How does a restaurateur become one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World? Listen to and learn from Sean Sherman’s story.
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Transcript:[Michael:] In this next episode of the About Money podcast by Wells Fargo, we have award-winning chef Sean Sherman, who’s here to talk to us. And by the way, he was named Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2023. He’s going to tell us about how he started his business, which is a delicious restaurant called Owamni. He’s going to tell us how he was inspired to start that restaurant, and then all the financial details behind it, in addition to how he’s carrying forward that passion and purpose to make a difference in the community and the world. We’re so excited to have Sean a part of this About Money podcast episode.
We’re super excited to have you because people always love hearing from business owners and especially a restaurateur. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your restaurant, and sort of your almost like your sales pitch, when you were first building it, like, how did you get the funding or the money to do it?[Sean:] Absolutely. So, I mean, it’s a long path. I started my company, which was called The Sioux Chef, and it’s a play on words SIOUX. So because I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and I’m enrolled with the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe. It’s where all my family came from. [Michael:] I’m Cherokee. [Sean:] Great. [Michael:] Awesome. [Sean:] And then I grew up on Pine Ridge in South Dakota, moved to Minneapolis right after college and kept working in restaurants because I started restaurant work when I was 13. [Michael:] OK. [Sean:] And then after I was done with college out there in South Dakota, I moved to Minneapolis and I started working, continued working restaurants. But I worked my way up into a chef position rather quickly when I was pretty young. So I was about 27 when I got my first chef job. And then I just kind of set my career path, and I had a really nice career as a chef. I was curious. I had a good eye for plates. I read a lot, so I had a good understanding of history and how things should be done and just tried to figure it out.
So I didn’t go to culinary school. I just bought the textbooks from the culinary schools and read those basically, and practiced, of course, working on the job and moved my way up. I had a good chef career in the beginning, but it was a few years into that chef career that I just realized the complete absence of my own heritage in the food systems out there. There were no native restaurants. There was very few cookbooks on the subject if you could even find them.[Michael:] And when you think of a native restaurant, what did that mean to you when you were seeing this big gap? [Sean:] Well, there was every food in the world you could find, even in a small city like Minneapolis, you can wander around and find food from every corner of the world, just not food from where you’re standing. [Michael:] Italian. [Sean:] Yeah, you name it. [Michael:] Chinese food. [Sean:] And it’s the same, it’s unfortunately the same situation right now. If you’re in Manhattan, you find food from all over the world. But good luck finding food from where you’re standing, you know. [Michael:] Which is kind of fascinating when you think about it. [Sean:] Right. It’s so, it’s … you know. [Michael:] So what was the big aha moment for you, though? Like what, what created that moment where you said, I have to do something about this? [Sean:] Yeah, for me it was the epiphany because I was actually living in Mexico and I was living on the coast of the Nayarit, which is on the Pacific side, a little ways north of Puerto Vallarta. And I was just trying to figure out what to do next with my chef career and I got really interested in this Indigenous community that was down there called the Huichol, and they’re always selling really cool beadwork, and they had the colorful dress. And then and I was just researching about them and I just understood the connections that I had with them being Indigenous peoples from way down there in Mexico to what I grew up with on Pine Ridge around Lakota community, and I saw so much commonality and something just struck me. But I basically just saw … I had an epiphany and I just saw a flash and I saw the whole thing just light up of exactly what I needed to do and wanted to do. [Michael:] Are you being serious, like really … [Sean:] Literally, yeah. And it just became a passion to want to understand what my Lakota ancestors are eating. How were they harvesting? What were they, were they trading with other people? Were they foraging foods? All these questions from a culinary perspective, what were they using first? So fats and salts and sugars and things like that, what kind of proteins, and just all the seasonality of it.
And you know, just how do you survive a long winter? You know, because we’re in here in Minnesota and it’s cold up here. And you have a very short growing season. You have like five months of really good growing season and then it’s like three years of winter here.[Michael:] So that might change in the next 10 years. [Sean:] We’ll see what happens. It might be very temperate, you never know. [Michael:] Exactly. [Sean:] But so all these questions just led me to want to understand more about my ancestry. So I started searching and reading and researching, talking to elders in my community, looking through lots of really dry ethnobotanical texts about how people are utilizing plants and foods, and started, you know, as a chef just playing around and identifying plants, bringing them into the kitchen, understanding the seasons of them, figuring out different uses for them, and trying to develop a philosophy around what could modern Indigenous foods look like. [Michael:] So where did you get all the money and time to do this? [Sean:] I had the time. I wouldn’t say I had the money because I grew up very poor and we didn’t really have any family wealth laying around for me to do much. But I worked really hard and I was a chef and I took many chef jobs that paid me decently. [Michael:] So you were working as a chef while you were exploring this opportunity? [Sean:] Yes. [Michael:] So tell us about that, how you did that. [Sean:] So after Mexico, I moved from Mexico to Montana with the purpose of being closer to nature and being outside. So I worked on a ranch for a little bit. I worked as a chef, as a kind of a chef consultant, and I helped open and develop three different restaurant concepts while I was out there, at the same time, just using that opportunity to be close to nature, to be close to the mountains, be close to the plains.
