A Successful Business is Built on Locals, Tourists and The Military
From Helen Back to the Pentagon
Sunburned, with $20 in his pocket and nearly all his possessions in a car he shared with a friend, 21-year-old Chris Sehman decided to open his first bar while sitting on the beach behind the Back Porch in Destin.
Two years later, in May of 1993, he opened Woody’s Local Safe Sex Bar across the street. “This began a seven year run of not making any money but learning a lot. It was my graduate studies,” said Sehman, who grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He graduated from Old Dominion College and moved to Destin in 1992 after visiting his uncle who worked on jets for the U.S. Air Force. “I was crazy in debt. My car had been repo’d. I was just miserable. It was just tough times.”
Determined to support his wife, one-year-old baby and stepson, he closed Woody’s in 2000, having brokered a deal to use his liquor license in a pub on Okaloosa Island where he mopped the floors in the morning and kept the drinks flowing until 2 a.m. the next day. Exhausted after 18 days of effort, he sat in his car-office. “Go to hell was one of the first cuss words you could get away with as a kid. We would say, ‘I’ve been to hell and back and loved your momma’s cooking.’ The phrase was in my head. I sat in my car, called my wife and said, ‘I feel like I’ve been to hell and back.’ ” Listening to the radio he heard an interview with Lance Armstrong about his recent win and how it felt to survive cancer. “Lance said, ‘I feel like I’ve been to hell and back and I’m going to be okay.’ That was my light bulb moment.”
He called his wife again, asking what she thought about naming the bar Helen Back Cafe. “She said, ‘I don’t like it.’ I said, ‘Good,’ and slammed the phone down,” said Sehman. After trying unsuccessfully to convince his wife, he pressed on. The next day, when his beer distributor called he answered the phone, “Helen Back.” “My beer guy hung up and called back. I answered ‘Helen Back.’ From that moment on Dec. 1, 2000, that became the name of the bar.”
The days of owing more than he was making are long gone. Debts were paid off within nine months. Today, Sehman, 44, owns the Okaloosa Island and Crestview Helen Back Café locations. He franchised the locations in Navarre, Pensacola and the newest at the Northwest Florida Regional Airport. Each location has live music except the airport. He also operates Stinky’s Fish Camp in Navarre.
In January of 2013, the Secretary of the Air Force presented Sehman with the Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher 2012 Distinguished Civilian Humanitarian Award during a ceremony at the Pentagon. The award recognized Sehman’s efforts as a community and business leader staunchly advocating for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and Wounded Warrior Program. He helped generate several hundred thousand dollars through fundraising efforts that benefitted more than 30,000 veterans and their families who lived and served from the Florida Panhandle.
Sehman recently talked about his life, work and his appreciation of those who serve.
850: Tell us why you decided to offer free pizza to first responders and the military.
CS: Other than my uncle, who was at the time a captain in the 33rd Fighter Wing, I had no idea what Hurlburt Field was, what a loadmaster was. I had zero military knowledge. I got to know these two guys, loadmasters for C-130 planes, who were regulars at my bar. They started bringing in their friends and families.
In 2003, we started going into Afghanistan. I thought Hurlburt Field was going to empty out. I thought, what can I do to say, “Hey, I appreciate what you guys are doing. We’re going to war.”
This idea of supporting the cause … I decided I’m going to give free pizzas to the military on Monday nights. It will be slow, I can afford this and it will be great publicity on the air. All summer long, I was doing maybe 10 to 20 pies on Monday night. Well, in the fall, here comes Monday night football. By now I had a cook helping me out. He goes, “Hey man, what do you want me to do out here? You need to come out and look.” I walked out of my back office to see a line of military people going from the window, out the door, down the building. They were coming in for pizza and to watch football. I said, “Feed ’em.” The military pizza night was born. It literally blew up.
In a sense, I like to think the marketing of it with the name really grew in the military world. I had specials for other groups, the police department and the fire department. The Coast Guard gets free pizza when they pull up in the boat slip.
850: What have you done to support veterans?
CS: I had the honor of being the honorary commander of Hurlburt’s 1st SOW (Special Operations Wing). You have to have zero military experience. It’s not just about seeing cool planes, jets and guns and all that. It’s really about getting to know the young lieutenants that are coming in, the lieutenant colonels that are about to take command of the squadron. I also got assigned to the 36th Electronics Warfare Squadron at Eglin.
I think I bring to the table something that is fun for them. I did a big fundraiser to help them with the Tim Davis Memorial Walk from Lackland Air Force Base to Hurlburt Field (about 800 miles). I got them supplies, beer, all kinds of stuff … 50 cases of five-hour energy drinks. When the Osprey went down, I put up 100 pizzas and kegs of beer and said, “It’s on me.”
I have created an appreciation for the people that serve in our military and for first responders. Not just what they do for our country and community but what it means for their families. The dedication. The professionalism. I might sound like a brochure, but it’s so absolutely true. It was an amazing opportunity to get to know them. I’ve positioned Helen Back to be a big fan of what they do. I’ve had guys walk in here, really ripped dudes … from the Netherlands here for training at Hurlburt Field. One of them said, “We were in Korea yesterday. When they found out we were coming here, they said we had to come to Helen Back for pizza.”
850: How did you feel receiving the Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Distinguished Civilian Humanitarian Award?
CS: Just walking through the Pentagon and walking into Secretary Donley’s office, let’s just say I outkicked my coverage. They list out all that stuff … the Air Force quantifies all that I helped them do … fundraisers and pizza donations. It just blew me away. I just treat it as part of my business. I want to do the right thing to show my support. It took a young major to pull it all together and nominate me. I won at the wing level. I won at the Air Force level. I won at the DOD level. A couple days later a young lady called and said we want you to come up to the Pentagon.
The trip was pretty amazing. The ceremony was spectacular … generals walking up, shaking my hand and thanking me. I’m going, “I’m thanking you guys and you’re thanking me.” At the end of the day, I’m just giving away pizza and trying to make people happy. It was unexpected.
850: What’s the secret to your popular pizzas?
CS: A buddy of mine, Jon Seeling, who owned Fat Daddy’s Pizza in Walton County (not the same one that’s out there now), gave me the recipe. Jon showed me how he made his sauce. I combined it with how I like my sauce. I buy a very good dough product. I buy the best cheese you can buy. I created a sauce I put on the crust, kind of infused oil. I buy fresh vegetables, good meats. I kept it simple, fresh and affordable. I say it’s a little bit of the history and how it came about, tied to the military and a local thing.