How inclusivity built Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant empire

Harlem restauranteur didn't want to cater to “the 1 percent of the 1 percent"

The odds didn’t start out in Marcus Samuelsson’s favor. Orphaned at 3 when a tuberculosis epidemic in his birthplace of Ethiopia took his mother, Samuelsson and his older sister were eventually adopted by a Swedish family. But, as the chef and restaurateur put it during the “Team Awesome” session at WeWork’s Global Summit in Los Angeles in January, “sometimes the worst thing that ever happened to you can be the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Not only did this life-changing event take him from a place where food was scarce to where it was abundant, Samuelsson says, but he and his sister found a home with an eclectic brood of different faces and personalities (including a grandmother who taught him to forage and use the best parts of the land for sustenance). This environment forever put him at ease around people of different backgrounds, and also instilled in him a lack of fear of failing or asking for help—which proved useful when Samuelsson eventually launched his restaurant business.

Samuelsson says his upbringing is why he gravitates toward open-minded and forward-thinking people. As a young man, he worked his way up the ranks in some of Europe’s toughest kitchens before breaking into the New York City restaurant scene. There he connected with Andrew Chapman, his eventual restaurant co-founder and investor. When the celebrity-chef trend hit big in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the two of them hatched a plan to open an eclectic comfort-food restaurant in Harlem that was about more than “filling your restaurant with more than the 1 percent of the 1 percent,” he says, a place “where people of all colors and beliefs can come.”

“Entrepreneurship is about how high are you willing to dream, how low are you willing to go, and can you execute?” says Marcus Samuelsson.

So Samuelsson made the leap—going from executive chef at Aquavit to opening Red Rooster uptown on Malcolm X Boulevard. “Entrepreneurship is about how high are you willing to dream, how low are you willing to go, and can you execute?” Samuelsson says. “Urban America operates with tons of entrepreneurs. Living in the community made me extremely aware of this.”

Samuelsson was more than willing, but he admits there were rough spots: He remembers being intimidated to seek out an established architect or designer because of their limited budget. So he reached out to other small-business entrepreneurs, asking for their help with these searches as a cost-cutting measure that would yield exposure and clients for everyone involved.

Samuelsson and Chapman knew it wasn’t enough to have delicious, innovative food—with Red Rooster, they also wanted to move the media needle. So they hosted dinners for brands like Nike and Bon Appetit magazine. They also started a food website, Samuelsson says, rather than wait for the occasional drop-in from The New York Times and other mainstream outlets. “Most black narratives and conversations aren’t told by us; they’re told by others,” he says. “It was important for us to do our own storytelling.

Red Rooster opened in December 2010, and in short order, it became a favorite destination for locals and celebrities and created jobs for the people who live there. Nearly 10 years later, Samuelsson says that 60 to 70 percent of Red Rooster’s staff still lives in the area. Attributes he looks for in team members include “passion and a level of attitude [that they] bring to the table.”

“You take the staff with you on your journey,” Samuelsson says of his team. “Building the tribe [is important], but also taking people with you is key. And listening to the staff.”

Samuelsson notes that Red Rooster and the WeWork Harlem location have something in common: “WeWork isn’t just improving your community; it’s about building other communities,” and likewise, “the good thing about a restaurant is you touch more communities. Breaking bread will always be a fresh idea.”

“As [society] gets more tech-savvy and as we get more people on the fringes not talking to each other, this idea of making stuff, telling stories through food, and listening to different narratives—that is still an incredible idea,” Samuelsson says.

It’s one that keeps Samuelsson busy. “You can never sleep on your business,” he says. “You have to have this constant idea of ‘how can I work in my business?’”

Luckily, Samuelsson can always find the good, even in the bad.