I moved back to Minnesota and I ended up in northern Minnesota at first. And I started actively practicing doing some modern Indigenous foods, like what does an Anishinaabe Taste of Spring dinner look like? Or what does a Dakota summertime dinner look like?
And utilizing some of the moon cycles and things, like we’re having a dinner that’s celebrating the Chokecherry Moon that’s out right now or something along those lines, you know, and just really trying to understand how can we put a lot of Indigenous value into a culinary concept. At the same time, as I was researching all of this, I just also researched a lot of the inequality in the whole situation.
So it really became a study of what happened to us as Indigenous peoples in American history. And it became a matter of basically just naming what is American colonialism and the damage that it had against Indigenous peoples and how we’re still suffering from a lot of the oppression and the segregation and the racism that still keeps us down largely as Indigenous communities and as Indigenous individuals.
So for me, it became a bigger section to not only looking at what were we eating, what could it be, but also like how can we change these broken systems? How can we make a difference? How can we get healthy Indigenous foods back into tribal communities so we can curb Type 2 diabetes and obesity and heart disease. You know, because on Pine Ridge when I grew up, we had one grocery store to service an area the size of Connecticut. So we’re here now where we’ve been able to get this far. We have a really big up and coming nonprofit and we have this restaurant with massive awards. We have a cookbook. There’s a second cookbook in the works, and there’s just a lot to talk about.[Michael:] You said there’s a lot of history in what you’ve created and, and our listeners know, you know, with respect to Native peoples and Indigenous peoples, you know, it’s been a very difficult journey.
The second thing that I’m hearing you say is that you now have started an actual business around that, you know, cookbooks, awards, and all these different types of things. And so you can really also make money while doing those good things, which is also exciting.
And then the last thing that I will say I personally experienced at your restaurant was there’s just extraordinary joy in how you’ve designed that restaurant, how you describe the food, you know, where it came from, why you’re doing what you do, and you can’t help but have a wonderful experience while enjoying the food too, which is also served in a very beautiful way.
So how did you originally get the, and we’re talking about money, the funding or the money or the interest to be able to actually do these things, because that’s what our listeners are really interested in. So did you get seed funding for your business? Did you get investors? Like how did that work?[Sean:] Yeah, I mean, I just kind of stumbled through it little by little. So I think, you know, I got a $10,000 fellowship right off the bat, which helped out. I got the cookbook deal right off the bat, and so there wasn’t a very large advance to that at all. And I gave most of that to the co-author that helped me put that together.
But I did what I knew how to do, which is something I learned in Mexico when I moved down there and just started working with the skill set that I had, basically, you know, so I knew how to cook. And so I started doing pop-up dinners. So just basically we would, I would put together a menu, I’d grab a few people, we’d take over a restaurant, and we would just throw together like two or three nights of very focused dinners.[Michael:] I want to go to a pop-up dinner. I don’t think I’ve ever been to one before. [Sean:] So like Indigenous, like an Indigenous Taste of Colorado or an Indigenous Anishinaabe Taste of Spring, like I said, or we did one that was Indigenous Mexico. And then there was just a whole bunch of themes that we would do and we’d sell out, you know, a few hundred seats. It’s a hustle, basically because any small business is a hustle because you’re scrounging enough money to make the next event happen basically, and buying equipment along the way.
And, you know, I was, I didn’t have a home kitchen. I was renting kitchens to work out of and things like that.[Michael:] So let’s talk about that. When you got to the home kitchen part, when you, you actually established this is where I want my restaurant to be. This is what I want it to look like. How did you get the money for that and how did that all unfold? [Sean:] So there’s a few pieces to that because where Owamni is, it’s run and owned, oh sorry, it’s owned by the Minneapolis Park Board. [Michael:] OK. [Sean:] So it’s a city-owned property space. It sits on two old mill ruins because that area around the waterfall in downtown Minneapolis is kind of where the heart of all the colonial machines started. So when we took the name, we just took the name of the area that we happen to be in, which was around the waterfall, which is what downtown Minneapolis is today.
