Black entrepreneurs are fighting on three fronts to keep business alive – Free Press of Jacksonville
WASHINGTON – The Washington, DC area is home to a vibrant food truck population. The streets around the city’s monuments are often lined with stationary trucks selling kebab, hot dogs, and many other groceries. The competition for such providers is clearly intense.
With that in mind, Jerk At Nite began experimental cooking in 2013 from Denville Myrie Jr., a Jamaican student at Howard University who was admired by his peers for his cuisine. Jerk At Nite took advantage of the lack of late night food in the years before meal delivery apps became popular. With the campus cafe closing at 10 p.m., there were only one or two dining options for students arriving late at night.
So the business started with Myrie Jr., Kadeem Todd, and several other Howard students who run a small business that serves their colleagues. In 2014, it was geared towards catering to major Howard events, getting their name out there and growing the customer base of future Howard alumni. In 2016, his food truck hit the stage. Then, in 2019, they started work on their first restaurant – but soon encountered a number of obstacles in making this place a reality.
Todd, one of the company’s five managers / owners, recently took the time to speak with Zenger News about the solid foundation the company is built on and why they feel confident that these hurdles will ultimately be overcome.
Jerk At Nite’s first stationary location on Queens Chapel Road NE 2149 in Washington, DC (Courtesy of Kadeem Todd)
Zenger: How did this business start?
Todd: Myrie used to cook and do things at night and we all admired his food. During this time he had the idea to prepare Jamaican food. He got the idea to do it years before. Myrie had graduated a year before me and was starting to work for the Department of Health, a career he wasn’t really in, and I was fresh out of college trying to find something out. I was originally a paramedic and worked in hospitals, but I wasn’t really excited to be honest. So he came up with the idea: let’s do this all these years, let’s put our money where our mouth is and invest in a food truck. At the time, food trucks were very big in DC and we definitely saw the opportunity that this was very lucrative as we would see them downtown at all of the monuments every week.
Zenger: Since there are a lot of food trucks in DC, the competition seems to be tough. How did you rise over it
Todd: We got in somehow. We came in like we had the best because we felt like the best. And we kind of applied that way. Business premises in downtown DC are really mundane. People go back and forth in their business suits, but we got through and cut that with our own aura. So we came in and played our music very loud, it was almost like the concept of an ice cream man, people heard it at 11am and we got there before they even got out for their lunch break, we had the grill smoking and you could do that Smell food. They couldn’t go by without asking, “What are you cooking?” and Jamaican culture is truly worldwide; People love Jamaican food. People who love it and people who don’t have friends who love it who take them there to try.
It was easy to get into the competition like everyone else [else] was selling tacos and burritos at the time. We always had the mindset that we wanted to be a company, not just like a hot dog stand. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to have a brand, so that’s how we always marketed ourselves. With this game plan, it was easier for us to pass the food truck competition. We were more competitive with other Jamaican restaurants in the area.
Zenger: You started getting noise complaints on social media. Why did this happen and how did you react?
Todd: We bought our restaurant division in 2019, we didn’t have outside funding, so we used the food trucks to fund the expansion of the restaurant. We were pretty careful not to have outside investors at this point. After we finally expanded, painted, and remodeled the store, instead of dragging the food trucks around downtown DC, right where our restaurant is coming, we decided to plant our flag and park on Eighth Street.
So we parked our two food trucks on Eighth Street. Playing our music, curating a mood, adding a culture – and people love it, our customers really love it. Because who doesn’t love good reggae music? It’s calming, it’s relaxing, you feel like the islands were brought to you so feel happier and get busy with the food or the people around you. Our neighbors on the 11th and H. weren’t too happy with that, but we complied with the law as far as possible. Technically, we didn’t have to turn our music down to a certain decibel level until 10 a.m.
We made sure we reach out to everyone to make sure no one is offended. I personally went door to door when we started cooking and working there to reassure people about it. We said, hey, we’re not trying to disturb the neighborhood, we’re trying to be a part of this community, and we want to be on good foundations with everyone.
