Sammy McDowell just wanted to be his own boss and make good food for people.
But Sammy’s Avenue Eatery became much more to the people in north Minneapolis — “like the Cheers bar” — which helped his business weather a year that’s been brutal for restaurants, small businesses and Black-owned businesses.
In an interview on Reformer Radio, McDowell talks about making it through the pandemic and the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd.
Like many small business owners, McDowell struggled to compete with bigger companies for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans in the early days of the pandemic, even though he had a relationship with the U.S. Bank branch across the street from his restaurant.
“It was a little disheartening,” McDowell said. “You would think they would know me by now after seeing my Black face for nine years … But we had to jump through hoops.”
He didn’t submit an application through U.S. Bank. Instead, he got a PPP loan — two, actually — through Square, which he uses for credit card processing at his restaurants. The first loan provided some financial stability during the difficult early months of the pandemic.
Then George Floyd was murdered by police. During the civil unrest that followed, his neighbors stood guard over his restaurant while arson and rioting laid waste to businesses across the Twin Cities.
“These young people were outside Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on Broadway saying don’t come over here. This is a Black-owned business … This space is ours,” McDowell said.
For weeks afterward, community organizers used his cafe as a hub for donations for people affected by the unrest and volunteer security operations.
“We brought in food and clothing and all this stuff to just help people,” McDowell said.
Making it through the pandemic for McDowell means holding on to his piece of America for himself and the neighborhood.
“Sometimes when we’re really busy, and you look out into the seating area, it just reminds me of how America should be,” McDowell said. “You have your young teenager. You have your white-collar business executives. You have your blue-collar folks. White, Black, Asian. And they’re all happy to be in the same space.”
Now, McDowell spends most of his time managing his second location in northeast Minneapolis, where he’s once again become an accidental bridge builder. It’s in a predominantly white neighborhood — more than 70% white, whereas the area around his restaurant in north Minneapolis is more than 70% people of color.
He does not shy away from frank conversations about race and racism with his new customers.
“I really want white people, Black people to come together and really talk freely to just learn and grow from one another,” McDowell said. “If I was just walking down the street, I would probably be a scary Black man. But because I’m behind the coffee and serving you coffee and a piece of pie, I’m Sammy now.”