Source: Sweet Chick
Jan 19, 2021
How Sweet Chick’s pandemic pivot could hint at a ‘new style of hospitality’
Chicken-and-waffle staple Sweet Chick pivoted from urban chic to Covid sleek, and provided needful New Yorkers with 10,000 meals
If you want to piss off John Seymour, tell him that New York is dead. The founder of Sweet Chick, the buzzy chicken-and-waffles restaurant with five locations in New York and Los Angeles, much prefers to think of the city optimistically.
“I don’t really have another choice,” he says.
Sweet Chick underwent a major change in the past few months (whomst among us has not?), some of which may end up being permanent. It pivoted to fast-casual service, calling itself Lil’ Sweet Chick, with a smaller, quicker menu. Seymour shuttered indoor dining and, taking inspiration from his stand in Citi Field, the new iteration offers just the staples in a pandemic-friendly fashion through window service (and nearly everything on the menu can be made meat-free with seitan).
The city-wide economic hardship struck a chord within Seymour, who went on to launch another new initiative: Everybody Eats. Through Lil’ Sweet Chick’s kitchen, the company has served over 10,000 free meals (150 people a week) to New Yorkers in need, and donated clothing. Now Seymour is looking into making the community service a permanent part of Sweet Chick, including ultimately setting up a 501(c)3 charity component of the restaurant.
Seymour grew up in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn, right by Sweet Chick’s flagship in Williamsburg, which opened in 2013. Rapper Nas teamed up as partner shortly thereafter. Music is central to the brand, and the marriage of music and chicken and waffles is historic: Seymour likes to tell a story of a 1920s jazz musician who went into a a kitchen late one night and said that he couldn’t decide if he wanted breakfast or dinner. The chef offered to make some waffles to pair with leftover fried chicken.
Apocryphal though that may be, chicken and waffles have been a staple at least since the 1930s when it featured prominently on the menu at Harlem’s Well’s Supper Club. And today the vibe of Sweet Chick captures these perfect pairings: chicken and waffles, music and food.
“We captured, for lack of a better word, a little magic within the store, between our customer base and our hospitality style,” says Seymour. “People really gravitated towards that. It’s a restaurant that we feel is for everyone.”
In the first few months of the pandemic, however, Sweet Chick languished along with the rest of the city and restaurant industry. Shutdowns, layoffs, and fear were themselves a secondary pandemic. The pivot to Lil’ Sweet Chick helped Seymour bounce back from those early months, as the window service model ended up exceeding expectations.
Despite the difficulties of the last year, Seymour sees the future of New York as bright. He’s excited about the restaurant industry too, predicting more players in the fast-casual market and a “new style of hospitality” on the rise.
For all its A-List buzz—celebrity customers include Leonardo DiCaprio and Mariah Carey—Seymour’s target customers are always those who live right around the restaurant.
“We set out to be a neighborhood spot,” says Seymour. “So if you lived in the neighborhood, you could come here two or three times a week if you wanted.”
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