Whittier’s Pimento Jamaican Kitchen reinvents itself as relief organization

Will Cassidy, a freshman at Highland Park high school, hands out bags of granola bars and water as part of a day volunteering with Pimento Jamaican Kitchen. Pimento has turned itself into makeshift relief organization. Photo by Zac Farber

On May 28, after the first night of destructive protests, Scott McDonald, booking manager for the Eat Street restaurant Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, started talking with his friend Malcolm Wells about what they could do to help.

“We woke up and understood what it meant for the North Side and other places for stores to be gone and looted,” McDonald said. “There are already food deserts created by gentrification and white flight, so we wanted to address that.” 

On May 28, they turned Pimento into a makeshift relief organization — accepting drop-offs of water, milk, gloves, masks and medical supplies. McDonald said thousands of bags of groceries have been distributed, handed out to long lines of people outside the Whittier storefront and taken to drop-off points elsewhere in the metro. Food and first aid supplies have also been brought to those protesting George Floyd’s death after being choked by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

“We’re here to take care of the community,” McDonald said. “We know that whenever there’s a war — like the war that’s being conducted against black men in America — there are going to be hazards.” 

Businesses across Southwest Minneapolis have joined efforts to help damaged communities. Some have donated portions of their sales to nonprofits supporting cleanup and rebuilding efforts and social justice organizations, and others have hosted events or supply drives for people in need.

In South Uptown, the coffee shop and toast bar Canteen held a food and supplies drive on June 2 and allowed people in need to pick up supplies the next day. Staff reported being “surprised and amazed” by the outpouring of donations and said they donated supplies to organizations across the Twin Cities.

Common Roots Cafe at 26th & Lyndale pledged to donate 50% of sales on June 10 to the #restorenorth effort by the West Broadway Business & Area Coalition in North Minneapolis. The Lynhall near 27th & Lyndale has been cooking meals for the nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities. The creative agency Zeus Jones on Nicollet Avenue has been hosting free legal clinics for people in need.

Pimento has undergone the fullest transformation from restaurant to relief organization.

At first, the restaurant stayed open, with customers navigating waist-high stacks of peanut butter, paper towels and produce to reach the checkout counter. But as of May 31, Pimento has suspended food service, telling customers: “No jerk chicken or rum punch today, but come home to Pimento to get your diapers and milk!” 

This weekend, dozens of volunteers — most wearing masks — came to Pimento to sort through a gigantic clutter of supplies, often poking blindly into bags in search of the items that are supposed to go into each “family kit”: a loaf of bread, a package of tortillas, a bag of rice, two cans of beans, a small bag of apples, two cans of soup, a bag of carrots, a box of cereal, some toilet paper, some soap. A few hand-lettered signs taped to the bar helped point the way.

“It’s a wonderful confusion and chaos but in the best sort of way,” said Tomme Beevas, Pimento’s owner. “A lot of the world is showing images of Minneapolis burning. What they’re not seeing is Minneapolis building a new city, a new concept for all of us.”

On Saturday, two nurses came to Pimento to pick up medical supplies for Broadway Family Medicine, which has been mostly destroyed, as well as supplies for medics planning to volunteer at the Saturday night protest. On Sunday, the football team from Highland Park high school came to Pimento to volunteer. 

“We have a rotating crew of people,” McDonald said. “We’re not tied to any organization. This is just us, two young black men who knew we had the opportunity to help.”

Tea Rozman Clark, co-founder of the Whittier nonprofit Green Card Voices, has been directing volunteers to Pimento.

“I’m experiencing a lot of sadness because this is an area with a lot of immigrant businesses, and I know how hard immigrants work,” she said in an interview posted to Pimento’s Facebook page. “At the same time I know this is a very important time for us to come together. Buildings and things can be rebuilt, so we need to do everything we can to show up, share what’s important and fight for justice.”

Pimento is one of the few stores on Eat Street that hasn’t been boarded up with plywood, and McDonald said that friends of the store have needed to keep 24/7 surveillance since Friday. 

On Friday, McDonald reported on Instagram, white men in two white vans and a white pickup truck circled the store throughout the night. “They parked up the block, turned their lights off, looked like they were kind of scoping the scene,” he said. There was no confrontation.

On Saturday, amid warnings from officials about violent white supremacist groups agitating for violence in Minneapolis, Pimento posted a photo on Instagram of McDonald and six others standing outside Pimento in the dark, armed with golf clubs. The photo was captioned: “We will not be moved.”

In an interview, McDonald declined to comment on the dangers Pimento has faced beyond the statement: “Our store is safe and our community won’t let our store be anything but safe.”

“We’ll be here as long as the need is here for us to provide any food or services,” he said. “Families who need services should reach out to us directly through our social media.”

Nate Gotlieb contributed reporting to this story.