Don Pooh
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The Unbelievable Rise of Don Pooh and His Restaurant Empire

With a top-tier resume in the hospitality business, this Brooklyn giant reveals how to eat good in the food industry

Restaurateur Robert “Don Pooh” Cummings had big plans. Walking the streets of East Flatbush in ankle weights back in the late ‘80s, the Bajun Brooklynite thought his calling would be jukes on the gridiron or jump shots on the hardwood. It’s not that he didn’t have a love for food, too. He has detailed memories of the flying fish his family would bring back from Barbados. His mother would steam or fry them, add some rice, and top it off with cou-cou and okra.

He also spent ample time on weekends in the kitchen cutting potatoes for his mother, who would cook black pudding and souse, package it in saved Carvel ice-cream containers, and sell it to the neighborhood. That would bring an extra $300 a week into their four-person household.  

Still, he craved the acclaim and respect that hometown heroes like Mike Tyson and Pistons center John Salley received. Pooh eventually walked those same celebrity circles, but not as an athlete. Developing a young Foxy Brown (called AKA at the time) launched his solo management career. Brokering Shyne’s entry into music—there was a bidding war for the MC, who was signed to Pooh’s publishing company—was another winning chapter.

Pooh was indeed busy and successful. When his friend Kevin Davis came to him with an opportunity to open up Subway franchises, he politely passed. Ten Subways later—including the country’s most-profitable franchise location, in Rockefeller Center—Davis spun the block and offered Pooh an opportunity to build a Papa John’s pizzeria. The franchise deal covered the five boroughs and northern New Jersey. Pooh, a quick learner, was all in. That opportunity resulted in the country’s third most-profitable Papa John’s, in Maplewood, New Jersey.

On the surface, Pooh, 56, appears to be a risk-taking cowboy. And although there’s a touch of that, it’s his preparedness and deep understanding of how to control costs and margins that allows him to comfortably double down in an industry where 80% of businesses fail. He brought iHop to Brooklyn and high-end eatery Brooklyn Chop House to the financial district and Times Square. The latter is the largest Black-owned restaurant in the US, seating up to 600 diners.

Over a 90-minute conversation with LEVEL, Pooh explained his business journey and how his industry works. It’s invaluable food for thought.

LEVEL: What was your favorite dish as a child growing up?
Don Pooh:
 I always loved fish. There's a fish from Barbados called flying fish. We would bring that home to the United States; [my mother] would either steam it or fry it with some rice and okra, or what they call cou-cou. I don't know if you're familiar with it.

I’m from St. Lucia [laughs]. I know it.
So my mother used to make that—and also used to make this thing called black pudding and souse—and sell it. The first person I saw making side- hustle money was my mom.

Is it fair to say a good part of artist management is doing the hard things so creatives don't have to deal with it?
Part of it is. But great managers are also able to decide what is best for the artists. If there's a lot of different options on the table, some people may grab the short-term gratification of a deal. Or another manager may say, “Let's not take all of the money. Let's take some equity or a revenue share.” They're able to articulate that to their artists [why they should] take a long-term view versus a short-term view. The great managers are able to see [long term benefits]. Chris Lighty with 50 Cent—[he said], “Let's take a little equity on this Vitamin Water deal and play this out, because I see something here with the team that they put in place, and if this plays out the right way, this might be a bigger deal than you getting a $1 million check today.

What has been your biggest win as a manager?
Finding Foxy. Her brother Anton introduced me to her. That was my biggest moment [in management]. Her name wasn't even Foxy Brown yet. Her name was AKA at that time. We came up with creative ideas and styling. That whole thing was really me and her coming together and creating that image, brand, what the records should sound like. And then, with the help of a ton of other people—— labels, producers, and writers—we were able to make that come alive.

One thing the culture can do for you if they like you—no matter the brand or who owns it—they're going to talk about it. That's how we are. I don't know if other musicians or others in pop and country [can do that].

And then you transitioned into the hospitality business. Why did you start with Papa John’s pizza?
It was an opportunity. A friend of mine, his name is Kevin Davis, asked me if I wanted to get into Subway's franchise. He was a big Subway franchisee, and was able to get the number one Subway franchise unit in the country. He was in Rockefeller Center. He had opened 10 by then, but he struck gold by opening this one that was doing really well. And he was like, “Yo, I told you you should have got down with me.” But I was too busy in the music business and running around. So around 2003, he came to me again, he's like, “Don't pass on this opportunity. I got a 16-store development deal with Papa John's.” They actually came in the market I think 15 or 20 years prior and failed.

