Jamrock Jerk Makes It On Wall St.

Jamaican entrepreneurs take jerk to Wall St

BY KEVIN JACKSON
Observer writer

Friday, July 19, 2019

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Magnus McKellar had a dream and that dream became reality in 2016. Three years after starting Jamrock Jerk, a mobile food establishment, McKellar has seen his business grow significantly.

“Our inception was in 2016 and we started out with operations at street fairs and festivals up until 2018, when we transitioned to a consistent mobile street operation from our carts. Our carts were the first of their kind to be ever legally permitted in New York City,” McKellar explained in an interview with the Jamaica Observer.

With a private kitchen located in Queens, New York, where some meals are pre-prepared, McKellar's carts are stocked with food and positioned in various sections of the New York City metropolitan area, primarily in midtown and downtown Manhattan.

McKellar and his wife Anthyne operate Jamrock Jerk. Both are in their early twenties and are originally from Jamaica.

'I came to New York in 2013 after completing sixth form at St Elizabeth Technical High School. My wife came here in 2015 after completing sixth form in 2014 at the same institution. I worked as an assistant train conductor on the MTA Long Island Rail Road for two years and I was on the verge of qualifying for a promotion to conductor. My wife was pursuing her degree to become a registered nurse. I resigned in 2017, and my wife completed the final semester of school that year and became fully committed too.

“Fast forward to two years later, where we are with the two most amazing food carts in New York City, our beautiful kitchen space in Queens, and an operation that employs over 30”, said McKellar.

At the start of the operation, there were only three persons working in the business.

“When we started out it was three of us, myself, my wife and the first pair of hands we ever enlisted , who is still with us to this day, and who is now operating in the capacity of kitchen supervisor. Most of our workers are Jamaicans, and this helps with the authentic representation that we try to deliver within the experience,” McKellar shared.

Currently, two carts operate at 10 different locations weekly.

“We spend a day in each location operating between 11 am and 3 pm Mondays to Saturdays, and we never repeat the same locations within the same week. However, each location is revisited the following week on the same day and time, for some level of consistency', said McKellar.

Jamrock Jerk participates in numerous music and food festivals within the tri-state and other states.

“We have continuous relationships with some internationally renowned festivals and events including the Afro Punk, Essence, and Electric Zoo music festivals. We have catered to their artistes and VIPs. We have also catered for Delta and American Airlines.”

Another major accomplishment for Jamrock Jerk has been its collaboration with some of New York's online ordering and catering platforms including Uber Eats, Grub hub, Seamless & Door Dash, all of which are executed from the carts.

SIZE OF INVESTMENT

McKellar shared the investment it required to get his business off the ground.

“To get us to where we are now, a considerable amount, upwards of US$300,000, the vast majority of which was fueled into the kitchen, and money we definitely didn't have. But thanks to our paced progression along with us being in the right place at the right time, we were able to convince the owners and builders of the building to invest in us by completing with construction per our specific needs for the kitchen with us renting over 40 per cent of the space with a commitment to a minimum of five years.”

Jamrock Jerk's meals consist of jerked chicken, jerked pork, and stewed oxtail, all served with rice and peas, fried plantains, and fresh salad. Meals cost US$15 - $18. All jerk meats are prepared on location.

Asked where he obtained his jerk seasoning, McKellar said, “We consistently combine multiple brands of jerk seasonings, both wet and dry rubs, imported from Jamaica. We also use other spices to achieve our unique seasoning.

CHALLENGES

He shared some of the problems his business has encountered since positioning his carts in the busy Manhattan area.

'“n spite of New York City's status of being one of the most diverse cities in the world, it can still be a very sensitive environment, especially when one tries to introduce something new to a given industry, and that was the case with us at the outset. The complaints would range from just simply put, 'who are you, we've never seen you before', to 'we don't like the smoke and the long lines in front of our buildings'. With time though, a lot of these trivial things that were issues at the outset, eventually dwindled as the persons who would file these complaints, would begin to peer into the operation some more, and eventually develop a level of respect and appreciation for what we've brought to the table, as far as our operation as a mobile food cart is concerned.”

He continued, 'There is a stereotype about mobile food vendors that has existed for decades and it continues due to the mediocrity and lack of professionalism and care displayed by the vast majority of other vendors in the city. That has created a challenge for us too, as people tend to assume that we are all the same. But thankfully, we have slowly but surely begun the process of peeling away a few of those layers with the level of quality and service, and that of placing an incredible emphasis on delivering the best.”

There were other issues including getting the requisite permits from the authorities as well as those of other vendors who saw his business as being competitive and biting into their target market.

Said McKellar, “We have an insanely diverse pool of customers from literally every single ethnic background residing here in New York City including our very own countrymen. The number consists of business and medical professionals, financial executives, and blue-collar workers'.

FUTURE PLANS

Asked if there were plans to have a physical restaurant in the near future, McKellar said, “The possibilities are endless having achieved what we have thus far. However, a major key to our success has been our ability to produce our jerk in its most authentic form over charcoal and with smoke — elements that are considerably difficult to include in typical restaurant operations especially here in NYC with the countless regulations and rules that govern food service establishments and their processes.

“Therefore our growth at this point remains in the spectrum in which we are operating at this time, and it is something we take very seriously and strongly believe that it should be paced and executed in the proper time, and hence we are approaching this in a shrewd and astute manner and whatever experienced at this point will see a simple multiplication of our existing carts, tapping into other uncharted areas both within and outside of New York City.”

Jamrock Jerk is one of several food vendors that will participate at this Sunday's staging of the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival at Roy Wilkins Park in Queens, New York. This will be the entity's third time participating at the event.

“Festivals such as this are the main avenue through which we ply our trade and the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival is definitely one not to be missed. This year we will be operating one of two prime locations at festival, within the vendor village along with one of our carts at a second location closer to the stage. Over the years, the festival organisers have continued to produce an awesome festival, which has allowed us to extend our reach outside of our usual operations in Manhattan to our locality here in Queens. This has allowed us to avail ourselves and our brand to a larger group of our fellow countrymen”, said McKellar.


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