With Noonie’s, former gangster launches food empire

Harold “Noonie” Ward
Harold “Noonie” Ward Stephenetta Harmon/MSR

Got oxtail on the brain? Then you might want to check out Noonie’s Famous Jerk and Things. First-time customer Princess El said she was drawn to the new South Minneapolis restaurant after seeing a picture of an oxtail dinner a friend shared on Facebook.

“I had to stop in and see what everyone was talking about.” Just by the picture, she said she knew it was going to be good, and she had to come in right away to try it.

Another regular, Cortez Adams, said his favorite item on the menu is “everything.” But, when pressed, he said the macaroni takes the noodle.

While oxtail and Jamaican jerk chicken are staples of the restaurant, which opened its doors this past March, its offerings include everything from candied yams to beans and rice. The owner, Harold “Noonie G” Ward, describes the menu as a mix of “Caribbean, Jamaican, Jerk Style and a little American” food fare.

If the food doesn’t make you feel like you’re in the Caribbean, then surely the atmosphere will. There’s a Jamaican flag hanging out front, multiple images of the legendary Bob Marley draped on the walls, and a continuous streaming of Reggae sounds.

“I cherish the opportunity to dine in a place where I have a sense of cultural envelope of the Caribbean, West Indies environment,” said regular Darryl “Bruddadarryl” Streeter. Streeter described Noonie’s as more than a neighborhood restaurant.

“This particular part of town needed this shot in the arm in terms of economic development… [Noonie’s] helped provide jobs for the community and the neighborhood,” he said.

Ward boasts that a tasty, budget-friendly fare has kept business booming. “Our prices are cheaper than everybody else’s, and we got the best food,” Ward said, which Streeter backed up by saying the restaurant has “excellent, authentic cuisine, very generous portions, and 1970s prices.”

Ward, a former gang-banger, has turned his knack for hustling into a food empire. While new to Minneapolis, Ward has been in the restaurant business since his mom opened up “Granny’s Carryout” in Chicago in 1987 after the passing of his father. Since then, he has owned three other Chicago restaurants.

In addition to Noonie’s, he currently owns and manages “Ward’s Carryout” in Chicago and has plans to open up other Noonie’s locations in Atlanta, Chicago, and South Carolina. Things have been going so well at Noonie’s, said Ward, that he’s now asking customers if they know anyone looking for a job because his staff cannot keep up with the demand.

(l-r) Oxtail lunch, Jerk Chicken soup Courtesy of Noonie's

While business has always been good, opening wasn’t so easy, said Ward. Because of strict City inspectors and a negligent landlord, he said opening Noonie’s took two years and was harder than opening any of his other restaurants. The biggest problem came when, after signing a five-year lease, City inspectors found 20 gas leaks in the building.

“The City inspectors, I’m cool with them now, but they were so rough, man,” said Ward. “They were rough, but they also did their job. So, I got to take my hat off to them. If they didn’t do their job, this place could’ve blown up.”

Ward added that the landlord, who he said was ignoring previous fines, forced him to pay out-of-pocket to get the building up to code. He is currently in the middle of a lawsuit with his landlord to get his money back.

Despite those setbacks, Ward said he is excited over how things have progressed with the restaurant. “[Minneapolis] really made Noonie’s like it is now because everyone is really coming from all over [from] all walks of life, and they love the food,” he said.

Reflecting on his past, Ward said, he’s glad to see how things have changed for the better. For him, that also means giving back to the community, including motivational talks.

He also shared his plans to work with John Legend and Stevie Wonder as a motivational speaker for their upcoming series of events aimed at ending gun violence. That may seem far-fetched, but this is a man whose autobiography, Gangster with a Heart of Gold: The Noonie G Story, about his journey from the world of drugs to running for local political office in Chicago, was turned into a biopic narrated by Chicago hip-hop artists Kanye West and Common.

“Before, I was part of the problem,” said Ward, “and now I want to be part of the solution.”

Noonie’s is located at 3731 Chicago Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN.