Golden Krust CEO Lowell Hawthorne’s unabashed capitalist optimism feels out of step in a time of emboldened anti-black resentment. Still, when the businessman spoke to the Jamaican Observer as recently as October, he echoed the belief of many West Indian transplants—the blind hope that the American dream can be manifested through sheer will.
“In my short life, I have been a farmer, owned my own minibus and even operated my own sound system,” he said, reminiscing on his beginnings in Jamaica. “It was only after then that I got the opportunity to go to this great country, the USA, in search of the American dream.”
The bit of familiar inspirational biography now doubles as his parting words: Two months later, on Saturday night, Hawthorne was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside his Bronx, N.Y., factory. He was 57.
As the obituaries have noted, Hawthorne’s patty-serving establishment is the largest Caribbean franchise chain in the country. The first Golden Krust was opened in the Bronx in 1989, with other locations later opening in states including New Jersey, Florida and Georgia. Though his tax debt has already found its way onto news outlets, Hawthorne still envisioned higher tiers for his company, telling the Miami Herald in 2004 that he was aiming for the family-owned business “to be the next McDonald’s.” A 2015 Wall Street Journal article asked, “Could Golden Krust be the next Chipotle?”
Golden Krust’s jerk-chicken patties are still a fairly esoteric concept to most of America, but the smaller scope gives Hawthrone’s legacy a rarer definition. There are other esteemed Caribbean restaurant institutions in New York City—Brooklyn is particularly fond of Footprints and C&J—but none has Golden Krust’s multiborough reach. Consequently, Golden Krust has become a touchstone for the multiplicities of the Caribbean New York identity. There’s a skepticism that comes with linking the corporate with black culture because of the historically parasitic relationship between the two sides. Though the meat is processed, there’s still a homegrown sensibility that felt genuine: Golden Krust’s Caribbeanness is the brand.
It’s been said that change is New York City’s only constant, but it feels accelerated in recent years. Riding the B46 Brooklyn bus line tells a decadelong story in an hour: It rolls through the West Indian-dominated East Flatbush, past the Golden Krust on Church Avenue and up an inclined stretch in Crown Heights, where another location rests at the top. Less than 10 minutes later, you’re in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the coffee shops are starting to rival the bodegas in numbers. Williamsburg, the gentrifier stronghold with nary a Golden Krust, meets you at the final stop in another 20 minutes. East Flatbush’s cultural core has remained unchanged in comparison with these neighborhoods, and the B46 has a way of stressing the fact that it’s less of a center than it is a bastion.
In the whitening’s wake, Golden Krust’s logo—a rising sun that evokes the Caribbean’s warmth—has become something of an exclusive touchstone, a cursory link between West Indians’ experience as New Yorkers and a lineage birthed in the islands.
There’s always been a distinct uniformity to a Golden Krust visit: You brace yourself for the servers’ endearing stushness; hurriedly wipe your glasses of the fog of wintertime restaurant heat, those stush faces staring back at you once you regain your sight; get the pale-crusted jerk-chicken patty and yeah … actually, no, no cocoa bread, thanks; get the patty in a white, logoed-up pouch within a brown paper bag; and, on the way out, exchange glances with the hunched Trini 50-something in the down-feather coat, who’s peeved that she has to wait a little longer for the ackee and salt fish. There’s rarely any revelatory experiences in Golden Krust, but there’s a small joy in realizing it’s an experience known to a few.
Hawthorne’s ambitions don’t necessarily end with his death, of course; his nephew and Golden Krust’s spokesman, Steven Clarke, pledged “to assure our franchisees that we are equipped internally to carry on our uncle’s mission.” Last spring, the New York Times did a piece on this hot new thing called the “Jamaican beef patty,” with the promoting tweet declaring that it “may not be as popular as the taco or the pizza, but it could be on its way.”
Although many have speculated about why the founder ended his life, what will never be speculation is the legacy he left behind and how his endeavor made people from the Caribbean feel pride about a food they so love.