An entrepreneur serves up food and hope for Minneapolis

Tomme Beevas launched Pimento Jamaican Kitchen on a bet that Minneapolis would love his grandmother’s recipes as much as he did.

Today, it has transformed into a relief organisation that has provided for the neediest in the city in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police.

As protests and violence erupted in Minneapolis in May, Mr Beevas turned his restaurant into a hub for donations, funnelling food and essential goods to local families, as well as water, masks and other resources to protesters.

The effort provided much-needed supplies as shops were boarded up or at times looted in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, worsening conditions for parts of the city that were already in effect food deserts.

The Jamaican-born entrepreneur is just one person among the multi-faceted response in the US to Floyd’s death: along with marches, looting and legislation has come a resurgence of community-building and a reassessment of the responsibilities of business.

“If we’re not protecting our community, then we’re setting up our business for failure,” he says. Corporate responsibility, he argues, is more than “just writing a cheque and walking away”.

Mr Beevas started Pimento in 2012 with his then next door neighbour, Yoni Reinharz, a Jewish rapper from the city. They gambled that paying customers across Minneapolis would enjoy the jerk chicken they grilled in Mr Beevas’s backyard.

An early win on a Food Network reality competition show, Food Court Wars, earned the pair their first proper outlet, and since then they have grown into a small chain with three locations in Minneapolis and neighbouring St Paul’s, as well as a food truck.

Before setting out as an entrepreneur, Mr Beevas worked as a community relations leader at Cargill, the commodities group headquartered in Minneapolis. He had moved to the US from Kingston, Jamaica, to attend college in Miami, and began his career after graduation with the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC in the early 2000s.

“My grandmother’s recipes that I’m using to build this restaurant were the same recipes she used to bring the community of West Kingston together,” he says.

As the video of Floyd’s killing circulated, Mr Beevas said at first he avoided watching it. When he eventually did, he says he “stayed in my garage and bawled”. And then he got to work, turning Pimento’s downtown location in Minneapolis into a logistics centre.

The need was straightforward enough. The unrest in Minneapolis that followed Floyd’s death had made life tough in parts of the city that were already low-income. Neighbourhoods that lacked easy access to groceries saw what shops they had either ransacked or boarded up for fear of being looted.

After a callout for donations on social media, goods began flooding in. As well as food, Mr Beevas says they received all manner of items including fire extinguishers, nappies, medical supplies such as insulin and even mobile air conditioning units. “We’ve received it all. You name it, we’ve received,” he says.

Food parcels ready to be dispatched Food parcels ready to be dispatched © Pimento Jamaican Kitchen

The donations were packaged up and distributed by a team of volunteers led by an employee at Pimento. The restaurant’s rum bar, closed because of coronavirus, was repurposed as a warehouse for the donations.

Some of the supplies went to activists and protesters, such as water, masks and milk, used to mitigate the pain from tear gas. Mr Beevas says he supported the calls for a “massive overhaul” of policing in the city.

“What’s the point of protecting [your] business and business reputation if myself as the owner and other black employees aren’t safe?” he asks. He says it makes no sense that his taxes pay police wages, and yet he fears those same people whose wages he pays.

Mr Beevas estimates that since launching the relief efforts, Pimento has helped some 6,000-8,000 families. The operation has shrunk slightly in the weeks since it began. Now it typically distributes pre-packed family-sized grocery bags on alternate days, and a team of volunteers that may have topped 100 is now a core group of about 10-20.

Minneapolis restaurateurs at an event last month where they donated food to the community Minneapolis restaurateurs at an event last month where they donated food to the community © Alamy

Beyond the aid efforts, Mr Beevas has also sought to play his part in the continuing debate about what comes next for Minneapolis. For several weekends he has held get-togethers for local city and community leaders, which he calls “Pimento Summits”.

He says the question of how his city tries to fix policing is one that will reverberate beyond Minneapolis to the rest of the US and beyond.

“The world is going to be watching and Minneapolis knows the world is watching,” he says. “And we know that we can be that model city for the world.”