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Jamal and Jason Brown, Framed an Identity, and Business, Around Food

Jamal, left, and Jason Brown, of 1918 Catering. (PROVIDED PHOTO)
By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times

The Brown family home on the southside of Bessemer is where Jason and Jamal Brown — brothers and owners of 1918 Catering — found their passion for creating meals.

“Our family address was 1918 Berkely Avenue,” said Jason. “That’s where all of our earliest memories formed, … especially with food.”

“Food has always been the center of our lives,” added Jamal. “Birth parties, you have food. Weddings, you have food. Family reunions, you have food. My whole family has always had Sunday dinners, and it always served as a time to fellowship and bond. … We really framed our identity around food.”

So, it was no surprise in 2015 when the Brown brothers started 1918 Catering LLC, a full-service catering company based in Homewood that showcases many of their family’s recipes, including smoked chicken, fried green tomatoes, spinach dip, slow-cooked barbecue, and much more.

Jason began cooking when he was as young as 7 years old, watching and being mentored by their grandmother Fannie Mae Brown.

“My grandma kind of created the base for us. We would follow the recipes she passed down to us, and it started from there,” said Jason.

“All of the men in our family can cook,” said Jamal. “You won’t be able to go to any of their houses without them knowing how to cook you something.”

Their father, Enoch Brown Jr., worked for the U.S. Steel railroad in Birmingham, and their mother, Genetta Brown, worked as a nurse at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) West Hospital.

Oftentimes, Jason would be up early to prepare breakfast for everyone before leaving for work or school: “My parents really wanted us to be self-sufficient. I would make Spam sandwiches, bologna sandwiches, or hamburgers to pack for [my father’s] lunch. Sometimes, I’d make jelly toast for both [of my parents]. … Overall, I’d be the one to provide meals for the family.”

It wasn’t long before Jamal, who is a year younger than Jason, followed in his brother’s footsteps.

“I grew up watching him,” Jamal said. “I quickly caught on it wasn’t long before we would compete with each other to see who had the best version of whatever dish.”

The Brown brothers received a donation from ESPN in 2020 that paved the way for their mobile food truck: 1918 Catering. They got the attention of the media outlet, often called the worldwide leader in sports, after providing more than 400 free meals for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic—and were given $5,000 by the hosts of ESPN’s “Golic and Wingo” sports-talk radio show.

“It’s been an interesting journey to see where simply cooking for your family will bring you,” said Jason. “It goes to show that if you start in love, everything else falls into place.”

Early Roots

Growing up on the southern side of Bessemer, the Holy Family Catholic High School graduates—Jason, 43, and Jamal, 42—always loved food.

“There was always something about food for us,” said Jamal. “How it tasted for sure mattered, but there was always something about the way it looked and the way it smelled. [We’ve] always been big on presentation.

Their father planted a garden in the backyard of their Bessemer home, where the two brothers would often pick fresh herbs and vegetables.

“We would go to the garden with [our father] to pick fruit and harvest vegetables. My grandma would slaughter hogs. … These were some of the traditional things that kind of stuck with us as we got older,” said Jason.

In their adolescence, the Brown brothers started making their own breakfast, like jelly toast and sandwiches, and learning family recipes that were passed down from their grandmother. They would often grill sandwiches and burgers and invite family and friends over to partake in those meals. Those family get-togethers helped Jamal perfect his technique for smoking pork and brisket.

“The more I practiced grilling [the meats], the more I got better at it,” said Jamal. 

Getting Started

In the early 2000s, as the brothers gained more cooking experience, they decided to take cooking seriously and accepted offers from family and friends who needed food for events like family reunions and weddings. In addition, they would go out during the weeklong Magic City Classic festivities “hauling a smoker and serving barbecue with sides” at tailgates.

In 2004, Jason worked as an operations manager in the cardiovascular services department at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Jamal worked as a nurse at Cooper Green Hospital. 

In addition to holding down his day job, Jason paid attention to the business of catering.

“I often would observe what the caterers were doing. … Some of them were good, and some of them weren’t so good. Seeing what they did right and what they did wrong helped me kind of see what I needed to do,” he said. “From that point, I started asking some of the guys that I worked with and some of the sales reps if we could cater some of their lunches.”

In 2015, while grilling for an event at their home church in Bessemer, New Zion Missionary Baptist, a group of boys asked the Brown brothers the name of their business.

“We didn’t have an answer for them, so that really sparked us to go ahead and make it official with an actual business,” Jason said.

1918 Catering

Based in West Homewood since 2015, the brothers offer an extensive catering menu that includes smoked chicken and ribs, smoked sausage and peppers, seafood, and desserts.

“In the early days of the business we had the basic barbeque trailer setup,” Jason said. “It was just an open-air trailer, and we put a grill and steam table on it.”

Six months later, the trailer was stolen “crippling the business” for a while, said Jason.

“Not having a trailer didn’t stop us, though,” said Jamal. “Sometimes we would go to our catering gigs in the cold with just a tent-and-table setup. At that time, it was just about starting and providing the services.”

Those services included free meals for essential workers.

“A friend of mine who is often on Twitter knew that we had been out giving away meals. … We had just been doing the work and feeding people, and [my friend] tweeted it out on our behalf. The [hosts of the ‘Golic and Wingo’ show] somehow saw that tweet, and it happened from there,” said Jamal.

“We really wanted to give a helping hand to health care workers at the time,” Jason said. “We have an extensive history with health care workers in our family. My brother is a nurse, my wife is a nurse, and my mother was a nurse.”

“It was just something that came naturally,” said Jamal. “Given my background and our family’s background in health care, it was crucial for us to make sure we did something during [the COVID-19 pandemic] to let them know that everything they were doing was appreciated.”

The 1918 Catering mobile food truck menu includes wings and fries, Philly cheesesteak, collard green casserole, barbecue pork sandwiches, and Jamal’s favorite: brisket.

“People love to say it’s so hard to cook, but the flavor and fall-off-the-bone tenderness make it all worth it,” said Jamal.

The 1918 Catering food truck often has rotations during weekdays and weekends on the UAB campus and at U.S. Steel Fairfield.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the city of Birmingham,” said Jamal. “[Birmingham] really knows how to show love and support, which has led us to be able to grow our brand.”

To learn more about 1918 Catering, visit www.1918catering.com and www.facebook.com/1918catering.

If you would like to see your favorite food truck featured in The Birmingham Times, email bwright@birminghamtimes.com, and put “Food Truck” in the subject line.

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