When Keacean Phillips, the owner of North Killingsworth’s Jamaican Homestyle Cuisine, lived in her hometown of Annotto Bay, Jamaica, she was an English teacher. But when she arrived in the United States, she had no interest in working in schools. “I never had the desire to teach in America, never tried to pursue that,” she says. “Black teachers who are in the system, they don’t have many positive things to say about how they’re treated.”
Instead, she decided to pursue another passion: cooking. Phillips grew up cooking with her mother, and often came home from school to a home-cooked meal, made with fresh meats and fruit from the trees outside. “When I came to Oregon, it was one of the hardest things to find home-cooked meals. It was all fast food and fries,” she says. “So I started cooking a lot, and ... it became a business opportunity for me.”
Phillips started cooking for nearby barber shops and hair salons in the beginning of June 2014, and by August, she had a food cart. Two years later, she was running her own restaurant, but that path has not necessarily been an easy one. Although she had no interest in becoming a teacher in the United States, she has been educating many of her followers, posting on Instagram about Black Wall Street and the country’s history of white supremacy; all the while, she’s been dealing with a wave of new business, partially thanks to the lists of black-owned restaurants circulating on social media.
Phillips isn’t convinced the business boom will last — and she thinks white Portlanders still have a long way to go in understanding their privilege. Phillips spoke to Eater PDX about her experience with racism as an immigrant, a black mother, and a business owner, and her plans for the future of her business.
On being a mother of two black sons in the United States: I came here with one son, and the other was born here. My then-husband was hesitant about me taking him to America, because there was a stigma about black men being sent to prison, or dying. He lived here for a while, but he didn’t like being here as a black man. He wasn’t happy with me taking our son here, because he knew the statistics. Coming here, I didn’t know how extensive it was. I went, “It’s not going to happen, it’s not going to be so close to home, it’s not going to affect us.”
Coming here to America, and having to see and experience for myself, the fear became real. In 2017, 2018, there were a lot of black men running away from the cops, being shot in the back; when my son was 12, we were having conversations like, “If you are stopped by the cops, what should you do?” That’s not a conversation you should be having with your 12-year-old son. He’s a child.
Three years later, the fear is even worse. My son is 15; there are a lot of black kids in prison at 15. The law in the U.S. says you can be guilty by association. I don’t let my son go to parties, because if the cops come to that party, he’s more likely to be arrested as a black child.
I don’t think it’s because of the police force, I think it’s a case of an individual person who is groomed with hate inside of them. There are good cops out there, but we can’t fix hate. That person will never, ever understand what his father or grandfather or other forefathers have taught him. The fear is real, and it’s an everyday thing. I pray every day for my kid.
On her relationship with her neighbors: I opened my restaurant in 2016, and since then, the neighbors have been less than neighborly. When I first moved in, I was between the Florida Room and a white woman — between the two of them, they have called the cops on me four times. Reggae artists would come and play their music. Three Saturdays in a row the cops were called — they didn’t see anything wrong with the music, the tone, the loudness of it, but they had to come out. The last time, a cop said to me, “There are definitely some neighbors who don’t like you being here.” I ended up stopping the live music. The other neighbor ended up selling the house, because I guess she didn’t want to live near a black person. She was older — how do you get the hate out of her? (Suzy Day, who owns the Florida Room, denies she’s the source of the noise complaints.)
On the emotional exhaustion of working right now: It is emotional for me to come in every day, it is really psychologically difficult — COVID, having to close my business down. In the summers, we really depend on the street fairs and festivals, so now, we’re really dependent on foot traffic, and that’s really not sustainable. I’ve tried getting grants since this whole pandemic, but it hasn’t worked out. Yes, they’ve been giving out loans to black-owned and minority-owned business, but I haven’t gotten anything from anyone. I haven’t heard anyone in the black community say that they’ve gotten [Paycheck Protection Program] loans. Maybe they have, but I haven’t heard anything about it.
On how she wants to adapt in response to the coronavirus crisis: We’re trying to transition into a catering company. We’re trying to create our website to attract more larger ordering on a more corporate scale. The restaurant will still be open on the weekends, but we want to focus the other days on catering. While I’m happy we did really well last weekend, I don’t think it’s going to remain that way. It’s just trending right now, but it’s going to right back to normal eventually.
On why she talks about racism on her restaurant social media accounts: For years, I’ve been posting about racism on my Instagram page, my Facebook page. There are people who have reached out to me who genuinely want to say, “Hey, I feel your pain, help me to understand what is going on.” But there’s one particular person on my Facebook page who has been trolling me for years. When I post stuff about racism, he was always the first person to come out and bash and criticize. With everything going on with the riots, he became even more aggressive. He started calling us animals, he really started being mean. I ended up blocking him.
On owning a Jamaican restaurant in Portland: We provide a unique culture — Portland doesn’t have a lot of culture. It’s 75 percent or more white, and the few blacks who are here, other people of color, we provide a different insight, a different taste. I want people to come in and realize that everything we do here is authentic. We cook how our parents are cooking. Racism in Portland, in Oregon itself, is very passive-aggressive. I’ve seen people who open Jamaican restaurants who do business 10 times as well as I have — outside of Oregon. The system allows us to open, it gives us handles to be comfortable, but it doesn’t allow us to grow, that’s the problem. The system keeps us down.
We need to unite. All we’re asking for is equality; we’re not looking for a takeover or any kind of handouts. We’re willing to work and earn our own if it’s done fairly.
Updated June 18, 2020, 8:13 p.m.
This story has been updated to include an additional quote from Phillips from the original interview, in which she clarifies that her residential neighbor has left the neighborhood.
Updated June 22, 2020, at 2 p.m.
This piece has been updated to reflect comment from the owner of the Florida Room, which was not available at the original press time.