Where Chef Tony O’Neil goes, people follow.
The 35-year-old started serving up Jamaican cuisine on a mobile grill outside the Spurs on First bar in Duluth about a year ago. When the pandemic shut down bars, O’Neil brought his business, JamRock Cultural Restaurant to Superior. He sold jerk chicken and seafood, with sides like garlic butter rice or creamy smoke Gouda mac and cheese, two days a week from his home at 909 Baxter Ave. Cars lined up around the block for a taste.
On June 25, O’Neil moved a few blocks away to the commercial kitchen at the Superior Business Center, 1423 N 8th St. People stood in line for hours to take home a plate.
“It’s worth waiting for,” said Mollie Tomonovich of Duluth, who showed up at 3:30 p.m. and got her to-go plates at 5:30 p.m.
Sisters Alyssa and Felicia Hraban of Superior came prepared for the long wait with folding chairs. They said O’Neil makes the best alfredo they’ve ever had.
“It’s like a spiritual experience,” said Alex Swanson of Superior. “I’ve never had food like that in my life. It’s delicious. It doesn’t compare to anything else.”
Tomonovich, who manages 7 West in Superior, got her first taste of JamRock cuisine in Duluth and has followed O’Neil from location to location. The food is great, she said, but so is the chef.
“His food is made with love, and it is so good and he is genuinely a good person,” Tomonovich said. “You can tell he’s not making this food to make money. He makes it because he’s good at it and he loves it. And he has fun with it. When he cooked outside of Spurs he always had his speaker going, he’s nice to everyone. He’s done fundraisers for people.”
O’Neil is planning another Superior move. JamRock Cultural Restaurant is partnering with Average Joe’s Pub to offer Jamaican dishes out of the site’s commercial kitchen beginning July 8.
“I didn’t think doors would open that fast. I figured I would have to knock them down, but they’ve all been opening in a great way, a positive way,” O’Neil said. “The fact that I leveled up during the middle of a pandemic has been awesome.”
Pub owner Mike Lemon said splitting the building is a win-win proposition. JamRock already has a customer base, and Lemon is hoping they will have a drink from Average Joe’s while waiting for their orders. To pair with the Jamaican cuisine, the pub will carry Red Stripe beer and Jamaican rum punch.
Although O’Neil has been cooking since he was a kid — his grandparents owned a restaurant in Jamaica before the family moved to Florida — the entrepreneur didn’t expect to be a chef. He played football at the University of North Dakota, graduating with a degree in communications. Years later, he became an ACF certified chef. O’Neil said he took the classes for fun.
The former defensive end was a conductor for the Canadian National Railroad until his class was cut.
“I was happy as a conductor, but then it was bittersweet because I was always away from the family,” O'Neil said.
He fell in love with the Duluth area when he had shoulder surgery at St. Luke’s. That brought the Jamaican native, who faced off against the University of Minnesota-Duluth in college games, back to raise his daughters. Although he has also been working with a local repair contractor company, JamRock has been his passion. O’Neil plans to continue delivering his tender, spicy, signature dishes on a plate instead of a styrofoam shell.
“I wanted to keep it in the community because everybody’s just been great,” O’Neil said. "It's all about growth and community."
JamRock Cultural Restaurant is slated to be open three days a week at Average Joe's, but the plan is to expand service to more days and add in brunch options.
“Good food speaks for itself today,” Tomonovich said, looking at the people gathered behind her. “If that gives him support to open up something we can visit more than once a week, I’m all for it. It’s worth the line.”
Visit the JamRock Cultural Restaurant Facebook page for more information.
This story was updated at 7:25 a.m. June 30 with the correct distance between JamRock locations and more specific information on the contractor O'Neil worked for. It was originally posted at 6 a.m. June 30.