John Seymour is behind the counter at Sweet Chick in Williamsburg next to a sign with the Biggie line, “Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.” Serving American comfort food with a Southern twist is the Sweet Chick way, and the vibe in Seymour’s restaurant is relaxed as he manages the crowded room with an easy charm. As the owner of two Williamsburg restaurants, Sweet Chick and Pops, with a second Sweet Chick location set to open in the Lower East Side, life is pretty good for the 36-year-old. But growing up in working class New York, life was far more tumultuous for Seymour.
Seymour attended PS 158 in the Yorkville neighborhood, while helping out his dad, a bartender on the Upper East Side, at an early age. “I was opening beers in 4th grade,” he says. Growing up around a bar, one might assume it would be hard to stay sober, but John’s father tried his best to ensure that John and his brother wouldn’t go down the same path as he did. “My father used to tell me and my brother that we were allergic to alcohol,” he says. “We thought that if we drank, we would get red and break out in hives. It turns out I am allergic – If I drink I break out in handcuffs [Laughs].”
From there, Seymour worked a stint as a doorman on Park Avenue living some pretty memorable experiences. “I had to lie and say I was 18, but I was working overnight shifts when I was just 15. It was crazy,” he says. “I was making like $500 a week all summer which is a big deal for someone who is 15 years old in New York at the time.”
Behind the glamour of the Upper East Side, John witnessed suspect late night behavior from the Park Avenue residents and developed keen people watching skills. “A lot of people took home prostitutes,” he says.
John has been sober now for 12 years. At age 22, he came to a point where he knew he had to turn his life around. “My father was an alcoholic, so that was always in the back of my head,” he says. “I realized it when I was by myself uptown in Spanish Harlem and it was 12 in the afternoon.” And so, John decided to turn his life around.
“In rehab I met a guy named Sammy and he was in the DMS group. He was the one that put me onto that hardcore scene,” he says. The New York Hardcore Scene is a subculture associated with punk music and occasional violence. “We were in Arizona together in a halfway house and we were really close, he was like a brother to me. We both came to New York and I became an electrician because he was an electrician. Years later, I found out he died, overdosed and had a hard attack.” Sammy’s death took a toll on John, and inadvertently helped him to get sober.
Another element that led to John ultimately deciding to stay clean was the trouble that followed him. He was once arrested on 86th and 3rd on St. Patricks Day. “It was really funny because as I was actually going to court that morning and I had my Irish driver’s license,” he says. “My aunt got me one that says born in Ireland. So one minute they were arresting me on 86th Street, and I put on an Irish accent and pretended I was a tourist who was just visiting. They told me ‘You beat that kid really well, now get outta here!’” he says.
Growing up in New York City, John was inevitably exposed to the graffiti scene. He began tagging at an early age. “RD, Lace, D3, I grew up with all of them,” he says. “RD actually just did our wall. I was like, ‘Listen it’s our one year anniversary and to me you’re the biggest writer in New York.’”
While kicking it with his graf friends, John would hang out in places like Max Fish and various pool halls. John is still tight with his graf friends and the artist Kidd One will be working at Sweet Chick’s new location. “Sometimes you gotta help guys out, you know? If someone calls you and they’re like, ‘I got a long rap sheet and I need this job,’ you gotta give it to them.”
Sweet Chick’s new location is not just anywhere on the Lower East Side, it’s the coveted 178 Ludlow Street address – the old Max Fish. “Taking Max Fish is a big deal – but a lot of people don’t understand how it really works,” John says. “One girl was like, ‘Oh you’re the reason Max Fish closed.’ I thought about it but I was like, ‘Who better to take it than me?’ Should I wait for The Gap or Chipotle to take it or should I step up and take it? I drank there, I’m a New Yorker, I’m friends with people that are tight with Uli and she knows we’re taking over.”
Today, you can find John Seymour at Sweet Chick or Pops. Sweet Chick just celebrated their one year anniversary with a little help from the Wu-Tang Clan. “Raekwon showed up to our one year anniversary a few weeks ago,” John says. The rapper ended up doing an impromptu performance before enjoying the delicious buffet of food. “There was a guy at our one year anniversary – we had family style food that night – pig roast, sandwiches – and he tried to stuff a sandwich in Raekwons mouth so we had to kick him out [Laughs].”
John still messes with graffiti from time to time, most recently at Art Basel Miami in 2013. “Right when I got there we just got in the car and went tagging. We felt like kids again. Running from the cops.” But now, John has a family to look after. He currently lives with his wife and three daughters. His soon to be three restaurants, a daily reminder of his success and New York hustle.