When the coronavirus pandemic forced Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to close restaurants for dine-in service in March, the Boston restaurant industry shifted away from business as usual and braced for unprecedented economic fallout for restaurant operators and workers. Though Baker recently announced that restaurants in the state could re-open for dine-in service, it hardly represents business as usual. Some restaurants have decided not to reopen yet, while others have closed permanently, unable to cope with the financial losses imposed by the pandemic. In a time when most restaurants are fighting to keep the doors open — or to stay afloat long enough to open the doors at some time in the future — it would seem that the conditions for opening a new restaurant, or expanding a current business, are less than ideal. But some restaurants are persisting, including a beloved Jamaican restaurant known for its beef patties and jerk chicken.
Jamaica Mi Hungry — a Jamaican restaurant which began life as a food truck before opening a permanent location in Jamaica Plain’s Jackson Square in September 2019 — just opened a long-term pop-up at 182 Western Ave. in Allston, in the space formerly occupied by Rabottini’s Pizza and Cafe Beatrice. The pop-up is part of Harvard’s Zone 3 initiative, which brings a variety of pop-ups and programs (Aeronaut Brewing’s beer garden and live music series, on pause this summer due to the pandemic, is part of the initiative) to the Lower Allston neighborhood.
This is Jamaica Mi Hungry’s second pop-up of this nature — it previously popped up in CommonWealth Kitchen’s Kendall Square, Cambridge, kiosk. It also operated for several years as a seasonal restaurant at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. The food truck is currently stationed at 182 Western Ave. in Allston while the Jamaica Mi Hungry team readies the restaurant space for operations.
Aquila Kentish, who runs Jamaica Mi Hungry with her partner (in business and in life) Ernie Campbell, told Eater that expanding during the pandemic was an incredibly difficult experience.
“Navigating the system in Boston is tricky, anyways and always,” said Kentish. “But trying to get everything done during a pandemic? It halted everything for us.”
For the time being, the Allston pop-up is focusing on lunch and takeout, opening from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on weekdays only. But Kentish told Eater that the dining room and patio — the location has an excellent, spacious patio — should be up and running by the end of August.
The pop-up officially opened on June 19 — or Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth” which marks the day in 1865 when, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free from slavery.
Kentish spoke about the importance of the restaurant industry speaking up in support of Black lives, and about the significance of operating a Black-owned restaurant, historically and in the context of the current moment.
“It’s always great when people speak out, but it’s even better when people put things into action,” said Kentish. “Not just saying you support Black Lives Matter, but understanding what Black Lives Matter actually means to people. How are you showing that you really believe that?”
Kentish told Eater that restaurants can start by hiring culturally diverse staffs — “Not just your frontline workers, but everyone, from the bottom to the top” — and by paying employees a living wage.
“We’re not super vocal on social media or anything, but just in general, it’s definitely a movement that’s close to us as a Black-owned business,” said Kentish. “To see how the culture, how the Black race is being treated as a whole — these are people, this stuff makes no sense. It’s disgusting.”
Kentish also spoke about the mistreatment of Black people in the context of business and wealth-building, saying that “other cultures got a head start, but my family didn’t have that chance.” That’s especially true when it comes to financing: Banks in the U.S. have a long history of denying loans to Black-owned businesses, and it’s not just a problem of the past. Black and Latinx-owned business owners have struggled to secure Paycheck Protection Plan funds to help their businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. It’s just one of many ways the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black people and people of color.
Still, as she and Campbell embark on this new phase of their business, Kentish is hopeful.
“We’re trying to build a legacy for Black people going forward,” she said. “You hear people talking about how their restaurant has been family-owned for 100 years. Someday, maybe our grandkids can say that about our food truck.”