SUPERIOR, WIS. – It took an escalating series of tragedies to bring Jamrock Cultural Restaurant to life.
After losing two jobs because of the pandemic, Antonio O’Neil started cooking and selling Caribbean cuisine out of his home. Just as that was proving popular, his landlord evicted him.
O’Neil then found a home for his jerk chicken wings and seafood plates and shrimp and grits at Average Joe’s Pub at the foot of the Blatnik Bridge in Superior. The test week went well, and the first week was looking promising as his social media following swelled to the thousands.
Then, just as Jamrock was about to officially open, his grandmother died. Dorothy Reece had raised O’Neil as her son. She had also owned a restaurant in Jamaica before immigrating to Miami and was a major influence in O’Neil’s life.
“My family is all hard workers, and all broke down doors and barriers to make ways for themselves, kind of like what I’m doing now,” he said. “And I’ve been cooking my whole life, because of my grandmother. It just makes me want to go even harder right now.”
Jamrock is a one-man show and O’Neil’s sole source of income, and so far fans of his food are keeping the bills paid.
“It went from 50, to 100, to 200, to 300 plates sold,” he said. “I’m really humbled by that. It’s a grind.”
For now he’s open just Wednesday through Friday from 2-10 p.m. (or earlier, if food sells out). O’Neil’s focus is on keeping the work enjoyable and not watching his passion become a burden.
“I’m able to create something really positive for the community, and for my family,” he said.
The Twin Ports have largely been spared the wave of permanent closures hitting the Twin Cities and other large metro areas during the pandemic. Instead, it was the pandemic that pushed O’Neil into the business, and already he has dreams of expanding and owning his own space.
The name — Jamrock Cultural Restaurant — is a nod to Jamaica and to the cultural exchange going on not just on the plate but in the lines of people waiting for their turn to order — and offer their condolences over the loss of O’Neil’s grandmother, as was the case last week.
“We have a huge mix of people,” he said. “It’s not just a Black-owned business for Black folks. It’s for everybody.”