Sammy McDowell never turned anyone away from his coffee and sandwich shop, even if they couldn't pay for a meal. If a kid came into Sammy's Avenue Eatery wearing shoes that were falling apart, he'd send an employee out to buy a new pair.

And if McDowell heard that anyone who came through his shop had fallen on hard times, he'd offer them a job on the spot.

"He knew community-building was his calling," said Andre Dukes, assistant pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries.

McDowell collapsed during a church service at Shiloh on Sunday and was taken to North Memorial Health Hospital, where he later died. He was 48.

The church, which McDowell attended for three decades, sits a block away from the north Minneapolis eatery that bore his name. Hundreds turned out in the church parking lot on Tuesday evening to celebrate McDowell's life the way his friends and family knew he'd want to be memorialized: with a picnic.

Shiloh Temple officials urged attendees to bring balloons to release simultaneously with mourners in nearly a dozen other U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Dallas.

"Sammy made friends wherever he went," said longtime friend and fellow Shiloh Temple parishioner Andrew Kimbell. "He was about community. He was about helping people."

McDowell was born in Chicago, but he was a lifelong North Sider. His family moved to Minneapolis when McDowell was 5, his nephew Michael McDowell said. Sammy McDowell called him his "nephew-son," and Michael knew him as "uncle-dad."

McDowell got his start in fast food restaurants throughout the Twin Cities, working his way up to management at places like Jimmy John's and KFC over two decades.

McDowell socked away some of his earnings to build a catering business on the side, Michael McDowell said. By 2012, Sammy had saved up enough to open his own restaurant on the corner of W. Broadway and North Emerson Street.

"He spoke the eatery into existence," Michael McDowell said.

Michael McDowell, 30, was a founding member of the local Black Lives Matter movement and said his uncle was a constant source of comfort and encouragement for Twin Cities-area racial justice protesters and activists. Sammy McDowell would show up to demonstrations with everything from hot sandwiches to chicken wings and sweet potatoes.

"He kind of became the movement's caterer," Michael McDowell said. "He was really good at feeding people, both physically and spiritually."

During the racial justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, Sammy's Avenue Eatery became a hub for north Minneapolis communities. The restaurant served as a meeting place for activists, as well as a place for people to pick up groceries and other supplies.

"Love, faith and hope — Sammy exhibited that," said Shiloh Temple Ministries Bishop Richard Howell Jr. "And I think that's what the community noticed."

Sam Ndely, who chairs the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce, said McDowell was also a major booster for Twin Cities small businesses. Ndely would stop into the eatery after his haircuts and talk about how to support local entrepreneurs.

"When I think of Sammy, I just think of community," Ndely said. "He brought so many people together."

McDowell had expanded his own business in recent years. He was one of two Black restaurateurs to move into the Golden Thyme space in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood late last year. The demand at his Broadway sandwich shop had gotten so great that expansion was a no-brainer, McDowell told the Star Tribune in 2021.

In that same interview, he mentioned that many of his restaurant's managers are mothers who "run rings around me."

"They work together to get things done," McDowell said.

Eureka Johnson has worked at his north Minneapolis location for four years. She remembers McDowell as the kind of boss who rolled with the punches. His knack for improvisation even led the eatery to one of its first hits. When McDowell sent an employee out to pick up Texas toast for the shop, the man returned with loaves of garlic bread instead.

Now, most of the breakfast sandwiches Johnson makes are served on toasted garlic bread. Sammy's Avenue Eatery has been successful because its namesake put faith in those around him, she said, especially when they needed a leg up.

"He had a passion for people," Johnson said. "And he always had a place in their hearts."