The Park Board put out an RFP a while back, a request for proposal for a vendor, which we won, and then that was like in 2017 and it took us all the way to open in 2021. Yesterday was actually our two-year anniversary of being open to the public.[Michael:] Congratulations. That’s amazing. [Sean:] And we, I had run a Kickstarter, which was pretty successful for its time because we shot for $100,000 and I think we hit almost just shy of 150. But still, that’s just not enough money in today’s world to open up a restaurant, especially after you pay off all those Kickstarter pieces, you know? Because I think I ended up with maybe, maybe 60,000 after it was all said and done, you know, with whatever the Kickstarter company takes off and then paying out all the little pieces.
But, you know, it gave us a nest egg to try to save up, to be prepared. But the trick was when the restaurant finally opened in ’21, right in the middle of a global pandemic and …[Michael:] So a little wrinkle in your plan. [Sean:] Little wrinkle in the plan. Who could have foreseen the entire food industry on a global scale disappear? So we had to be really creative and really strategic of finding that final funding to get those doors open back then. [Michael:] So how did you do it? [Sean:] We found some social enterprises that really helped us, some financial groups that really pushed us over the edge and believed in us and gave us really great terms to get us open and just gave us the money that we needed. [Michael:] That’s, that’s wonderful. [Sean:] Yeah, it was amazing. [Michael:] When you think about these two years, COVID, have you experienced the success within the restaurant? You know, outside of all these awards and accolades you’ve received that you were anticipating, are you getting the right amount of, let’s say, traffic into the restaurant? Are people coming in as expected? You know, all those dynamics as you anticipated them to be? [Sean:] Well, we have been sold out since we opened two years ago yesterday, every single night. [Michael:] So thank you for letting us have a reservation. I really … [Sean:] So, yeah, people always ask us, how do you even get a reservation? And I just say, I don’t know, I just grew up on one. [Michael:] OK. All right, there you go. So someone else is handling and controlling all those reservations for you. [Sean:] Yeah, we have, you know, we use one of the online apps. We’ve been consistently full since we opened. [Michael:] And so have you done advertising or what’s the … [Sean:] Haven’t really had to. It’s just been, we created a really large following ahead of time. We’re so unique because we’re really one of the only restaurants like that anywhere that I know of, you know. And then just all this attention, all this media, all the press, all the things, it’s just driven a lot of people, and people are literally flying in to Minneapolis just to come visit the restaurant to see it. [Michael:] Wow. So, so when you think about that, just for our listeners, you think about a lot of the dynamics you’re talking about from a financial standpoint and from a business standpoint. So unique concept. You did a bit, and we’ve talked about this on our prior episodes of job crafting, so you wanted something different in the future, your own restaurant, you know, be in control of that narrative, but you used all the jobs you had leading up to that, even it sounds like in terms of the three restaurant concepts you helped launch, I’m sure that gave you information about — [Sean:] Yeah, it all helps. [Michael:] — what you wanted to do and what you didn’t want to do. And you navigated that all with patience and grace. [Sean:] Absolutely. Lots of patience. Yes. [Michael:] Yes. So I appreciate you sharing that with us. So let’s get to the awards. So Time magazine reached out to you and you, it sounds like you were like, what is this? I don’t even know what this is. What happened there? Like, what is the award? Why don’t you tell people about it? [Sean:] The award was I got, I was named this year, 2023, top 100 Most Influential People in the World. So it’s a pretty, pretty niche piece to be in, you know? [Michael:] So who are some of the other people? Just to give people context here. [Sean:] Oh, there was a lot, I mean, there was 100 people in that group and we were there for the gala. So, you know, there was Padma Lakshmi. Jennifer Coolidge was in there. I think Doja Cat did a live performance. [Michael:] So how did it feel to be there? Did you feel comfortable? Kind of this is where I want to be. [Sean:] It was crazy. You know, we, it was a big deal. My partner and I, we had a native designer help us with our outfits. So I had a tux with a big beaded, with a bunch of beadwork all over it. And it was a really fun event — [Michael:] That sounds gorgeous. [Sean:] — to just attend, just to be in that sphere, you know. And you know, something I never really thought I would ever be experiencing on that side of the paparazzi with all the crazy camera stuff. [Michael:] So, Julia Child, that’s an award more specific to a chef, and that award, and just for our all our listeners if they don’t know who she is, just no longer alive, one of the most well-known chefs on TV, taught people a lot about food, how to prepare it, really, to me, a truly entrepreneurial human being as well. How many people have received this award and what did it mean to you? [Sean:] I believe I’m the ninth recipient of this award this year. [Michael:] This year, 2023. [Sean:] But there might be some big names in there because when I was in D.C. and we were kind of meeting with some of the people, there’s a big Julia Child exhibit at the Smithsonian of American History, or they have, they brought her entire kitchen into and made an exhibit out of it. But they feature some of the awardees at that exhibit.
