Chef Trey Lamont’s restaurant Jerk Shack has been serving up Caribbean food in the Belltown area since 2018.
Lamont grew up in Seattle and graduated from Garfield High School. He’s always known what he wanted to do: go to culinary school.
“But if I had wanted to go to Harvard, that wasn’t an option. My dad couldn’t afford that,” Lamont says.
Lamont knows there are other high schoolers in the Black community who have dreams they cannot afford, and he wants to change that.
Lamont wants to expand his business to better serve the Black community, and to do so, he’s enlisted the community’s help in the form of a GoFundMe campaign that he started on June 3. The end goal is to raise enough money to purchase land in an area of Seattle where more Black people live, he says, and build a new restaurant called Jerk Shack Express. Lamont is eyeing places like Renton, Rainier Beach and parts of South Seattle, the Central District or Skyway for his new restaurant.
But his master plan involves much more than purchasing land to build a restaurant — which Lamont says will be created from a shipping container — it’s about building a legacy and creating opportunities. Ultimately, Lamont wants to use a model similar to that employed by Dick’s to build his restaurant into an enterprise that can give back to the Black community and the community it’s situated in.
“My vision would be copying Dick’s version of helping people pay for college, having child care, having full benefits of medical and dental,” he says.
Dick’s Drive-In, which was founded in part by Dick Spady in 1954, offers any employee working 20 hours per week for at least six months access to a $25,000 scholarship over four years to use for any “college, vocational or self-improvement program” as long as they continue to work at least 20 hours per week. Additionally, the company offers child care assistance up to $9,000 per year and free health insurance for employees.
The health insurance part is essential for Lamont’s vision.
“I know that my community definitely needs dental. It’s an education in resources and compounded with everything that we call systemic racism,” he says.
Lamont’s GoFundMe has a goal of $700,000. Like his sit-down restaurant, Jerk Shack Express will serve Caribbean food, but in a fast-casual atmosphere. Lamont has already been testing out the menu since dining rooms closed on March 17.
Lamont has no plans to close the original Jerk Shack.
“I’m not trying to move out of Belltown, I’m trying to expand and create more opportunity for the Black community,” Lamont says.
His GoFundMe description reads, “Everyone says the system is broken, but I think it works perfectly for the ones who it was created for. I would like to create a new system and do my part the best way I know how, by creating one of inclusion for everyone in our neighborhoods.”
Lamont believes that showing the younger generation “a person that looks like them and comes from the same place as them” can create stronger communities.
Lamont has been thinking about this plan since he began cooking in his food truck, Papa Bois, in 2012, but he’s been slowly refining it. Now he has a business plan and a menu; he’s got realtors scouting property in South Seattle, the Central District, Renton and Skyway areas; and he has friends who have building plans for shipping containers.
And while he thinks there are some restaurants in his community “that could’ve done this already,” Lamont says he’s ready and he can no longer wait for someone else to do it.
Lamont expressed frustration with the perpetual cycle where an unjust killing leads to protests and marches, only for things to die down and “six months or a year later it happens again and we’re doing the same thing.”
“With everything that’s going on, I think underserved communities need to feel like we are supportive of each other. This is the best way that I can serve my community. I’m not that guy that’s going to go ‘let’s organize this,’ I’m the guy who’s like ‘I’m going to make a bunch of food and let’s come to the table,’ ” he says.
As of Monday, June 15, Lamont’s GoFundMe campaign has raised almost $15,000, with nearly all the donations in small increments.
At $500 each, Hunter Samuels and Louis Arruela are the campaign’s largest donors.
Arruela is a Portuguese commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea who supplies Lamont with fish on occasion. Arruela says he doesn’t consider himself to be a social activist, but when he heard about Lamont’s campaign he was “so impressed.”
“Not only is it a good thing socially, but from a business standpoint he’s doing it right, from the ground up and for all the right reasons,” Arruela said.
Samuels first met Lamont as a teenager when they were training at the same taekwondo studio.
“To see Trey speak up today and historically, I’ve been proud of that and proud to be his friend and to do what I could,” Samuels says, calling Lamont someone who is “all in.”
More than 200 other small donations have come in. Lamont says he’s not pinning his hopes on getting lots of large donations, and instead hopes that it’s a community effort built by many.
“I want the people from the community to donate because this is for them. I want them to go, ‘This is for me. If I don’t invest in myself, no one else is going to,’ ” he said.
There is no deadline for the project; Lamont says he’d be pleased if in a year or so he’s got enough for even a down payment on land to keep things moving. But if that doesn’t happen, he’s not quitting.
“It has to work because I’m not giving up. I don’t care if I don’t get the funding for 10 years, I’m still going to do it,” he says.