Pretend I’m five years old and explain to me how franchising works.
Franchising is basically licensing a brand for a certain term. Usually the term of your lease is 10, 15, or 20 years depending on your lease and your lease option. Those are obviously recognizable brands, and some are unrecognizable brands, usually with SOPs (standard operating procedures) in place, for which a franchisee of a brand can follow. You pay a license fee to use the license for this franchise. You also pay a royalty to the franchisor of which you license this brand from, and they give you a model on which you need to build your franchise.

You have to pay that monthly fee for the lifetime of the business?
Yeah. So for example, if you wanted to do a Subway, you would pay a $30,000 one-time fee for the license for that one restaurant, or you can do a development agreement and pay [the franchise license fee], and half of four more fees. This would protect you in a certain area of development where you could develop that same brand within that area, and no other franchisee would be able to encroach on that area that you purchased.

So there's single-unit deals. And then there's multi-unit franchise development deals. You can do either one with the franchise, but the fees are one-time. And the royalty is ongoing. So the royalty is usually anywhere from 4% to 9% a week. Not a month; a week. You also pay anywhere from 2% to 4% on average towards a marketing fund of your net sales every week. The corporate franchisor takes that fund and does commercials, local marketing, what have you.

With IHOP you saw a void in the area. Your hunch was correct.
I got approved for IHOP and Checkers simultaneously. I didn't really know Checkers or Papa John's that much, but I wanted to diversify in the franchise business. But IHOP, I knew. Not on the business side, but the product side; it's something I grew up on and I love. In Brooklyn, there was the one with the blue roof that holds about 120 seats in Canarsie. That one actually was there from, I want to say the early ’70s. So being that there was only one IHOP in Brooklyn for all of these years, I just did a market analysis. There's 3 million people in Brooklyn and one IHOP. This makes no sense.

I’m surprised no one else saw this opportunity.
IHOP corporate had a record amount of applications for Brooklyn [that year]. That's what happens in the franchise world. When someone strikes gold, everyone wants to get near where the oil is, right? I think there were like 25 different applications. I asked them, I said, "Instead of someone coming and cutting my sales, I would like to take on the entire development deal for Brooklyn." And that's what I did. I doubled down and went back. Obviously, with the success of the first one, that helped, right? That gave us a level of security that this thing really works. So I built four.

In some restaurants, I'd feel a little uncomfortable. I felt like sometimes I didn't get the same treatment other people would get.

You created VIP rooms within your IHOP locations. It’s a brilliant idea for upleveling a chain.
That came from just me being creative and going to places that had VIP rooms. If someone like a Fabolous or Mary [J. Blige] pulls up and wants to have breakfast, I have an area now where I can put them. I’ve never seen this in IHOP either. It was almost like a room for breakfast meetings. It held about 40 people, but it had a dual purpose for when I had more notable [patrons]. Whether it was Spike Lee or someone that just wanted to come through that knew us, I had a space to put them.

You’ve been a part of the New York scene and have seen many fine dining restaurants come and go. What inspired you to start Brooklyn Chop House?
In some restaurants, I'd feel a little uncomfortable. I felt like sometimes I didn't get the same treatment other people would get… I just don't think certain restaurants valued us the way we should have been valued, and we were kind of blowing them up a lot, right?

The cultural stamp is like none other for a business. Can’t pay for that marketing.
One thing the culture can do for you if they like you—no matter the brand or who owns it—they're going to talk about it. That's how we are. I don't know if other musicians or others in pop and country [can do that]. I don't know if they shout out restaurants in their music, but we're good at giving someone their props when they deserve it. And I don't think some places deserved the attention that we put on them… I thought about all those things. When I'm developing my brand, hopefully everyone will have a good experience. And then the people, artists, or people connected to the culture may shout us out with that same energy and same love that they did the other brands. I've seen it once or twice, but hopefully I'll hear it more as we go down the road.

Brooklyn Chop House very much feels like a fine dining institution created for the culture by people who look like us. That last piece is really important.
That's what makes it unique. I didn't think I was going to get the support that I got from the culture initially, but they came out [and said] we love this. The menu is a little unexpected. When you look at the team, you're thinking it might be Caribbean, soul, or New Orleans-style cuisine. But it's different. It's also centrally located, so everyone gets that comfort of being able to access it, from people that come from out of town to people that live here. A lot of things happened in ‘20 and ‘21 that made us put more awareness on supporting Black-owned businesses and the culture supporting the culture. The leaders in the culture have put emphasis on that as well. Hopefully, I could get the other ones I'm working on in Miami and soon to be Las Vegas and London.

What did you learn between opening the first and second locations?
Learned a lot. The first one was the test, right? In terms of a restaurant in general, I don't think it was the best location. I think we were able to turn it into a destination location. The sign wasn't so visible, because we had a landmark building, so we were limited to the amount of signage that we could actually put on the building. We liked that we opened soft. We did a pop-up in the Hamptons for two summers straight. That was great marketing for the brand. We actually opened a pop-up before we did the [Financial District store]. We had this opportunity to take over a restaurant at the Capri Hotel in Southampton. It was [an opportunity to] train the chefs, bring everyone to Southampton and see how this goes over. It was like a testing ground for us because we were waiting for the gas to come on. It takes a long time in New York City for the gas to come on.

