It’s never too late.
That’s what Frank Brown tells me when I ask him why, at the age of 59 and in the middle of a pandemic, he’s decided to open his first restaurant – a risky venture, even in the best of times.
“It’s never too late for a shower of rain,” Brown says, while seated at a table covered with a tablecloth patterned after the flag of Jamaica, his native country.
I met Brown in early June, while driving through Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood. Merchants were on edge after a weekend of protests against police brutality and racism, and some Electric City business owners had boarded up their windows in preparation for violence that never materialized.
In the midst of all this apprehensiveness, Brown caught my eye: He was standing outside 905 Albany St. on a ladder, painting the exterior of his soon-to-be-open restaurant, Frank’s Caribbean Fire Grill.
Frank’s Caribbean Fire Grill opened for business about two weeks ago, and I picked up lunch there on Monday – a generous serving of oxtail with rice and beans and cabbage.
“The product is going out the door really fast,” Brown says, cheerfully. “It’s great. People are coming from all over to get our food.”
That food is hard to resist if you like traditional Jamaican cuisine, and a tantalizing variety of dishes are listed on Brown’s dry erase board: Jerk chicken, ackee and saltfish, steamed fish and curry goat, among other things.
Talking to Brown, it’s easy to forget that this is an unusually precarious time for the restaurant industry.
Since March, nearly 24,000 U.S. restaurants have closed, more than half of them permanently, according to a recent report from the business review site Yelp.
Those that remain open face an uncertain future: a cratered economy and unprecedented public health threat that could force them to shut down again. Just this week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that all bars and restaurants could be closed if they don’t do a better job of enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing.
Despite all this, Brown, who lives about two blocks away from his restaurant, is brimming with an optimism and confidence informed by a deep religious faith.
“When you have God with you, all things are possible,” he said. “I wait for God to lead me and take me wherever I go. … God brought me here. Without him, I’m nothing.”
Brown learned to cook from his father, “a great cook” who cooked for a cruise ship.
He moved to the U.S. from Jamaica about 30 years ago to do farm work, and was working construction when he discovered that the building his restaurant now occupies was available.
“I decided to quit my job and chase my dream,” he said.
The Daily Gazette has published other articles about entrepreneurial-minded people expanding or starting new businesses in this time of great uncertainty, and it’s comforting to know that the pandemic hasn’t killed off the can-do spirit that drives people to strike out on their own.
It’s people like Brown, after all, who inject new life into empty storefronts and struggling neighborhoods, helping transform cities into more vibrant and interesting places.
It isn’t easy to see opportunity right now, when people are rightfully worried about their longterm economic prospects. But some people do see it, and are acting upon their long held hopes.
As I turn to leave, Brown calls out to me and recites a passage from the book of Psalms.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” he says.
Then he smiles.
“I fear nothing.”
Frank’s Caribbean Fire Grill is open daily, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.