Originally from Kansas City, Jamie McDonald came here out of the Navy, where he worked for United Technologies for many years. About four years ago he started his search for a spot Downtown when he landed on Arch Street. He knew that UConn would be coming in and that the whole Front Street redevelopment would be taking off, so he took a calculated risk.
People kept asking… “Why are you going to open up in Hartford, there’s nothing to do or going on in Hartford.” But, Jamie felt this was a short-sighted way of looking at the city, “even in the last four years, it has changed a lot. There are a lot more people living down here… there’s a lot more foot traffic. I feel like Hartford is just on the cusp. Look at the Front Street area and Adriaen’s Landing, it’s busy all the time. Now that needs to spread throughout the rest of the city. And that’s what I’m hoping over the next year, especially this area, or the North End or the area around the Yard Goats Stadium. You have all these components, and in a couple more years they can really make a cohesive city.”
While it’s clear Jamie has a passion for food, his deeper motivation is using his restaurants as a vehicle to do good. It all started while taking a business ethics class at Trinity where Jamie learned about corporate responsibility, which has been a business approach he has incorporated through his restaurants, “you support the community just as much as the community supports you. That’s why we always support local arts, anything to do with children, and about 80% of our employees come from the Downtown or Greater Hartford area… it’s just the right thing to do.”
One of the ways Jamie and Bear’s give back is by hiring many veterans and formerly incarcerated individuals to work in the restaurants. “You know, when you make that difference in someone’s life, you’re not only affecting their life, but you’re affecting their families lives and their neighbors’ lives… it compounds. That is what really does it for me, seeing those changes happen” he says. Giving formerly incarcerated individuals a second chance is something that Jamie values deeply, and now people who’ve gotten that second chance are now becoming managers or assistant managers at Jamie’s restaurants. ‘They are doing fantastic. When you see that happen and they come up to you and say ‘thank you for giving me a chance when nobody else would’ at the end of the day, that’s what does it,” said Jamie.
Walking into Chango Rosa, the graffiti-covered walls is one of the first things that catches your eyes. Formerly an Italian restaurant, there was lots of stonework and polished metal in the building, and Jamie thought it would be a great juxtaposition this with the graffiti. They try to do a lot with the local artists, and this was a way to bring in street artists and have them do their thing “show them that their art is art, and it can be in a restaurant, it can be in a building, and it doesn’t have to be something to hide from” says Jamie.
“Hartford has been good to us,” says Jamie. The Bear’s business has grown fast and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Next year they will be building a commissary in the North End at the Swift Factor, which will be 8,000 square feet and focused on providing support for the North End community. They are also opening a Bear’s restaurant in New Haven in October, and they just signed a lease in North Carolina for yet another location. “It just goes to show you that you can start with a 6 foot long counter and 3 employees to 6 locations, 350 employees and selling 1.1 million pounds of BBQ in a year… all because of Hartford. So it’s possible, it just takes hard work” says Jamie.