The latest restaurant to make the move from New York City to London is Sweet Chick, a neighbourhood fried chicken and waffle spot founded by restaurateur John Seymour and backed hip-hop icon Nas.
Sweet Chick, now a mini chain, opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2013. It now has locations on the Lower East Side, Queens, and Prospect Heights in New York, as well as Fairfax in Los Angeles. Sweet Chick, which serves “southern inspired” dishes, will make its international debut on the former site of Carluccio’s on Market Place, just off Oxford Street in central London at the end of September or early October this year.
Eater London spoke to Seymour on the phone this week to better understand what the brand was about, why London, why now, and how one of the greatest, most famous rappers of all time came to play such a central role in a modest neighbourhood chicken restaurant.
“We’ve been approached for licensing deals in other countries but they’re not that interesting because of language barriers. We’re still a considerably small brand to be opening overseas,” Seymour said. “We have one investor from London and a lot of people who know London said we’d ‘crush’.”
Seymour said that he’s been pleasantly surprised to have legacy presuppositions about London’s culinary inferiority debunked on the visits he’s made to the city in the past year. “It’s pretty refreshing to be honest,” he said. “Growing up in New York, the centre of food for so long; London is a new New York for me. For me to be able to explore, it’s the closest thing I’ve seen to New York.”
He said that he’s excited about what he calls both a “fresh start” and “clean slate.” He’s looking forward to a “new host of people to introduce to the brand. In a way that we couldn’t do in America.
“It seems so natural to open in a place like London.”
Given the brand’s reputation both as a hip and neighbourhood restaurant, observers could be forgiven for wondering why Seymour and the team decided to open quite literally in the centre of the city.
“When we were looking for sites, people said Shoreditch was Williamsburg and we looked at a bunch of sites in different neighbourhoods,” Seymour said. But, without the local knowledge and with the association of a globally recognised name in Nas, the team felt that footfall trumped other considerations. “[There’s] a lot of people on Oxford Street, so high visibility,” Seymour said. “Market Place has a really good vibe, the little street is nice. And we want to introduce to as many people as we can. That was a deal-breaker.”
He says that the Carluccio’s site had good infrastructure in place, minimising the build and reconfiguration time. When it opens, it will do so with a main dining area — alongside a bar with a cocktail programme — for 60. In addition, a private event space at the back will accommodate 25 to 30, plus a terrace with space for an extra 25 to 28.
Nas, whose full name is Nasir Jones, is among the world’s recognised rap artists, catapulting to stardom in 1994 at the age of 19 with the seminal album, Illmatic. Music, Seymour said, has always been important to him and the Sweet Chick brand. Indeed, Seymour relishes telling the tale of the alleged invention of chicken and waffles at a jazz club in Harlem, when a musician approached the chef undecided on whether he wanted dinner or breakfast. The chef asked why he might not consider having both.
Even though Nas’ father was himself a jazz musician, the connection between the rapper and the restaurant happened by accident, much less by design. Seymour said that in 2014, when he hosted a one-year anniversary party for the restaurant, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan turned up and subsequently helped facilitate, some months later, a dinner at the Williamsburg Sweet Chick with the CEO of Mass Appeal, the record label co-founded by Nas.
“I met the CEO,” Seymour said. “He was really interested in the brand and wanted to see if we could expand it. He told me, ‘I think Nas could be interested in it.’” Seymour, who is evidently a well-connected operator in New York City found himself backstage a Nas gig where they met for the first time. “His friends had been, told him all about it so a few weeks later we had dinner at the Brooklyn restaurant. We clicked, we hung out. He said, ‘I want to help out and get involved, Sweet Chick is dope. I want to help grow this.’”
It’s not particularly unusual for celebrities to invest in brands, to diversify their personal portfolio. It’s more unusual for one to invest in a modest mini-chain and have such a hands-on role. Sweet Chick had just two sites before Nas got involved in 2015. Seymour said “he blends in with the brand. He likes what we do and how we treat people. Sweet Chick is for the people. We want people to come in and be treated in the same way.”
He selects a recent example when a shutdown of the American Congress left Federal Workers without pay. “Nas called and said, ‘let’s do something.’ So we organised free chicken and waffles for Federal Workers.
“He is so close to the essence of the brand.”
Although Sweet Chick is rooted in the Southern traditions of fried chicken and the musical heritage of the jazz clubs of Harlem, Seymour emphasises that the restaurant seeks not to stake a particular claim at authenticity.
“It’s ‘New American comfort food’,” he says. “What comes out is pretty unique: Sometimes there’s braised octopus. Or a take on New York Chinese food, or a version of Nashville hot chicken. We can sit in any lane. It’s food to make you feel good.”
His hope is to replicate that sense of comfort in a city that now knows what it likes.
“[London] is a perfect home. Because it’s so similar to New York,” Seymour says. He is second-generation Irish with family in London. He laughs before admitting another thing he’s looking forward to. “And I’ll be able to go to my aunts every week for a Sunday roast.”