By Andrea Busche
When Superior resident Tony O’Neil, owner of the popular Jamrock Cultural Restaurant, named his establishment, the process was both intentional and deeply personal. “Jamrock means ‘Welcome to Jamaica,’” he said, “and I added ‘Cultural Restaurant’ because I wanted everyone to feel welcome.”
The delicious cuisine served up at Jamrock is Caribbean-infused, meaning O’Neil and his crew specialize in creating Cuban, Trinidadian, Haitian, Puerto Rican and Jamaican-inspired dishes. While O’Neil himself was born in Miami, Florida, he has close ties to the Caribbean.
“My grandmother and grandfather, Dorothy and Lascelles Reece, are from Jamaica,” he said. “My mom is also from Jamaica and my dad is from Panama.”
O’Neil was deeply inspired by his late grandmother. “My grandma got a visa to become a nanny in New York and eventually went through nursing school and brought her family to the U.S.,” he explained. “She was the head nurse of the ICU and worked nights. Every morning, breakfast was ready when I got up. And on Sundays, she’d cook a huge meal, which we’d eat through the week. Jerk chicken would be turned into jerk tacos, so it was always somewhat new.
“At first,” he added, “I would help her with stirring and chopping. After 16 or 17 years of watching, learning and helping, I knew everything she knew regarding flavor profiles, seasonings and knowledge of our culture.”
Some of O’Neil’s favorite “Grandma-prepared dishes” include oxtail, curried goat and jerk chicken. “Everything she made was fantastic,” he said.
While O’Neil learned most of his cooking skills from his beloved grandmother, he has also worked hard on his own recipes.
While O’Neil learned most of his cooking skills from his beloved grandmother, he has also worked hard on his own recipes. In addition to having an associate’s degree in liberal arts and a bachelor’s degree in communication, O’Neil is a professional chef, certified through the American Culinary Federation.
All of that hard work is now paying off – in a big way. Since he started the journey of making and selling his delicious dishes, lines of eager customers have consistently trailed out the door. “I sell out every day,” he said.
Business Born During a Pandemic
The story of how Jamrock got started is an interesting one indeed. “I never intended to open a restaurant,” O’Neil explained. “It was just me adjusting to the pandemic. I worked for CN Railroad and got laid off. And then I worked for DBS Residential Solutions and also got laid off.”
So he decided to make the best of it. O’Neil had always loved cooking, and with the support of his girlfriend, Jessie Gjerdahl, started a streetside operation in front of Spurs on First, a tavern in Duluth. “I started in September 2019, operating outside with just a catering table and prep grill,” he said. “I stayed until Minnesota shut down [due to the pandemic] on St. Patrick’s Day 2020.”
He then pivoted to making and selling food out of his Superior home. “At that point, I had a small following and a lot of word of mouth,” he said. “We birthed during the pandemic, and it helped that we only served curbside.”
Support from the Superior Business Center
Another pivot brought Jamrock to the commercial kitchen at the Superior Business Center – a business incubator serving Superior and Douglas County located at 1423 N. Eighth St. – for about two weeks. The SBC serves as a resource center for small businesses, start-ups and expanding companies. It encourages creation of new, viable businesses and retention of long-term, self-sustaining enterprises by serving as a resource center that provides information about operational and management issues for small businesses. It also provides temporary housing for businesses in transition.
“The parking spots were full of people waiting for Tony’s meals … I’m happy we played a little part in helping him get up and running.”
– Jim Caesar, Development Association Executive Director and Superior Business Center Manager
This multitenant facility’s space is designed for office, light to medium manufacturing, wholesale, trucking and warehouse businesses. Some of the SBC’s current tenants include a door manufacturer, an office supply business and a yoga studio. The kitchen, at a spacious 4,500 square feet, is reserved for new restauranteurs, caterers and food professionals and is currently shared by 14 tenants.
“The kitchen is meant to be an incubator for food service-based businesses,” explained Executive Director Jim Caesar of The Development Association, who also manages the Superior Business Center. “There is a lot of prep space and commercial-grade, industrial-type food service equipment that is cost prohibitive for someone just starting a business.” Other local companies that have utilized the kitchen include Love Creamery, How Sweet It Is Cakes, Red Mug Coffee, Crank & Dasher, On 93rd and Grace, and Connolly’s Tom and Jerry Batter.
Caesar isn’t surprised about Jamrock’s short stay at the SBC. “The lines were unbelievable,” he said. “The parking spots were full of people waiting for Tony’s meals. He’s got a fantastic product and has worked extremely hard. His passion and dedication are incredible. I’m happy we played a little part in helping him get up and running.”
And the respect is mutual. “Jim Caesar was great,” O’Neil said. “He got me everything I needed and really believed in what I was doing. I greatly appreciate everybody at the Business Center. They helped me get set up with my Wisconsin seller’s permit and even helped with my taxes.”
Buying His Own Building
O’Neil left the Superior Business Center when Mike Lemon, owner of Average Joe’s Pub in Superior, offered him a space to cook and sell food from his bar. Jamrock remained there from June through December of 2020.
Then on January 6, 2021, the establishment reopened at 1901 Tower Ave., formerly home to the Pak’s Green Corner restaurant. “I was driving by and deciding whether to operate out of Superior versus Duluth. I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign in the window and contacted RE/MAX agent Jim Ronding to take a tour. I fell in love with it and bought it,” O’Neil said. “This will be our first year with the tourist crowd and operating out of my own building.”
