ST JOSEPH, Minn. — St. Joseph is a town of towering steeples and 6,500, mostly, white people.
Mateo Mackbee is a notable exception.
“This is the barbequed shrimp,” Mateo says as he works the grill at Krewe, the New Orleans style restaurant he opened last May with his girlfriend Erin Lucas.
“Our mission is to make this be successful,” Mateo says. “Black entrepreneur in an absolutely almost all white rural town.”
Mateo came of age as a chef in the Twin Cities.
While cooking at Edina’s former Mozza Mia restaurant, he met Erin who was working as a server.
She now runs Flour & Flower, the bakery she opened in a small, historic, wood frame building just behind Krewe.
“Carbs are my love language,” the Orono native says.
The couple was lured to St. Joseph by the owner of the building in which they opened their restaurant and now live on the second floor.
On a recent Friday, Erin frosted a lemon cake, while a few yards away, across the alley, Mateo cut onions to caramelize for smothered catfish and a variety other Cajun and Creole dishes featured on the Krewe menu.
“Some of these are family recipes passed down from my grandfather,” Mateo says. “In Louisiana cooking, they call it the holy trinity: green bell pepper, white or yellow onion and celery.”
After years of restaurant experience, Mateo and Erin knew the food would be the easy part of their move from the city to rural Minnesota.
“I didn't know what to expect,” says Erin, who is white but worries about Mateo. “It was scary.”
Two years before moving to St. Joseph, the couple started another restaurant in, even smaller, New London.
“We had people who wouldn't come into the restaurant in New London because I was an owner there,” Mateo confides.
The couple made friends, but there was also no mistaking the “snarky” comments occasionally directed their way at the bowling alley.
Erin says Mateo more easily brushed such things aside. “He would have to hold me back and not the other way around,” she says.
Mateo concedes, “Those things sting a little bit.”
Still, the experience taught the restaurateurs they could thrive outside the city.
Mateo took advantage of the rural setting to realize a dream: growing his own ingredients on a farm and busing in school children to learn about the origins of their food.
But nothing could have prepared Mateo and Erin for what happened four days before the opening of their St. Joseph restaurant, when George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, followed by rioting, arson fires and looting in neighborhoods familiar to Erin and Mateo back home.
“Our first instinct was to try to rush to the city to try to find ways we could help,” Mateo says.
Instead, Mateo and Erin asked for help from their new community, hosting a food drive for hard hit neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“The response was insane,” Erin says. “We had lines circling the building. We were brand new to the area. It was just shock and joy of people wanting to help.”
Erin and Mateo delivered two trailers of food to the Twin Cities, while feeling newly assured they had chosen the right community in which to open their new restaurant.
“It showed that the compassion we feel collectively was also here in the community,” Mateo says.
Those feelings have only been strengthened as their customer base has grown.
“The food is phenomenal,” says Bob Johnson, who drove from St. Cloud for lunch at Krewe with his family.
The Johnsons have paid at least half-a-dozen visits as they work their way through Mateo and Erin’s menu.
“I hope they stay,” Bob says.
Business has been brisk at the bakery too, with more than 100 cake and pie orders filled for Easter.
“I think it's the most perfect fit for what we're trying to accomplish,” Erin says.
What they’re trying to accomplish played out in the Krewe dining room on a recent Friday, when Jesse Ross, who is Black, drove with his wife from Minneapolis to have lunch at Krewe.
Jesse, an old friend of Mateo’s, says he’s used to keeping his guard up when he drives into rural Minnesota. “I don’t know where I’m going, if I’m welcome, who I’m going to run into and being able to walk into a place like this - this is home,” he says.
Home, regardless of race, is exactly what Mateo and Erin had in mind for their restaurant – if not, exactly, in this place.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this dream of mine, this restaurant, would ever be in a community this small, this white, this Catholic, this Lutheran,” Mateo laughs. “But these people told us they wanted this, so that’s why we’re here.”