So, Jose Andres was there with me. He said some really nice words while we were there. But there’s Jacques Pepin, which I’ve been lucky to visit his house before, too. And just, you know, some really amazing people that have done a lot in the culinary world. So it’s a huge honor to be amongst the ranks of those kinds of names.
But, you know, for me, I feel like it’s, it just helps open up more doors because Indigenous has never really been a part of the culinary scene in America, which is a big reason you don’t see native restaurants all over the place. You know, no matter where you are in the United States, Canada, North America, you’re standing on Indigenous land spaces.
So for me, it just helps us with our mission, which is we just really want to showcase the beauty of Indigenous diversity that’s out there, showcase what true North American foods are, learn from Indigenous peoples of how we could live better around our environment, eat healthier, understand why Indigenous people stand up for environmental protections to protect these things that are very precious, like water, for example, and just looking at the world differently with a little bit more of a connection and a little bit more of a relationship to the nature around us and to the understanding of a lot of the hardships that especially Black and Indigenous peoples had to endure in American culture for so long still today.[Michael:] So when you think of your experience growing up in, can you tell us a little bit about those experiences and how you, you know, realized that you wanted to, you know, at 13, whatever it is that drove you to suddenly, you know, have this focus and then ultimately get to where you are? [Sean:] I feel like I definitely did grow up in a unique situation growing up on Pine Ridge, where there’s a massive amount of unemployment, a massive amount of alcoholism and going on back in this late ’70s and early ’80s when I was a child.
And I always tease my dad about, you know, they were saying like we were raised by boomers. It was like boomers didn’t really raise anything. They just kicked us outside till dark, you know.[Michael:] Oh 100%! [Sean:] So mostly we just had to, like, fend for ourselves constantly ever since we were super little. And that’s just the way it was, because I was, you know, my mom, when we moved off the reservation, she was going to school, working three jobs, probably getting paid nothing and trying to raise two kids.
And so I was cooking for my sister at the time. I was like 11, you know. And, you know, so I just think we had to grow up a little bit scrappy, we were a little bit feral, but definitely scrappy. And we had to be really creative because we didn’t have entertainment at every whim, like we had to go out and figure out stuff to do.
But it was a, it’s definitely a journey. But, you know, I had a passion. I always had a good work ethic. I always loved just working hard and making sure whatever I was doing was done well and when I really fell upon what I’m doing now, it just was such a calling. Like I felt it was just like pulling and I just had to follow that path. And the more I followed the path, the more doors would open for me. And I just kept on that path.[Michael:] And how did your family support you in that journey? You mentioned teasing your dad and things like that. [Sean:] Yeah, no they’re, they’re very, very proud. And even in the beginning they didn’t really know what I was kind of going for, what angle, so I was trying to really, like, look for something different because I already had the philosophy in my brain of what I was wanting to do and developing it at the same time. But I had it pretty well set even at the very beginning days, and I was just looking for what is truly Indigenous, like, what could you say is truly Indigenous, and knowing that we can’t go backwards and cook like the past, but we can learn from the past and apply it to move forward. And you know, like, you ate at the restaurant, but it’s good, clean, healthy food, like you feel good when you leave, you know, and … [Michael:] I’m going back if I can get a reservation, Sean. [Sean:] The diet that way, you know, it’s just, it’s like all the fad diets are trying to get to that, basically because we’re gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, soy free, pork free, all those things. And it’s just naturally that. But the Indigenous diet of North America is amazing because it’s so diverse, but it’s so clean and so healthy, and we could all eat a little healthier in general. [Michael:] So when you think about someone who’s in that spot, you know, poor and poverty, you know, not making it. They feel like I have these great ideas. I see, I see things as Sean does, but I can’t get there. What would be your single point of advice to that person? [Sean:] I mean, it took a lot of patience, it took a lot of confidence, and it took a lot of worrying, of course, about finances and money. But it took a lot of dedication, like it took a lot of just doing the work, doing the research, understanding, even removing my ego for the most part, because so many culinary projects are usually based around the artistry of the chef, which is great because there’s a lot of amazing, talented, creative people out there.