“At that point, I had a small following and a lot of word of mouth. We birthed during the pandemic, and it helped that we only served curbside.”
– Owner Tony O’Neil
He has made several changes to the restaurant’s interior and exterior. “It was already set up for making Thai cuisine, so I used that equipment while I saved up for new items,” he noted. “Now we have a new six-burner stove, griddle, four-panel ovens, cooler system, prep tables, deep fryer, pots and pans and a new sink.”
When it came to décor, O’Neil wanted to make it his own. While he kept the existing green paint (the same shade as his mother’s kitchen), he hired local artist Taylor Rose to paint murals, both inside and out, featuring bright colors and scenes of the islands. “There is a sunset over Kingston Hills and an Island woman who reminded me of my grandmother,” O’Neil noted. He also added a Jamaican flag to accentuate the restaurant’s theme. And his best friend, Adrian Boyer (a cartoonist and tattoo artist), designed Jamrock’s logo, which features a likeness of O’Neil.
An outdoor patio area was recently added with five tables, each seating four people, so the restaurant can seat 40 people in total – 20 inside and 20 outside.
O’Neil currently has three employees: Izzy Coleman, the prep cook, Henry Ohlschmidt, the sous chef, and Jefferson Crider, the dishwasher. Ohlschmidt previously worked for 7 West Taphouse in Superior and Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom in Duluth as a line/prep cook and later as a supervisor.
“Tony cooks and makes decisions on the menu and shifts,” Ohlschmidt said in explaining his role, “but I help implement Tony’s decisions. If he says he wants me to make jerk chicken, he has entrusted me with the responsibility of making the food.” When asked the secret of Caribbean-style cooking, he replied, “The short answer is spice. In the Duluth-Superior area, spice isn’t something you necessarily find a lot of. We use thyme, allspice, cayenne pepper, paprika, Scotch bonnet and sometimes pimiento wood and seeds.
“I like working for Tony,” he added. “We are appreciated for our strengths. Me and Tony work closely together and learn from each other in a supportive and casual environment.”
A Very Tempting Menu
Jamrock’s unique business model means it serves one entree choice per day and stays open “until we sell out,” O’Neil said – which they always do.
“Offering one item per day lowers our food costs and reduces waste,” he explained. “The menu changes daily and is never the same twice in a month. And everything is fresh – never frozen.” The delectable rotation includes a seafood boil, fried chicken, jerk chicken, jerk chicken alfredo, jerk ribs, deep fried red snapper, steak Oscar, deep fried lobster with honey rum butter sauce, chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, loaded lobster mashed potatoes and more. While all of O’Neil’s creations are a hit with customers, among the most popular are the seafood boil, deep fried lobster, jerk items and smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese.
“One of the things that really drew me to working for JamRock is Tony’s focus on the community. This isn’t just another restaurant in town.”
– Sous Chef Henry Ohlschmidt
Side dishes, also on a rotation, include the smoked gouda mac and cheese, cornbread, loaded Brussels sprouts, pan-seared garlic asparagus and more. “The sides have to complement the dish,” O’Neil noted. And desserts, thanks to a partnership with Duluth-based Cheesecake & Company, are creatively served up in Mason jars. Ashley Kidd and Juann Woodard – the couple that owns the business – concoct luscious flavors such as key lime pie, strawberry, banana pudding, lemon meringue, blueberry pie, raspberry and white chocolate, German chocolate cake and more.
Jamrock ‘s liquor license application was recently approved, so it will serve specialty cocktails paired for each dish. Other beverages include Jarritos brand soda (flavors include mango, grapefruit, pineapple, strawberry and guava) and bottled water.
Duluth resident Claire Kirch is one of many customers who’ve been enjoying Jamrock’s cuisine since it was served from O’Neil’s house, and she gives it rave reviews. “I love the jerk wings, and the mac and cheese and cornbread are excellent,” she said. “You get a ton of food, and you really get your money’s worth.
“Tony’s such a hard-working guy,” Kirch added. “And I think he’s just brilliant – he always changes up his menu and has created this little community. It’s definitely not just a restaurant.”
Giving Back to the Community
Giving back to the community is important to O’Neil. He recently donated a huge meal of honey glazed pecan hams, jerk chicken and all of the fixings to Superior’s Ruth House, a safe place for people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, he tries to donate roughly 20 percent of what the business earns back to the community.
“One of the things that really drew me to working for Jamrock is Tony’s focus on the community,” Ohlschmidt said. “This isn’t just another restaurant in town. Tony constantly asks, ‘How can we best serve Superior?’”
Satisfaction Exceeds the Effort
Owning and operating a restaurant is a very labor-intensive profession. But for Tony O’Neil, the satisfaction exceeds the effort. “The most rewarding thing is the constant compliments and feedback I get from our customers,” he said.
He also takes pride in the knowledge that he is making Grandma Dorothy proud. “I never got the chance to cook for her in my own restaurant, but she got to see the newspaper articles [about Jamrock],” he said. “She planned to come up and visit the summer she passed, so it’s been bittersweet. But I got to hear her say how proud she was of me.”
Jamrock Cultural Restaurant is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 4 p.m. until it sells out. Pre-orders are not available, but staff promise to “get you in and out within three minutes,” said O’Neill. On Friday and Saturday nights, Jamrock reopens, featuring a completely new menu, from midnight to 3 a.m.