How the Owner of Jimmy’s Famous Seafood Helped Keep Baltimore Restaurants and Bars Alive

John Minadakis' Famous Fund has raised roughly $480,000 (and counting) that’s been split among dozens of spots decimated by the pandemic.
John Minadakis, left, and T.J. Smith. —Photography by Benjamin Tankersley

This might surprise people that have seen or heard one of Jimmy’s Famous Seafood’s attention-grabbing marketing campaigns or follow the Dundalk restaurant’s pervasive and often brash social-media content. But John Minadakis, Jimmy’s 38-year-old co-owner—and the son of its late founder and namesake—says he considers himself a social recluse.

“I’m a bit of a hermit myself,” he says softly over lunch one day at his restaurant, before he forks into one of his eight-ounce famous crab cakes.

We’re sitting at a high-top table near the dining-room bar, masks off, finally, one afternoon near the end of April. And ironically, as we eat and talk, Minadakis is cracking open his own shell, so to speak, to talk about the Famous Fund. It’s one of the city’s more uplifting stories of the past year, and Minadakis—who owns Jimmy’s with his younger brother, Tony, both second-generation Greeks—is the guy behind it.

Since January, the Fund—essentially a crowdsourced fundraising effort—has raised roughly $480,000 (and counting) that’s been split among dozens of restaurants and bars across the city that were decimated by the pandemic and the ensuing social-distancing protocols that left stools, seats, and tables empty for months.

In a year-plus marked by widespread fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, owners of city institutions such as Vikki’s Fells Point Deli or Sliders Bar & Grille across from Camden Yards understandably sobbed when they got word they were receiving up to $25,000 in their bank accounts from the Famous Fund, hopefully enough to keep their businesses alive and rent paid until diners could patronize them again.

Jimmy’s has always attracted high-profile customers, especially athletes, so local celebrities, including Super Bowl XLVII hero Jacoby Jones, former Orioles out elder Adam Jones, and many more, delivered the good news in heartwarming live video calls.

In the case of Jones, he broke the announcement of a $10,000 donation to Marie Branch, owner of the Canton breakfast eatery, Simply Marie’s, where he regularly ordered the spicy sausage and eggs when he played here. “Wow, are you serious?” Branch told Jones. “It will pay some bills, keep the doors open.”

It was a common refrain. Jones was so touched with the movement that he gave an additional donation. The extra cash was enough to cover Simply Marie’s rent payments through the summer. The help was the practical kind that became so essential for so many establishments that simply couldn’t make up for lost foot traffic and had to lay off employees or go out of business.

For Jimmy’s to be behind such a noble cause seems a bit incongruent, perhaps. We’re talking about a restaurant, after all, that once made headlines for offering then-free agent slugger Chris Davis free crab cakes for life, got into a Twitter dust-up with animal rights activists a few years ago, and then admittedly went a bit too far going after an Atlanta café that serves vegan crab dishes.

But Minadakis, who says a marketing team handles much of the social-media grunt work for the business (he’s busy enough managing the day-to-day of the popular restaurant), says the lessons he learned as a student at Loyola Blakefield, where he graduated from in 2001, came to bear. “They always taught us to mentor others,” he says.

That said, the idea did receive a jumpstart from someone who is very much not a social hermit, the often-polarizing Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy. As marketers go, Portnoy is as shrewd as they come, known for his Boston accent, cult of “Stoolie” sports fans followers, obnoxious personality, and Fox News appearances, among other things.

The style rubs some people the wrong way, but amid the pandemic Portnoy started using his platform and dedicated following for a lot of good and raised money for restaurants and bars around the country—including a few in Baltimore, like Abbey Burger Bistro, Don’t Know Tavern, and Claddagh’s.

Then, in December 2020, with COVID cases rising again, on his first full day on the job, Mayor Brandon Scott shut down indoor and outdoor dining in Baltimore for what ended up being six weeks. For so many restaurants that had survived the initial pandemic outbreak in the spring, “That was the death punch,” Minadakis says.

Most notably, longtime downtown presence James Joyce Irish Pub closed for good.

“People don’t realize how important the holidays are to restaurants,” Minadakis says. “In the same way you can’t catch up on sleep, you can’t make that money up ever. When you don’t have the money to pay your landlord and your bills, you have to close.”

Sensing that many other Baltimore restaurants could meet that fate, Minadakis, a big football fan, got Portnoy’s attention. The week of the Ravens’ mid-January playoff game with the Buffalo Bills, he made Portnoy (somewhat of a Bills supporter since their fans contribute content to his website) an offer he couldn’t refuse. The deal: Ravens win, you donate money to help another Baltimore restaurant. Bills win, we’ll rename our place to Dave’s Famous Seafood for a week on all social media channels. Portnoy bit. But after the Ravens lost 17-3 on a Saturday night in Buffalo, Minadakis woke up the next morning gutted.

You see, in the days leading up to the game, Minadakis had been following the social media buzz over the bet. A few restaurants in particular—The Angle Inn on O’Donnell Street, for one—kept getting nominated as potential recipients of the prize money. “I realized I might’ve just gotten somebody’s hopes up and put the last nail in their coffin without meaning to,” Minadakis says.

Hence the idea for the Famous Fund was born, sort of.

Minadakis made good on the bet, with a wrinkle. He decided to make and sell Dave’s Famous T-shirts, with the proceeds benefitting The Angle Inn, and that idea quickly overshot expectations. Then he decided to start a GoFundMe page with a goal to raise $100,000 for The Angle, Sliders, The Chasseur, G&A Restaurant, and Shotti’s Point Charm City.

In just four days, the effort raised more than $200,000, with the help of publicity, donations, and support from Ravens players like Marlon Humphrey and Ronnie Stanley and Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and his wife Lacie. “It was all organic,” Minadakis says. “That’s the best part.”

At that point, with virality building on social media, Minadakis called in a favor to friend and former Baltimore City police spokesperson T.J. Smith, who was a regular Jimmy’s customer and who Minadakis knew was familiar with many local restaurants.

Smith agreed to take the lead on a broader citywide fundraising effort, alongside friends Paul Goins and Leroy Yegge. Soon after that, former Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who co-founded an organization that supports a lot of past and current Ravens players’ charities, told Minadakis and Smith he easily could do the same for them.

Donations poured in from total strangers, in many cases, as did the applications from dozens of bars and restaurants seeking aid or a “bridge to better days,” as Smith explains.

Smith reviewed the applications, which asked for some expenses and payroll documentation, made site visits, and conceived of how to deliver the good news. Smith spent hours arranging for well-known locals to surprise owners on video, recorded and edited the announcements, and posted them on social media.

As we write, the Famous Fund has helped at least 30 restaurants in various parts of the city stay open. Each has their own story, though their struggle is unfortunately common.

At Woodrow’s Bar-B-Que in Mt. Washington, owner Matthew Piron hadn’t taken a salary in more than a year, while still paying his workers above minimum wage.

“Every week, you worry if you can stay open or not,” Piron said after Ravens Hall-of-Famer Jonathan Ogden told him he was getting $10,000 for whatever he needed with the restaurant. “It’s amazing what the goodness of people can do.”

Minadakis says he wants to keep raising money in the months and years ahead, maybe by hosting regular events to benefit restaurants that still need help (and they still do), or create a college scholarship fund, something near to his heart.

“We’re not letting up anytime soon,” he says. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. The pandemic has been tough on any business, much less a small business. If you need the money, we’ll figure it out.”