But to me, this was a different kind of project. This was something that had a lot of potential for impact and change, which I really truly believe in, that we could change the way people look at food, think about food, think about culture, think about embracing diversity instead of trying to homogenize it. And so to me, it’s just like being really intentional and making sure that what you’re doing is something that really speaks to you and there’s a story behind it. So because especially for me with food, like food is the language that I’m using, and that language is so powerful because every human on earth needs food and it’s something that we can connect with everybody with, and it makes people curious about other cultures, you know? So there’s so much to learn out there.
But, I think now we’re coming into an era where there’s a lot of people of color, a lot of communities, like, bringing forward their food traditions, their food stories, and their know-hows, and you can’t have American food without the Indigenous story because it’s, it’s the root system of all of it, you know.[Michael:] So my second question for you is when you’re giving advice to a business owner, maybe they’re not in that spot that we were talking in before, but they really want to start their own business, start their own restaurant, whatever that may be, and not necessarily be an award-winning human being. [Sean:] You know just, again, like I just feel like it really helps to put the dedication in, to put the work in, to put the research in, to really know what you’re getting into, to train yourself and learn, like, how can you walk the walk if you’re able to do this? And how can you talk about all facets? Because I was just a chef who is very curious, and all of a sudden, I became an expert on Indigenous foods. And I didn’t mean for that to happen because it’s not what I went to school for or anything like that, but it’s a passion for me. Like, I listen to my passion and I just move forward and I just continue to stay with that passion. And that’s what really helped push me through some of the hard times and all the pieces is just to, I feel like I have an opportunity to do something different.
So for me, it was just listening to my heart, listening to my passion, and just moving forward with it. And I just truly believe where we are because the restaurant is just a part of it. You know, the work of the nonprofit that we built is really what’s going to happen because we’re already looking at moving this system all over the nation.[Michael:] And tell us the name of the nonprofit. [Sean:] It’s called NATIFS. It’s an acronym, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, NATIFS. And we have a public entity called Indigenous Food Lab in South Minneapolis here, which is a model that has a native marketplace to help distribute and move native food products around from native food producers, gives access to our local community to find those foods.
We have a classroom where we’re just going to be teaching all facets of Indigenous education and just looking at what is non-Eurocentric academia, but Indigenous-focused knowledge bases, and is teaching everything and recording all of that and putting that online so it’s just open access. And then we have USDA licensing to be a micro-sized co-packer to help get more products on the market without having to go through trying to find a really large co-packer, you know. And then we’re, we’re already planting the seeds to open up these extensions in Bozeman, Montana; Anchorage, Alaska; Rapid City, South Dakota; Oahu. And we’re going to continuously grow outwards.[Michael:] Unbelievable! [Sean:] But that’s going to, and each one becomes a regional center point. [Michael:] Oahu! [Sean:] Yeah, because each one becomes a regional center point to help the Indigenous communities really develop their culture through their food, to possibly open up more instances like the restaurant Owamni here we have in Minneapolis, where they can help all those dollars fund a lot of the projects that’s going on around the educational side of things, helping food producers by raising awareness, by raising demand for the foods that they’re growing, and just opening up a lot of creative doors for what’s possible for Indigenous foods that really tell a story of a location, of a culture, of a region. I mean, there’s just so much opportunity out there. [Michael:] So we have Owamni where people can look that up and Google it. Is there a digital property that people can go to? [Sean:] Yeah. So the nonprofit’s natifs.org, NATIFS.org. Owamni is owamni.com. We have my company, The Sioux Chef, which is just SIOUX-chef.com, and you know, we have a lot of social media, we have a lot of followers, we have a lot of fans. The restaurant’s growing. It’s a huge attention, and restaurants really are the worst business plans.
But my model is I’m pushing the restaurant into the nonprofit, so it’ll stay a for-profit restaurant, but it’ll help me make it more sustainable for the future. I can give better benefits and better pay to the workers that are there, because we have 120 workers at that restaurant by itself, you know. And then we have the nonprofit will just help keep everything moving forward, help just push resources into the restaurant if it needs it, but just keep it alive to do the work that it’s doing, which is just, it’s a role model. It’s a showcase. It’s a, it’s a proof of concept that we can have a really intentional, decolonized focused restaurant in today’s world.[Michael:] So if I were to break all that down for our listeners because again, just a lot of amazing thinking in that. So you have a desired outcome, which is your vision, you know where you want to go. What I hear you saying is, you know, you back into that at some larger strategy, but you’re very adaptable. So what you’re doing is obviously amazing work. You’re getting all the attention for it that you should and it’s deserved. And we’re so grateful to have you on the podcast. [Sean:] Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. [Michael:] Thank you. Thank you so much. [Sean:] Thank you.
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