Sammy McDowell: The Franchiser

Sammy McDowell

Sammy McDowell Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Sammy McDowell attended Minneapolis Community and Technical College for only a few weeks before realizing he already knew everything they were trying to teach him.

McDowell had been experimenting in the kitchen since age seven or eight. As a teen, he turned the hobby into a job at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Richfield, logging 50-hour weeks, either at the cash register or the fryer. He followed his boss around and peppered him with questions about supplies, keeping the books, scheduling—anything a manager should know.

“When he went up to the roof to change the air filters, I went up to learn how,” McDowell says.

At 18, he was promoted to manager, a position he’d hold before and after his brief stint in college. McDowell stayed at KFC for eight years. A job at Wells Fargo didn’t feel right, and he went back to restaurants, first running a Subway for five years, then a Jimmy John’s for almost 10 more.

McDowell wanted a place of his own. He noticed the “For Lease” sign on a small building next to his north Minneapolis church on West Broadway Avenue. After a talk with the building’s owner, McDowell decided he couldn’t afford it. But the owner called back—twice—and eventually drafted a more affordable long-term lease. Sammy’s Avenue Eatery opened for business in October 2012.

Just barely.

“After I bought everything I needed, I think I had $300 left to buy products,” McDowell says. “For those first six months, I was pretty much at the store every day, recouping that same $300.”

McDowell did everything that first year, then hired his nephew, and spent another year with the two of them doing everything. The menu was simple, and relied on quality ingredients and fresh preparation, a rarity in the neighborhood.

“There were some people who... thought this wasn’t for them,” McDowell says. “They weren’t used to coming to this kind of space.”

Friendly service and a top-notch turkey pastrami did the trick, and soon Sammy’s was a neighborhood hub. Local power players have been known to turn up at Sammy’s—McDowell counts each of the last three mayors as customers—but McDowell welcomes anyone. Twice, he’s encouraged guys who were out of work to hang around the shop and meet people. Both found jobs.

McDowell expanded with a second Sammy’s last fall, on Central Avenue in Northeast. And that’s only the beginning. McDowell is planning three more restaurants, all in North Side apartment buildings in partnership with Devean George, the former NBA player and Minneapolis native who’s branched into real estate.

Eventually, McDowell hopes to open “about 20” restaurants across the state. In his dream scenario, each link in the chain would be employee-owned, with McDowell collecting residuals and providing opportunities like the ones he needed.

“I’ve never been about making a huge income,” McDowell says. “I probably could’ve opened a cafe in the skyway, or in South, or Edina, and made way more money doing same thing. It’s about showing people of color, young people, that this is possible.” 

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