LeBron James Supports James Kent’s Vision for New York’s Next Restaurant Empire

In late March, on a sunny Saturday in New York, LeBron James wanted to go out for a drink. Paul Rivera, chief marketing officer at James’ and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company, texted chef James Kent to secure a seat at Overstory, the World’s 50 Best-ranked cocktail bar on top 70 Pine luxury building. A half hour later, James and his entourage were sipping glasses of Burgundy and drinking in the bar’s panoramic views. Rivera’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, and he oriented James. There’s Madison Square Gardens to the north and Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the next day James would shoot nine 3-pointers and score 40 points to help defeat the Nets.

It was the sort of low-key, king-of-the-world moment James often gets to savor. But it also represented a crowning moment of sorts for Kent and his Saga Hospitality Group.

Five years ago, before Kent opened Crown Shy on the ground floor of 70 Pine, another well-known chef warned him that the project would fail. Instead, Crown Shy racked up a Michelin star and early praise from The New York Times. The restaurant survived Covid with PPP money and outdoor dining yurts, and Kent and his team followed up their success with tasting menu, two-starred Saga on the building’s 63rd floor, and Overstory one floor above. 

Now Kent and Co. are on the precipice of a major expansion under the banner of Saga Hospitality Group (SHG), a partnership between the chef and investment firm SC Holdings. And on top of more traditional restaurant leases, the partnership is also purchasing real estate where SHG acts as anchor tenants to build the value of the land investment. The team has projects in the works ranging from old-school New York fine-dining to fast-casual fried chicken sandwiches. LRMR Ventures, the private investment office of James and Carter, is also backing the expansion as a minority investor.

LeBron taking in the view at Overstory

“We are always looking for opportunities to invest in dynamic, creative people who share our values,” Carter says. “I get to experience some of the best chefs and restaurants [in the world], but what makes chef Kent stand out is how approachable his places are. Most importantly, he shares my passion for empowerment.”

Rivera recalls first meeting Kent, kitted in a pair of Nikes, after a dinner at Saga. “We all have this belief of what a two-Michelin-star restaurant is,” says Rivera, a former executive at Nike and Beats by Dre. “Then you meet chef, and it’s like he’s like one of my homies. He’s a regular New York guy. It’s hard not to fall in love with him immediately.”

On a second encounter, Rivera asked if he could assemble a playlist for Crown Shy, and soon after became an informal creative advisor for the group, acting as a sounding board for uniforms, music, experience, VIPs, and new projects.  

But the Rivera-LeBron-Mav connection to SC Holdings goes back further. Founded by Dan Haimovic, the former managing partner of Eastbridge Group, and Jason Stein, founder and former CEO of Cycle Media, SC has stakes in consumer brands like SuperGoop, Canyon bikes, Athletic Greens, and Madhappy. The firm launched in 2019, the same year as Crown Shy, and Haimovic and Stein’s first big investment was SpringHill.

Inside Kent’s Michelin two-starred Saga Saga

Haimovic and Stein bet well, and after five years of working with Kent, they’re betting on him too. They believe Kent’s a rare, multidimensional talent who’s primed to become the next great American restaurateur. “You’re not going to find another group so focused on creativity, the substance of the product, the brand, the design, and the math behind it,” Stein says. That, and Kent’s a “derelict from lower Manhattan,” jokes Stein. As a teen, the chef tagged 70 Pine with graffiti before refocusing his creative energy and working in the city’s most iconic restaurants: Bouley, Jean-Georges, and Eleven Madison Park among them.

Now, Kent gets to leave a different kind of mark on his hometown. “I just want to do iconic shit,” Kent says. “When I walked into 70 Pine seven years ago, I was one person. It’s not like I was Daniel Boulud with a massive team, and I built all the systems—everything—that we needed to operate on this level.”

More than restaurants, Haimovic says he believes in building value with live entertainment, anchored by food and hospitality. Earlier in March, SC announced the purchase of the Santa Monica Pier’s Pacific Park, including its 1922 carousel and solar-powered Ferris wheel; SHG will take over the pier’s food stalls and serve churros, fries, and “the best” smashburger, according to Kent.

