Updated: Mar 25
We recently sat down with Trey Lamont, owner of Jerk Shack, downtown Seattle's only Black-owned restaurant, and discussed his land fund, racial justice, and obstacles he has faced during Covid.
AJ Rushin: How would you describe Jerk Shack and your journey to opening the only Black-owned restaurant in the neighborhood?
Trey Lamont: I’ve been very lucky, I had a friend who contacted me with the opportunity to enter a brick-and-mortar location in Belltown. At that time, I would have taken any location for the deal I had in front of me, but it was fortunate that I was able to open in Belltown.
Jerk Shack is very special to me, I want to represent people who look like me and food from the diaspora. There are a few other restaurants in downtown Seattle that represent minority cultures but not as many as there used to be when I was growing up in Seattle. Back in the day, you would see Black people downtown. These days, the only people of color that you see downtown are in the tech industry or other young professionals in transitional housing and apartments, passing through the city center on their journey through life.
These transplants come from places like Chicago, Atlanta, and New York and come into Jerk Shack, sometimes wondering aloud “where are all the other Black people?” There is a sizable population of Black people in Seattle, just on the outskirts, having been pushed out of the city center by rising costs and the expansion of big tech companies. I want more representation in downtown, and Jerk Shack is part of my effort to do just that.
AR: You’ve got a major project that you’re pursuing - the Jerk Shack Land Fund. Based on the GoFundMe, you’re raising money to purchase land in a South Seattle neighborhood to open Jerk Shack II. From what I understand, it’s not just wanting to share your love of Caribbean food that is motivating the specifics of this plan. Let me give you some space to expand on the vision here.
TL: In May, my youngest brother was shot and killed. In communities of color, desperation is prevalent. When my brother was killed, all of his things were stolen. I had to stop and ask myself: “Why did this happen?”.
Murder happens in affluent neighborhoods too, but in those neighborhoods, people aren’t generally getting killed for money or robbery. In certain neighborhoods and communities around Seattle, there is a desperation, where crime is a survival tactic. I wanted to find a way to help uplift those communities and reduce the need for members of the communities to resort to crime for survival.
I looked at Dick’s Drive-In burger chains and I noticed that they’re all in White neighborhoods. These restaurants provide great wages and good benefits. I remember growing up and seeing what Dick’s offers its employees and thinking to myself “I could make a decent living working here” when I was fresh out of high school. The way Dick’s benefits are structured, being an employee earns you a tuition reimbursement that helps further your education, allowing you to grow your skills.
In addition to that, there’s a childcare stipend that can be used to pay anyone who is covering the care of your children, not just a “licensed professional”. That means if you have someone in your life who is watching kids for you while you work, such as an aunt or grandmother, you can use the stipend to pay them for that time. My dad watches my kids and I pay him for his time, but imagine what this benefit could do for members of low-income, disenfranchised communities?
It injects more money and jobs into those communities and helps more than just the directly employed. Providing a better chance for childcare and education, why isn’t this happening in Black communities?
This type of business helps the community survive, and it’s a great business model for gaining and retaining customers and labor. Having a business that gives back to the community would also ensure that the community looks out for the business. Having a Dick’s in your neighborhood makes the employees better, the communities better, and the local economy better.
The CEO of Dick’s reached out and gave me some information, advice, and a blueprint for continuing to expand. I just need the land to make it happen, and that’s where the land fund project comes in.
I’m still looking for commercial land that I can purchase as well. The people that own the land in the South Seattle communities that I want to expand into are not willing to sell to me. The current owners don’t even live in Seattle, they’re off in another state waiting for a big developer to come in and offer them an exorbitant amount of money. What I want to do is buy the land and become a “bank” that can offer to help other businesses rent or purchase parts of that land.
49% of land purchased for the restaurant will be made available to the community, and if they want to sell it sometime in the future, the sale will have to go through a committee to ensure that the new owners are a part of and care about the community. For example, community centers don’t make a lot of money, but they put so much time, effort, and emotional equity into the kids and the community, I’d like to offer community workers, coaches, volunteers, etc the opportunity to purchase the land first.
AR: How has COVID and the lockdown affected the way you’ve been conducting business?
TL: It has affected business tremendously, we’re not making the same amount of revenue as before. My business loan which I secured through a small bank has begun raising my repayments due to market instability, from $3k to $6k a month. Rent is $10k a month and that’s not including my payroll. The expenses of running a business have continued even as revenue has been slashed by the pandemic.
2020 would have been my first personally profitable year, ever since buying out my previous partners at the end of 2019 to become the sole owner of the restaurant. Buying them out allowed me to make changes that I wanted to make without seeking approval or trying to explain the culture, and all of our new programs were going well!
We had been building out a new brunch pilot for over a month, and the very last one was completely sold out - booked solid, inside and out. It was amazing to see so many people from so many walks of life. Right as that program had picked up steam, is when we needed to shut the restaurant down. The pandemic has put a hold on a lot of things, and I’m just now beginning to plan to open some things back up.
