More than great barbecue

Restaurateur Jamie McDonald IDP’00 makes an impact in Hartford area and beyond

By Wendy Carlson
Photos by Joanna Chattman

Jamie McDonald IDP ’00 believes in the power of the butterfly effect, the idea that even the smallest act of kindness can have a rippling impact. Since the opening of the first Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ in East Windsor, Connecticut, in 2013, McDonald has used that power as a force for good.

A decade ago, McDonald was working his way up the corporate ladder at a Connecticut aerospace company while juggling a side gig competing in eating contests. He holds 13 world records for devouring everything from pies to pizza in warp speed. That talent came in handy in 2012 shortly after Hurricane Sandy struck, when he helped organize a hot-dog-eating fundraiser at a local restaurant. Not surprisingly, he won. But his competition days came to an end when the restaurant owner offered to rent him some counter space to start his own smokehouse.

Jamie McDonaldMcDonald jumped at the chance. A native of Kansas City, Missouri, he grew up with seriously good barbecue, and he saw a market in Connecticut for smoked meats and homemade sides. With the $70,000 he won in eating contests, McDonald bought his first wood-fired smoker. In 2013, he left his job, and he and his now ex-wife, Cheryl, opened the first Bear’s. From day one, the tiny takeout business was a huge success. Almost overnight, they were flooded with customers, and they needed more employees fast.

They reached out to local organizations that help formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs. In their view, it was a win-win: Bear’s needed a staff, and many formerly incarcerated individuals, who struggled to find work after being released from prison, needed a second chance.

“Sometimes all they need is somebody to believe in them and give them that chance. Because if no one does, what choice do they have?” McDonald explains.

Today, he and Cheryl remain business partners and together operate eight Bear’s, four of which are in Connecticut, including the one on Hartford’s Front Street, a short drive from Trinity’s campus. In 2020, they opened two restaurants in Asheville, North Carolina, a move McDonald says was sparked by a good market that had a lack of diverse barbecue. They recently opened two more North Carolina locations, one in Weaverville and the other in Mill Spring, at the Tryon Equestrian Center. In each of the locations, they work to pay their success forward through hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, providing a living wage, supporting women’s rights and animal welfare, and sponsoring events to help break the stigma around mental health issues and promote suicide-prevention awareness.

About 70 percent of Bear’s 300 employees have experienced incarceration, according to McDonald. Each employee candidate is carefully assessed, and sex offenders or career criminals are not considered. Not every hire is a success story, but a majority are.

“The ones who succeed are really trying to change their lives, either for themselves or they have young children at home and they want to be able to provide for them. So, by helping one person, you end up helping a wider circle of people,” he says.

Hartford resident Gilberto Rivera has spent the last six years working at Bear’s, “doing a little bit of everything.” He had served multiple prison sentences adding up to more than 30 years for crimes including selling drugs and assault when he was given the chance to get his life on the right track, and he’s not taking that opportunity for granted.

“This time around, I decided enough is enough,” Rivera says. “I’m tired of this life [in prison]. I told my family that this was my last time, and they said, ‘Yeah, we’ve heard that before from you, and you always give up.’ But I said, ‘This time I’m doing it.’ ”

Rivera hasn’t given up, and he says he enjoys his job. “Everybody works together. It’s just like it’s a big family. I look forward going to work; it’s a good environment. I’ve called out only once in six years.” He adds, “I’m a role model to my 22 grandkids, and they all look up to me. I’m blessed, and I’m thankful for Cheryl and Jamie. They gave me the opportunity.”

Jamie McDonald working on the Poland-Ukraine border
Jamie McDonald IDP’00 volunteers near the Poland–Ukraine border with World Central Kitchen.
Photo courtesy of Jamie McDonald IDP’00

McDonald’s acts of kindness extend far beyond the local community. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, he connected with World Central Kitchen (WCK), a nonprofit feeding refugees in Poland. McDonald flew to Warsaw and spent three weeks working at a kitchen facility located about five miles from the Ukraine-Poland border. He helped prepare the nearly 150,000 meals delivered daily to Ukrainian refugees streaming across the border. In the evenings, he visited a nearby kennel to help take care of some of the hundreds of dogs from Ukraine that were left homeless as a result of the conflict.

Back in Connecticut, McDonald set up a donation page on Facebook and shared photos of refugees he met during his trip. Within three weeks, he raised more than $90,000 for WCK, in addition to donating 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Bear’s sauces and rubs.

McDonald was recognized for his work in the capital city as the 2017 recipient of the Trinity Club of Hartford (TCOH) Person of the Year Award. The annual honor is “presented to a graduate of the college who has given outstanding service to the community or to the college.”

Hartford entrepreneur Jeff Devereux ’12, partner at Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, was president of the TCOH at the time McDonald was honored. He says the club was impressed with McDonald and his team taking on the challenge of opening restaurants in the city. “The energy, the tenacity, and the determination to do all of that was inspiring to the club,” he says, adding, “He kind of threw himself into many aspects of the Hartford community. I knew him, but lots of people knew him, because he was just that kind of guy.”

Building a business as a force for good wasn’t exactly how McDonald, now 43, imagined his life. “I had always been active in volunteering, but if you had asked me 25 years ago what I wanted to be, I might have said I wanted to be a big CEO. That’s what I thought life was all about, climbing the corporate ladder,” he says.

McDonald enlisted in the U.S. Navy straight out of high school. He served as a nuclear machinist, monitoring nuclear power generation systems on aircraft carriers. After he completed his military service, he entered the aerospace industry and eventually moved to Connecticut, where he worked repairing and overhauling jet engines at Hamilton Standard, then a division of United Technologies.

Marriage and raising a family followed, but, along the way, McDonald decided to further his education. Trinity’s self-paced Individualized Degree Program (IDP), which allows self-supporting students to take as many or as few classes as they want each semester, was a perfect fit. With a full-time job and a family, he was far from the typical college student.

He pushed himself, taking six to eight courses a semester while working the night shift at Hamilton Standard. He graduated in three years, an accomplishment he attributes to his time in the Navy, where he learned to push himself both mentally and physically and to strive for a high level of achievement.

Armed with a B.A. in economics, he set his sights on a high-powered career in business. “Back then, I envisioned myself master of the universe,” he jokes.

But a course he took at Trinity in business ethics convinced him that corporations have an obligation to benefit the communities in which they operate.

“I don’t recall who the instructor of the course was, but I do remember he told us that at the end of the day, every business has the responsibility to better their community. That course really stuck with me. So when we started Bear’s, we thought a lot about how we could use it to help others, whether through food donations to charities, through raising the minimum wage, and through staffing ex-offenders,” he says.

McDonald has seen addiction within his family, which also influenced his decision to help those in recovery who seek a second chance. He notes that some of the employees working at Bear’s ended up in prison as a result of drug or alcohol abuse. When given the opportunity, “those who make it are absolutely the most loyal and hardworking employees we’ve had because they appreciate what we’ve done for them,” he says.

His campaign to help make the world a better place includes last May’s marking of Mental Health Awareness Month with the launch of Hopefest at the Bear’s location in New Haven, featuring a series of events in support of mental health awareness and suicide prevention. He also works to support service members by hosting events such as Cigars for Warriors, a fundraiser to benefit the similarly named nonprofit that aims to boost morale of those in the military. 

As he sees it, by working collectively, we all can make a difference in the world. “Even the smallest gesture,” he says, “can have a huge impact.”