The Sussmans Are Way More Than Just Meme Kings, They're Fast-Casual Moguls in the Making
Every morning Eli Sussman passes under the Radio City Music Hall sign and heads underground. He doesn't board the subway, but walks through the station to come up into Rockefeller Center. "I walk past The Tonight Show door. That's my approach to my new job."
Eli and his brother Max are the duo behind Samesa, a Middle Eastern fast-casual brand they launched in Brooklyn in 2015. Known for their hilarious hospitality memes (@thesussmans) as much as for their buttermilk-marinated chicken shawarma, at the beginning of 2020 they were running two busy locations and had their sights on Manhattan for a third. Then they got a phone call from one of Max's old college buddies, who was consulting for Tishman Speyer. This friend was advising the commercial realtor on how to bring some excitement to the concourse of one of the buildings that they manage. A little old place affectionately known as 30 Rock.
"They were trying to find younger, more established brands to inject a bit of New York life into the concourse," explains Eli. They'd already brought in Black Seed Bagels, FIELDTRIP, and Sweetgreen. "They approached us about potentially taking over a space. That was before COVID. And then COVID kinda threw everything out of whack and we thought the conversation was gonna be over."
Prior to this, the two had been searching throughout Manhattan with thoughts of expansion dancing through their heads. But they could never find anything that worked with their budget.
"The price per square foot in Midtown pre-COVID was totally insane," says Eli. "Spaces were going for $25-$35k per month. We don't have that Starbucks/Jamba Juice/Chick-fil-A money. We just weren't in that realm."
"We're not a big restaurant group," says Max. "We don't have VPs of every little thing." In fact The Sussmans don't have vice presidents of anything.
Over the course of 2020, the brothers would continue talking to Tishman Speyer, never sure if anything would come of it, all the while trying to navigate the daily dictates from the government on how restaurants could—and could not—do business. Then one day they were finished.
"There was a time period when we didn't have anything going on," recalls Eli. Both locations of the restaurant he and his brother had built from scratch were shuttered for good. He found himself evaluating if he was going to go work for someone else or if he would even stay in New York. "I ran through the gamut of every possibility. It was a very scary time to think of all the work that I had put in evaporating and having to restart or even switch careers."
Tishman Speyer was still interested though. And what before had been a pie in the sky kind of proposition—this possibility of opening in Liz Lemon's house—suddenly became the whole enchilada, or in this case, shawarma.
"It's without a doubt the highest rent you can pay in New York," says Eli. "But COVID changed things. It made it so there are negotiations that can be had. Out of this awful terrible mess which has wreaked havoc on our business and everybody else's we were basically given an opportunity to open in Rockefeller Center."
"It's a really big test of your systems, your staff, your concept." says Max. "You crank it up to 11, figure out what works and what doesn't work and then you have something that is tried and true."
"Being in Midtown is really the holy grail, the mecca, of the fast-casual brand. If you can make it in Midtown..." Eli laughs.
Eli was 25 and working in advertising and marketing in LA. Max was cooking at The Breslin and his brother would call him up all the time and moan about his life and say, "I want to cook, I want to cook." To which Max would reply, "I swear to god if you ask me one more time if you should cook I'm gonna kill you."
Eli grins at the memory. Max told him to shut up already and just pull the trigger. Eli did just that and quit his job, packed everything he owned into his Prius and drove to New York City. Max hooked him up with a stage at Mile End in Boerum Hill.
Older brother Max has cooked for his whole professional life. First in Ann Arbor, at famed Zingerman's, then in New York at The Breslin, The Cleveland and Roberta's, where he was running the kitchen when they picked up two stars from New York Times dining critic Sam Sifton in 2011. He opened Samesa with Eli in 2015 and at the beginning of 2020, he made the move back home to Ann Arbor, intending to keep running Samesa long distance, while Eli oversaw things on the ground. Then COVID hit.
"Eli and I FaceTime all the time. Neither of us anticipated not being able to travel between the two cities. I have this virtual reality version of what it's like [at 30 Rock]." Max laughs, "It could all be computer generated. A very elaborate ruse on Eli's part. That would be a great twist to your story."
This new location is real, at least in the current simulation we all exist within, and a number of their industry friends work in the same building. Dianna Daoheung, the culinary director at Black Seed Bagels has known the brothers for a decade. "Eli and I started out as line cooks together," she says. She's been happy to give them advice as they built Samesa and prepared to open, because, as far as restaurant locations go, 30 Rock is its own very specific beast.
"Our space used to be a Wells Fargo ATM," Daoheung explains. "When we first opened I was like, 'Oh man this is tiny,' and two months later it was our highest-grossing location, and we have seven locations. I was like, how are we making double what all of our other locations are?"
Following Daoheung's advice means the Sussmans have adapted their menu with the goal of a wait time that doesn't exceed three minutes, a necessity for the number of customers that are anticipated to stream through once the city reopens.
The offerings on the 30 Rock concourse are a far cry from your typical New York street food offerings. Down here, the taste of New York contains multitudes: pastrami salmon bagels at Black Seed, wild rice bowls at Sweetgreen, seafood gumbo with okra at Field Trip. The big sellers at Samesa, after the ever popular buttermilk marinated shawarma ("everything circles around that sun," says Eli) are the Morroccan-spiced chickpea seitan, the Detroit-style Greek salad—which pays homage to the Sussman roots—and their take on a sabich featuring beet-pickled eggs and roasted eggplant.
"I don't know how to say this without getting super sappy but Eli and I have a really great relationship," says Max over the phone from Ann Arbor where he's been running a Star Trek: The Next Generation themed pop-up, called Pizza Replicator. "It's a partnership, but he's worked incredibly hard and he's put in the blood, sweat and tears. I'm really proud of him and I can't wait to go there and tell him in person."
"The menu is small, it's tight, it's built for speed," says Eli from Samesa, which opened its doors in April of this year. Speed is not especially needed just yet; the crowds are only a fraction of what's anticipated. The team is in training mode as restaurants across Manhattan wait for the office workers and the tourists to come back. When they do, Samesa aims to be ready.
"Jimmy Fallon is down the hall, SNL is upstairs. This is the big time." Eli recalls when the buildout for Samesa began and he was bringing up supplies from the loading dock. "I'm unloading the Robot Coupe, sheet pans, the Vitamix, and all this stuff to take into the restaurant and there's a bunch of fake foliage with a sign on it that says, 'For SNL, do not touch.' And it just hit me, the energy of being in Manhattan, in Midtown, in Rockefeller Center. And being able to do this with my brother? I love my brother, we're incredibly close. It makes it so much sweeter. I mean, I feel incredibly grateful that I made that career change. I couldn't ask for anything more."