AR: A year in, and we recently got news from the President that the plan is to have enough vaccines to innoculate all American adults by the end of May. How does this shifting timeline affect your expectations for Jerk Shack and the Land Fund?
TL: It’s great that vaccinations are rolling out, but I hope that we can last that long. We make a great product and have had a lot of loyal support, but there are people across the country working against the progress we need to make, and we have whole states on the wrong side of history.
AR: Things in the U.S. have been pretty tense over the past few years; more and more people are finding it difficult to keep politics and activism separate from their everyday lives. How do you approach advocating for the causes you believe in, and how has that affected the way you conduct business and life?
TL: I can only be me. If I am thinking corporate, and only about money and profits, I would probably tone down my views so as not to piss off someone who could be a customer. But if I do that, then nothing in our society would change - the status quo only serves the majority. Playing by the rules and not rocking the boat just acts to perpetuate the same systems and cultures. Staying quiet would eat at me internally for doing nothing to help the cause, and that’s just not me. I refuse to see injustice and stay silent. Wrong is wrong, and right is right.
AR: The year is 2031, every plan you’ve made has been met with success. What does that world look like for you? For Jerk Shack? For Seattle?
TL: That means that we have Jerk Shacks in multiple neighborhoods that represent and serve Black and brown communities all up and down the West Coast. We have a thriving environment in each location that is a sustainable and scalable model for business in Black or brown communities.
The model I’m using for Jerk ShakWe can work for more than just restaurants, for all kinds of Black or brown-owned businesses. Taking the vision of purchasing land and offering it to communities with jobs for them to thrive in, is what will lead to progress. Systemically, such efforts have been met with ways to shut it down.
Thinking about history from the Harlem Renaissance to the Tulsa Massacre to now, any time there has been a rise of enlightenment or prosperity for Black and brown folks in the US, there has always been an insurrection to destroy that movement. These things are often perpetrated not just by loners and random racists, but by the U.S. government itself!
If we start owning and supporting our own businesses, land, and neighborhoods, no one could destroy it. Not the system designed to keep us down to support White supremacy. Not even the little thugs who don’t understand it.
Say I buy the block and some young guy or girl that is not knowledgeable enough to love themselves and their neighborhood decides to start selling drugs or committing crimes in this area - what’s going to happen is the community is going to say “Hey, no, we own this. This is our property, our businesses, our neighborhood. Either get out of here or learn to take care of our community.”
AR: What do you like to do to unwind when the pressure gets too high? Favorite restaurant or bar, a custom drink order, or favorite hobby?
TL: My favorite thing to do is cooking, that’s my go-to. I just start cooking and creating new things in my kitchen at home.
The other thing that I can’t do because of the pandemic is training. I've been competing in martial arts since I was 5, but we’ve had to temporarily close the place that I’ve been teaching at - I’ve been teaching martial arts for over 20 years, and our current location has 80+ students that we teach for free. We’ve gone to China, Puerto Rico, and all around the world on trips with our students. It’s a great program that fosters mentorship, we teach not only martial arts but also life lessons.
I also like to write music, put my headphones in and pull out my laptop to write some songs. I write R&B but I don’t like to perform! I have a lot of friends in the industry who try to get me to jump on a track, but I want to be behind the scenes. I don’t have a desire to be famous.
AR: Any parting thoughts?
TL: I really wish that this can all be done with the pandemic and lockdown. After this gets tackled, we as a nation need to realize that Black people have been living in a pandemic forever, the pandemic is the system of White supremacy that has been killing us for a very long time. We have the opportunity and the ability to eradicate and reverse it and we need to do that.
The popular topic right now is financial reparations. I say that conversation needs to be more vocal and more realistic in “how is this actually going to work and how do we make it happen?” People are going to push back and not allow the government to give Black people money, so we need to think about what form of reparations would be acceptable for us?
To me, every Black person of slave descent should be able to go to any college, private or public, that exists on U.S. soil for free. With admissions based on population. If Black people are 13% of the population in the U.S., then every year every college has to admit at least 13% of their class for that year as Black people. And this should be a floor, not a ceiling! Grades and admission requirements still need to be earned, if you can’t get the grades for Harvard, go to community college. But it should be free either way.
I also don’t think that Black people for the next 400 years should pay a lick of taxes in all forms. If the government can’t afford to give Black people reparations in the form of money, then it should just stop taking money from us for an equivalent amount of time that we weren’t being paid for our labor.
Additionally, Black and brown people should get first priority on home and personal loans from banks. To me, that seems a fair and equitable reparations scheme, and I don’t know why these solutions don’t get brought up in higher levels of our government.
Learn more about and support the Jerk Shack Land Fund.
Join YP Impact, Trey Lamont, and the rest of YPCommunities on March 28th for FUNraiser: Food with Melanin w/ Chef Trey Lamont where we will learn the secrets behind making the perfect jerk chicken, plantains, and jerk portobello mushrooms. All proceeds from the event benefit the Rainier Valley Food Bank. And keep checking back to learn about future collaborations and events with Jerk Shack and Trey Lamont!