SHG also oversees food and beverage at SC’s the Racquet Lounge, a members club in Southampton with tennis, pickleball, and padel courts. The first innovation, says Stein, was bringing all three sports together. Haimovic, who’s on the advisory board of the United States Tennis Association Foundation, brought in best-in-class pros, and Kent’s team delivered a menu with hen of the woods Cuban sandwiches and charred corn and taleggio flatbread. SC is currently shopping for properties to launch a second club in South Florida, and, along with SpringHill owns a professional pickleball team (Kent even got in on the deal).

Forthcoming Crown Chicken and Sundae was born during Covid shutdowns, when Kent and his team contemplated opening a fried chicken ghost kitchen. R&D sessions yielded the citrus- marinated nuggets on the bar menu at Overstory (“one of the best things we cook in this building,” Kent says) and Crown Shy’s fried chicken sandwich, a version of which the team debuted at the U.S. Open and served at James’ 2022 Super Bowl After Party in Los Angeles. Now, the group is preparing for a “Shake Shack-level” fast-casual fried chicken sandwich concept, Kent says. They’ll return to the U.S. Open this summer and establish a brick-and-mortar Crown Chicken and Sundae soon after.

Kent with SC Holdings founder Haimovic Evan Sung

“What we’re really excited about is the high-low experience,” Rivera says. “The high is nothing less than excellence, at every touchpoint, whether it’s at Saga, Crown Shy, Racquet Lounge, or the U.S. Open. The low is that it’s not pretentious or stuffy. That’s the core of who we are and what we want to be.”

Kent’s next fine-dining flex will manifest at 360 Park Avenue, a 1913 building just a short walk from Eleven Madison Park. “This is the first opportunity that felt right to us,” Kent says. “I don’t want to walk into a mall and open a restaurant.”

The 140-seat restaurant will be a throwback to classic New York and Grand Central Oyster Bar, in particular. Though they haven’t announced the name yet, it will reference Kent’s grandmother Sue Mingus, who married jazz great Charles Mingus and forged his legacy after the musician’s death in 1979. Kent says the couple had their first date at Grand Central Oyster Bar.

Chef Danny Garcia, a current Top Chef contender, will lead the kitchen. The young chef worked at the Nomad and the French Laundry before helping to open Crown Shy and then Michelin-starred Belon in Hong Kong. Garcia’s appointment represents a fundamental Kent principle: give opportunities to people who have invested in your success. “[It’s about] how do we grow the people who have worked for me for years and not have them seek opportunities outside these spaces,” he says. 

Similarly, in the fall, Renata Ameni will launch an SHG bakery and cafe in the $2.5 billion reboot of the Domino Sugar Factory, which you can see across the East River from the top floors 70 Pine. “What’s more important to have as the anchor of the old Domino Sugar factory, than what’s effectively a sugar factory,” Stein says. Ameni is the group’s long-time executive pastry chef and will produce artisan breads, pastries, and simple, fresh breakfast and lunch menus. Kent envisions it as a “heart of the neighborhood” restaurant and a platform for Ameni to explore new revenue streams, including wholesale breads, packaged goods, and, maybe one day, multiple units.

Rendering of the forthcoming 360 Park project Saga Hospitality Group

There’s also a high-profile, undisclosed Midtown project in the works, and talk that the group’s culinary director, Jassimran Singh, will open an ode to a classic Delhi restaurant. Kent anticipates bar director Harrison Ginsberg will expand his footprint beyond 70 Pine. “We have a deep bench that allows us to do authentic, interesting concepts. It’s not just me,” Kent says.

That strain of collaboration within SHG, says Rivera, has led to a best-idea-wins style of leadership that aligns with LRMR Ventures. “When we look at investing, it’s yes, there’s a business component, but also, what can we add to it?” he says. “At this level, too, with Maverick and LeBron, if they’re not having fun doing it, they’re not going to do it.”

Kent admits to having a little fun too. How could he not? But he also has menus to plan, architects to consult, opportunities to evaluate, and a business to run as he dives into SHG’s first big growth stage. “If we want to be one of the best restaurants in the world,” Kent says, “we need to be the best business in the world. There’s no other way to do the things that we want to do.”

In 2022, right after nabbing two Michelin stars, Kent, Haimovic, Stein, and Rivera went out to dinner at Cote for a celebratory vision meeting. On the car ride back to 70 Pine, Stein recalls asking Kent, “You’ve achieved everything you hoped to achieve as a chef. Are you good with that, or is there something else you want?”

Kent looked at them all and said, “No, I’m in this to see how far we can take it.”

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Caroline Hatchett

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