreams to life?
John Seymour: If you can dream it, it’s possible. I believe that. If you want to do something and you love it, you'll find a way. Everything is a risk, and it may not work out. What you set out to do today may look totally different 10 years from now. Regardless of this, anything is possible. You can’t let somebody tell you that it can’t be done. New things happen all the time. A lot of people come from nothing and make it big. You have to be creative and find a way. If you want it bad enough, you'll make it happen. It may not be the way that you thought it was going to happen, but you can make it happen. You have to believe in yourself and get people to believe in you. When I'm out of this game, and I'm ready to invest, I want to find somebody’s that's hungry. If you’re passionate and hustling, there are people looking for you right now. If you're that kid with a dream, go after it with everything you’ve got and you will eventually figure it out.