You gave a lot to the first responders in Covid and also organically created a separate brand, Brooklyn Dumpling Shop. Explain how that happened.
That was more my operating partner... He came up with this Brooklyn Dumpling Shop idea, passed it by myself and my other partner, and we decided to do it. We backed it and we opened up Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, which is a creative concept of different dumplings. Now we do bowls. We have these Asian bowls that are some recipes from Brooklyn Chop House. We have the kung pao chicken, we got the sweet-and-our chicken, we got a sweet-and-sour shrimp. We got this peanut butter chicken, like these bowls with rice. It's to create your own bowl. You pick your protein, pick your rice or noodle, or pick your vegetable. It morphed into that and now those bowls are 40% of our sales, but it started in '21 as just dumplings. We figured people don't want dumplings all the time. We've got to give them a meal solution to keep them coming back.

An idea that came out of necessity in Covid is now 40% of your revenue. That’s a story within a story.
With our new partnership that we just did, we're thinking about adding burgers to it, but we're testing it now as a [limited time offer]. Dumplings, bowls, and burgers. But with Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, it was a way to come up with this automated system during Covid. We don't deal with any cash. You order on your phone or from the kiosk, the order goes into the kitchen, and you pay on your phone or your kiosk. After the order goes in, you get a text [sent] to your phone. You swipe your barcode on the screen that is part of the automat and your particular locker opens up, you get your food, we shoot it with a UV light right when it closes, and it sanitizes and gets it ready for the next order. We got a lot of interest. We had our lawyers do all the work, and we became a franchise. Now we're a franchisor.

How many of these have you sold?
We were able to sell roughly 200 units. We have eight open now, but we sold 200 units for development over the next five [or] six years, the biggest being a hundred-unit deal in Canada, from a guy that owns a food distribution center.  He loved it so much. He has three or four open in the next couple months. Another gentleman out of Philadelphia took on a 30-unit deal for the whole state of Philadelphia. Those were our two biggest deals. And we have a lot of [smaller deals] spread out between North Carolina, Dallas, Austin, Miami, Orlando, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut. 

Let’s close this out by talking about friendship. Business and friendship don’t always mix, but you’ve done great business with friends. You and Manny Hailey, who is killing it in the independent film space, have always had genuine support for each other.
Going back to my first business, I used to have a barbershop. A good friend of mine named Diamond—he was my partner and he passed away—he was the link between me and Manny. He's like, "Y'all both own barbershops. Y'all guys should know each other." We met and then me and Manny started shooting dice in each other's barbershop, doing the Brooklyn stuff that we do, and we became friends. Now fast-forward to '97, he's in a barbershop with another guy named Austin, and they hear Shyne rhyme. He was like, "Oh, you nice. I'm going to introduce you to my guy." And he, Manny, and Austin, brought him to my part of Brooklyn. Shyne rhymed for me. I was like, "Oh, this guy is crazy." And I signed Shyne to my production company before I did the deal with Puff. When I did the deal with Puff, I just kept my points, but Shyne just really wanted to be on a bigger label. It made sense, and then I had Foxy and a lot of things going on, but that is how I met Manny.

You two genuinely celebrate each others’ success in various businesses. Is it difficult to make friendships in this business?
I've gotten some friends out of it, because of my personality and the way I move. Everyone moves different is what I learned. I see people saying they were friends and now they're not friends any more. I don't know if they were ever friends to begin with, but I've become good friends with a few people along the way. Mary J. Blige is one of my really good friends; she's like family. I was able to get that relationship, not from growing up with her, but knowing her through the music business and meeting her on the set of [Case’s] “Touch Me Tease Me,” because she sung the hook on that record, Foxy rhymed on the record. That's where I really met her in the mid ’90s.

How did your friendship in business progress from there?
We got the opportunity to work together because I was able to become the executive vice president of MCA Records in '99, and the president of the company says, "Hey, I want you to handle the Mary project." I'm like, "Oh, I never A&R'd R&B before and [she’s] an artist that's selling 3 or 4 million records. But you know what, I'm going to figure it out." We hit it off. We had some success with her No More Drama album. We became friends through that, because I was working as an executive, we had some success, and we just became friends for the whole entire time. I brought her opportunities throughout the last few years, whether it was appearances or doing different deals. I'm happy that I have that relationship. And the best part about it is the friendship, because we have fun when we're hanging out. The business is business—we're always going to do business—but gaining a couple of friends along the way, along the journey, is always great.