Buy Black: Miss Marjorie’s Steel Drum Plaintains
For Donna Moodie, making others feel at home comes naturally. Born in Jamaica and raised on the South Side of Chicago, she fondly recalls a childhood filled with the smells of her mother’s West Indian cooking and the sounds of visitors who’d come from far and wide for one of her mother’s home-cooked meals and friendly conversation. It was those memories of feeding people and making them feel welcome that led Donna away from a customary career path and guided her instead towards the food & restaurant industry.
In 1993, after years of working side jobs in restaurants to learn the ropes, she and her former husband opened their first restaurant. Today, she’s the proud owner of Marjorie, a Seattle-based restaurant named after her mother. She also recently launched Miss Marjorie’s Steel Drum Plantains, one of her restaurant’s signature appetizers, as a standalone, healthy snack that’s popping up in stores around the country.
JET: What were you doing with yourself before you made the decision to branch off into entrepreneurship?
Donna Moodie: When I first got out of college, I had a more traditional job. I was doing graphic arts for a business consulting firm and I was so uncomfortable being in an office everyday, that the highlight of my day was lunch and being able to work in a restaurant a couple of nights a week, part-time.
JET: What was your eureka moment where you decided to go into business for yourself?
Donna Moodie: I would just relish going to that restaurant and being in that social environment and the friends that I had there who were all mostly artists and creative people who did the restaurant job for money. I was just so happy to be in that environment and at a certain point, I asked myself the question, “Do you need to do the traditional job or do you just want to do what you want to do and be happy in that environment?” And I chose the restaurant.
JET: Tell me a little bit about your restaurant, Marjorie. Is this the same restaurant you opened in 1993?
Donna Moodie: No. When my husband and I divorced in 2002, we had two businesses. And this was another awakening moment because I decided to just do my own thing. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in the industry but in deciding to do my own thing, I just thought about where the roots of my interests were and they really came back to my mother and her style of cooking and entertaining. So I opened up a place named after her as a tribute, to thank her for the gifts she gave me.
JET: At what point did you decide to go from just running a restaurant to developing a line of plantains?
Donna Moodie: I think this started about 4 years ago. I would have a lot of customers come in and say, “Oh my gosh, you should package this, you should package this!” And my goal was to create a national product. That, for me, is my answer to the restaurant [owners] that [feel] they need multiple locations to survive. What we have [at Marjorie] is really intimate and special and I’d rather have some different businesses that offshoot the restaurant than to have other locations and maybe lose the intimacy.
I’m often at the restaurant and I really enjoy talking to the customers and diners and having the experience with them where it feels like they’re guests in my space. And I just really spent a year — because I was still actively running a restaurant — just doing research. The second year, I thought “I really want to look into packaging, so I’m going to see if I can maybe package my [plantains].” Finally towards the end of that year, we had a package design and product. The third year, I made my goal to get it on the shelf somewhere and sell it. And so we started selling to a couple of smaller stores here in Seattle. Towards the next year, I started more aggressive marketing to try to get it into stores where they have multiple locations.
JET: Where can Miss Marjorie’s Steel Drum Plantains be found today?
Donna Moodie: We’re in our local Whole Foods, we’re on Amazon Prime and we do Amazon Fresh in the Seattle area. We also got into Dean and De Luca. We’re in one lone grocery store in Chicago, the Southport Grocery and Café. We’re in three kind of cool stores in Brooklyn and a couple of spots in New York, NY. So we’re just kind of expanding a little bit. We’re in a few California stores and a couple of Portland, Oregon, stores in that area.
JET: Of all of the foods you could have packaged, you opted for a vegan plantain. Why create a healthy option instead of a chip or a cracker that would sell to a broader audience?
Donna Moodie: Right around the age of 14, I started regularly visiting this [black-owned] health foods store around the corner from my house, Brother Tim’s. It really had an impact on me on a lot of levels, not just what you eat, but also food and social justice and how they combine. I would watch my parents drive three miles to go to a grocery store and purchase things. There were never very many health options in our neighborhood. What I loved about Brother Tim’s wasn’t just the food that he had in his store, but he also had a lot of literature. And I would kind of say that was the beginning of an awakening for me about how food can nourish people, educate people, inform people and how it can also be used, I think, in a lot of ways to hold people back. I just feel like it’s really important for people to know what they’re eating and know where it comes from.
JET: What has been your biggest victory?
Donna Moodie: One is to still be open, because I think it’s so challenging right now for small businesses. Whenever times get really hard, I just remind myself of what a big accomplishment it is to be a single, Black woman and have my own business and have it be something that gets recognition in the city. That, to me, is huge.
For more info on Miss Marjorie’s Steel Drum Plantains, visit www.marjorierestaurant.com.