But it didn’t quite work that way. There were lots of deceptive smiles and yeses, but we found ourselves in a situation where the police were being called multiple times about noise complaints and we were not sticking to our crowds. What we were every time after the book. But it was annoying that every time we were on duty, the police would be called. We want to be part of the community, but we didn’t really know who to communicate with to solve this problem. People were kind of hiding from it and they weren’t really up to the energy we brought in I think – because we weren’t the only restaurant that was playing music; There was another restaurant next to us that had music playing too – but I think because we didn’t have that much traffic they felt they didn’t have to call the police, they had to call us. so there was a bit of a bias.
Denville Myrie Jr. (left), founder of Jerk At Nite, and co-founder Kadeem Todd, in front of one of their food trucks on Queens Chapel Road in Washington, DC (Courtesy Kadeem Todd)
Zenger: What made you stop working in the restaurant?
Todd: We put a lot of our money into expanding our restaurant, and because the police called us at that point, our landlord wasn’t really on our side because – well, let’s just say he would have preferred other tenants . The value in this area had increased since we were there and we signed our lease in 2019 when there was nothing on this street. The street was in transition and many restaurants had closed before COVID-19. So we got a really good deal on the price of our location but after going there and opening other stores the value around us had risen and our landlord was trying to find a way to reach us at this point out.
So we were in the final stages of expanding the restaurant and installing the HVAC system. Since the authorities were constantly being called, we always had to pull out our documents. This time they came and wanted our HVAC system permits despite being asked about a noise complaint. It turned out that our landlord hadn’t signed the permit so he kind of derailed us. We were not technically compliant at the time, so we received a stop-work order from DCRA [Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] that pushed us back many things.
Zenger: Why were your neighbors and landlords such roadblocks?
Todd: Well internally I think our traction got a lot of attention. But anyone looking at this from the outside would think that it is definitely prejudice because it is us. You see two young black men unassisted, with no big backer, trying to literally build something from scratch. We don’t need someone to create something for ourselves. We never had to, we’ve always found ways to invest in ourselves, and we’ve invested 100 percent in ourselves.
We don’t live out here and live a lavish lifestyle. We are literally trying to create a brand and product that people will appreciate and love, and it’s for everyone, it’s for our community. A lot of people don’t like this, so we are selected. But it’s not about having a victim mentality, it’s about finding new solutions. Ultimately, if we continue this type of work, we will succeed.
Zenger: What other solutions have you used to alleviate these conflicts?
Todd: We worked with some councilors to understand where we are wrong and how we should work properly. We also receive mentoring from H Street Main Street, which works through the mayor’s office, to help small businesses. We got a lot of guidance and mentoring from them. They make it easier – they write a lot of our letters to our landlord – except, of course, to our lawyer. But they teach us how to properly approach these business situations because much of it is new to us. They also gave us grants to fight this because when we had to shut down and had no income, we had to find ways to unburden our finances. But also as we vocalize our battles, we get more options.
Zenger: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Todd: The best advice is to just do it. Then you need to have a firm belief in yourself, have a product that is good, and do so for the right reason. Our reason is that we really want to have a high quality cultural product for our community. So, if you have the right reasons and good motivation, you will definitely succeed. So for anyone starting a business, just start and don’t stop. When you do, there is always a solution to whatever comes up.
Zenger: Would you like to add anything else?
Todd: Follow us on Instagram @jerkatnite, if you’d like to see some young brothers really trying to make something happen in the world, join us on our journey. Feel free to comment, reach out to us for any help, ideas, conversation, inspiration or even mentoring. That’s one thing, we’re always open to learning. There is a Jamaican language that my mother always says: “Raw meat seeks fire.” It means that you have to actively seek information and opportunities every day. As a company, that’s what we do. We love our community and want to continue to serve it.
(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)