Seersucker is the charming southern restaurant from Robert Newton and Kerry Diamond. Like many couples, they dreamed of starting their own business together, and one year after opening, Seersucker has proved to be enough of a success that they've been able to launch a spinoff, Smith Canteen, down the block.
Robert Newton, chef and co-owner: It took two years from the idea to opening the door. Kerry and I moved in together, I fell in love with this neighborhood, and I had taken my private chef job as far as I felt I could take it. Kerry Diamond, co-owner: I'd never even worked in a restaurant before. We met, and we dated for a while, and he said, "Do you ever want to open a restaurant," and I said, "Yeah, sure." I was thinking that it was one of those New York things where people are like, "Let's, open a bake shop. Let's open a bed and breakfast. Let's move to Vermont." And then within two years, we had a restaurant.
Where did the concept come from? RN: The idea for Seersucker came to me when we were at a wedding down south. It encompassed all of things you associate with a refined southern moment — that's the suit that you wear when you're going to something celebratory. So, we kind of just spawned the idea from there. I'm from the south, my family's down there, and I knew that I wanted to explore that a little deeper. At the time, no one was really tapping into that kind of influence, or that kind of mindset. There's a lot going on there, especially if you take barbecue out of it. I love barbecue, but I don't want to have a barbecue restaurant.
Did you do any research? KD: We actually did take some trips down south. It was helpful for Rob, but it was really helpful for me to see where he came from and the food he grew up eating, and what southern food really is. I mean, I'm a native New Yorker, so it was really great to go down south and see what he was talking about.
How did you find the space? KD: We looked in Carroll Gardens, we looked in Williamsburg, and we looked in Brooklyn Heights. This space was available, and then someone else got their hands on it, and then I was walking to the bank one day, and saw the "for rent" sign back in the window. I called Rob from across the street, and said "That space is available again." RN: This is the perfect spot for a restaurant that's farm-to-table, for lack of a better word, because you have a farmers market across the street, and it's right near a subway stop — it's perfect for that. KD: All around, it was a weird time to be opening a restaurant. We wound up funding the whole entire thing ourselves, and trying to open when the economy is tanking around you is a challenge.
Were there any delays? KD: A lot of delays, that was hard. Financially, that was the hardest.
How was the opening? KD: We had tons of support. People liked what they saw. They liked the menu, they liked how the restaurant looked. Opening a restaurant is really hard, it can bring you to your knees, and one of the most rewarding parts has been the neighborhood. We've met so many people in the neighborhood, and so many of the same people come here and want this to succeed, and it's such a nice feeling. RN: That's how a neighborhood restaurant is successful. You cultivate regulars, you cultivate neighbors, and you cultivate friends.
So business was good from the start? KD: We had a great first month, fall was really good, winter was harder in that the weather was such a challenge. We lost power the night before New Year's Eve, and we did not get it back until 4 PM, two hours before customers were supposed to come in. We had the whole restaurant booked out that night. RN: I worked all day with the electrician, and we were up all night. At 1 o'clock, we were like "Oh, holy shit, is it going to come together?" I had a meeting with all the cooks at noon the next day, saying that we're going to plan like it's going to happen, and it's going to happen. KD: At one point we started calling people and telling them that we couldn't honor their New Year's Eve reservations. RN: "Hi, this is Seersucker, we're calling to ruin your New Year's Eve." KD: But New Year's Day ended up being really fun, because the bar filled up first, and it's usually the opposite, and there were a lot of people at the bar eating these special dishes Rob had prepared, in a really good mood.
Have you changed the menu a lot over the last year? RN: I change the menu all the time. KD: We love that the greenmarket is right across the street. We're working with five or six different farms now, but it's really nice striking up these relationships. RN: Last summer was so overwhelming, because we just opened, and I didn't get to spend as much time over there as I wanted to. And, from the first asparagus, to the first stinging nettle, it's been great to be able to take that to the next level. We hope to see the market grow, and we want to be a part of that growth.
When did you get the idea for Smith Canteen? KD: I think from the entrepreneurial perspective, we like creating something from nothing, and we like creating jobs and supporting the neighborhood. It just felt really organic. The coffee was taking off, and we knew that people were loving what we were doing, but we also knew that the space wasn't quite right for what we wanted to provide. And we like working together. We were a little scared when we started this, because we had such a nice relationship. We were worried about whether our relationship would survive, being business partners. RN: Not even just being business partners, but being a restaurant. The organization of everything, the timing of everything — it can break the best of people. KD: We said in the beginning that if it effected the relationship, you know....I have a day job, anyway. So, if it started to effect the relationship, I would just kind of remove myself from the business part of it. And fortunately, we've really enjoyed working together. RN: And like Kerry said earlier, the creative process, and coming up with a vision, and then watching as it comes to fruition is totally exciting stuff.
Has moving the breakfast and lunch operations to Smith Canteen freed you up to do something different at dinner? RN: Yeah, we've got some stuff we're working on. [Laughs] I think our nature is to constantly try and improve ourselves, and be better. And we like to surround ourselves with people like that, and treat our business that way.