LAST SUMMER, Southeast Portlander Bertha Pearl saw an article about a day celebrating black-owned restaurants in the Bay Area and decided to see what she could do locally. She created a Facebook event page, expecting those in her social network to join in. Instead, thousands of residents confirmed attendance and then went forth to dine.
That late-August weekend increased business by more than 150 percent at Keacean Ransom’s then-food cart, Jamaican Homestyle Cuisine. The money and visibility boosted her plan to open a restaurant, which she did this May with her husband Kalvin in a sunny spot at 441 N Killingsworth. The Ransoms have surrounded the building with a heaven-scented cloud of grilling jerk chicken, while serving up other classic Jamaican fare including fall-off-the-bone braised oxtails and a goat curry with a spice blend that lingers on the roof of your mouth.
The Support Black-Owned Restaurants event is back again, set for this weekend, Saturday, August 27, and Sunday, August 28. The Mercury sat down over delectable vegetable patties and Jamaican ginger beer to talk with Pearl and Ransom about this weekend’s event, about being a person of color in Portland, and why black-owned restaurants matter. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
MERCURY: How did last year’s event go over?
KEACEAN RANSOM: A lot of people turned out. When we started, most of our customers were white. It went viral, and now I see more black people coming in. But it wasn’t just black people—it was all races. It was like, “Wow, all these people are supporting us.” It was just amazing. And it keeps going. If you’re passionate about something, people will continue to support it.
Were there any boundaries for you to open this restaurant?
KR: There weren’t any boundaries for us. We saw this place and we got it. I have a degree in business. I did my research and realized there’s no Jamaican food here. So one plus one is two. I started my food cart with 20 pounds of chicken and five pounds of rice. I had no money at all; I just used whatever I had to buy the product for tomorrow, saving as I could.
There’s been a lot of talk about how white Portland is, and how it can be an unwelcoming city for people of color. Have you experienced that?
KR: Not for me. I moved to Portland [from Maryland] in 2014—I came to visit for two weeks and never left. I grew up in Jamaica, where we’re used to tourism and all kinds of races. What I loved most about Portland was the weather. When I came here it was sunny and nice, and the trees reminded me of a lot of places back home in Jamaica.
Why do you think Support Black-Owned Restaurants weekend took off?
BERTHA PEARL: I think some of it is the Black Lives Matter movement. When you think about it, you get so frustrated feeling like you can’t do anything. I thought supporting black restaurants is something we all can do. We can all go out, have a fantastic meal, and support a black family, a black owner of a restaurant, and have a great day. Also, I got great feedback from the black community. They were so excited to see all the other black-owned businesses.
KR: A lot of people didn’t know how many there were. It really boosted our business.
The issue of white chefs opening restaurants based on food from other cultures and races has been a hot button topic lately. Where do you stand?
BP: I say we should practice culturally appropriate eating—not culturally appropriative eating. You want to support the people from that culture doing their food.
KR: I totally agree with you. I remember when I first came here, I went to Last Thursday on Alberta. I passed this woman and saw her sign that said, “Jamaican jerk chicken.” I went up to her and was like, “Oh! A Jamaican in the house!” But her accent was completely American. I was speaking Creole to her and she wasn’t understanding me. Her chicken didn’t look jerk. It was burned. She was using our brand.
BP: I don’t think it’s okay to take from someone else’s culture and make money off it. It’s different if you’re at home, and you buy Jamaican spices and cook it for yourself. You’re at home.
I see jerk chicken on menus a lot.
KR: And I’ve yet to have one that tastes like actual Jamaican food.
BP: I can understand growing up in a place that’s all white and wanting your friends to try this food that’s so good. But I also think there’s a way for white people to step back and support the people whose culture gave us this food. It’s going to taste better. And because activism is intersectional, you have to pay attention to where your money goes.
Bertha, as someone who is white, was there any hesitancy about organizing this event?
BP: This is a way to step up, to do something that doesn’t focus on me, but on the restaurants. We need to change the world, and money is a really helpful way to change it.
On Sunday, September 4, Farm Spirit is throwing a block party, with all proceeds benefitting Black Lives Matter PDX. Suggested price for the Cuban/Caribbean vegan meal is $10-20. Farm Spirit, 1414 SE Morrison, Sun Sept 4, 4 pm until it’s gone, sliding scale