Very nearly from the moment Dwayne and Andrea Cole parked their food truck, Ama’ Gees Jamaican Cuisine, in South Durham during the day and late nights in the downtown district, they have done a brisk business serving up unique, palate-pleasing dishes at reasonable prices.
Co-owner Andrea says she and Dwayne, her husband of 14 years, are downtown on Riggsbee Street, between Motorco and Surf Club, from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. most nights. Their bright green food truck with distinctive logo, decorative mixture of Pan African and Jamaican flag colors, and red, black, and green Afro-centric hubcaps will be familiar to many Durhamites. Reggae music is generally playing from the truck’s speakers.
But the food is the star attraction at Ama’Gees.
“A lot of people come to the truck just to bust a vibe,” Andrea says. “We serve authentic Jamaican food; jerk chicken, wings. Our oxtails are the most tender in all of Durham and Raleigh. People come from all over. One lady from Jamaica said she had to try it because everybody was saying our food is authentic.”
Dwayne touts the truck’s five-star ratings.
“People tell us, ‘For a food truck, you’re giving all the Jamaican restaurants a problem,’” he says.
In November, the Coles received a $10,000 grant from the North Carolina tech giant Lenovo. Company spokeswoman Mary Cullen told the INDY this month that the grant to the Coles’s enterprise was among a dozen awarded to businesses owned by people of color and women in the Triangle.
In an email to the INDY, Cullen wrote that Lenovo, in partnership with the nonprofit community financial institution Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), awarded $1 million in grant funding and support to Black, Indigenous, and people of color-owned (BIPOC) small businesses across the country.
Ama’Gees was one of the dozen Triangle businesses that were each awarded $10,000 grants as part of Lenovo’s Evolve Small Campaign with the goal of expanding economic equity among Black, Brown, and women-owned entrepreneurs.
The 12 grant recipient businesses in the Triangle are 67 percent Black-owned, 33 percent Latinx-owned, and 83 percent woman-owned, Cullen stated in the release.
Even before purchasing a food truck, Dwayne says the Coles were looking for a brick and mortar location. In 2020, they rented a location in Phoenix Square in the historically Black Hayti District along the Fayetteville Street Corridor.
“It’s in a good location, with all of the development downtown,” he says. “Our goal was to open at the end of 2020.”
Making monthly rental payments for a business that was unable to open during the pandemic was tough enough. But before the pandemic delayed their restaurant opening, a seismic tragedy slammed the Cole family. Alex, their oldest son, was the victim of fatal gunfire in Jamaica the same year they started their food truck venue.
“We were scheduled to start in August,” Dwayne says. “He was killed a month before.”
In July of that year, Alex, 21, was fatally shot while sleeping in his bedroom with his common-law wife.
“He was murdered in his sleep,” Dwayne says. “Someone shot through the window. There were two gunshots. Up to this day, the case is under investigation.”
Andrea says that Alex’s wife, who was pregnant with twins, was also killed by the gunfire.
“So we lost four people that day,” she adds.
Dwayne returned to Jamaica to bury their child.
“The money the couple saved for their business expansion was used to pay for funeral expenses,” Cullen explained in the release.
Andrea says Alex wanted to move here to drive the food truck. Months after he was killed, “2020 comes, and here comes corona.”
“It really helped us to offset the rent, utilities and stuff we had fallen behind with as a result of COVID and not being able to work,” Andrea says of the grant.
Andrea and Dwayne both grew up in Jamaica’s St. Catherine’s Parish. Interestingly, they did not meet until moving separately to Queens, New York in 2007.
There was an immediate attraction. Still, the pragmatic couple settled in for a long romance and a working relationship before tying the knot in 2018.
The couple’s surviving children are two daughters, ages 11 and eight, who they share, plus an 18-year-old son who recently graduated from the U.S. Air Force boot camp, a 19-year-old daughter, and a 17-year-old son.
The Coles first visited Durham in 2008 at the behest of Andrea’s aunt. They fell in love with the Bull City.
“She encouraged us to move here,” Andrea says. “The cost of living is expensive in New York.”
“We fell in love with the food truck thing,” Dwayne adds. “And we found houses that were cheaper.”
They moved to Durham in 2011, and started offering meals out of their home. It was a part-time venture. At first, they gave the food away to gauge the response. The enterprising couple relied on grassroots advertising by placing flyers about their fledgling business in corner stores, hair salons, and local library branches to promote their catering and delivery services. They ramped up the entrepreneurial stakes in 2017 when they bought a truck.
“It was a white, 1990 Chevrolet step van,” Andrea says. “It was formerly a delivery truck.”
“It took us three years to get the truck built,” Dwayne says.
In 2019, the newly-outfitted, roots and culture food truck pulled into an East Durham parking lot and opened up for service, near NC 98 and US 70, near Holloway Street. That same year, the Coles started parking and setting up for business in South Durham at the Food Lion parking lot near the intersection of Pilot and Fayetteville streets. By the end of 2020, the Coles moved to Phoenix Square.
The Coles are hoping to open their restaurant by the beginning of the summer.
“Yes,” Andrea says, “we are speaking it into the universe.”
Still, sometimes for the Coles, it feels like one step forward, two steps backwards: their food truck is currently down owing to a faulty transmission. They hope to get it back up in the first week of March.
The Coles are also continuing to search for grants and loans to help with both enterprises, “because what we projected to earn based on pre-pandemic, we didn’t,” Andrea explains.
Meanwhile, Dwayne envisions the restaurant also becoming a venue that helps to introduce other features of Jamaica to the Bull City and Triangle region, including musical concerts, dominos, soccer games, and “jerk-off” chicken competitions.
“That’s one of the intentions of Ama’Gees,” he said. “Bring the culture back to North Carolina.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.