Twin Cities

Sammy McDowell remembered as ‘pillar’ of his north Minneapolis community

People release balloons outside
Community members release balloons at Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis on Tuesday to honor the life of Sammy McDowell.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

Hundreds of people came out to celebrate the life of the popular restaurant owner Sammy McDowell, 48, on Tuesday night.

His community of family, friends and fellow parishioners gathered in the parking lot of Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis.

A Black man stands behind a counter and smiles
Sammy McDowell poses for a photo at his restaurant.
David Pierini | North News 2019

Many of the adults and children arrived at the community picnic carrying balloons of various colors and shapes. At around 6:30 p.m., the crowd released the balloons in tandem with members of communities in six states around the country where McDowell had roots.

“Sammy was a pillar of this community. Sammy loved everybody,” Shiloh minister Arnetta Phillips told the crowd. “He could give you the shirt off his back if you needed it; he would do it.”

Person talks as others serve food
Minister Arnetta Phillips (right) speaks at Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis on Tuesday during Sammy McDowell's memorial picnic.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

McDowell owned Sammy’s Avenue Eatery located along West Broadway Avenue on the city’s north side. 

An entrepreneur who aimed to  boost economic development in the area, McDowell was also remembered by friends and community members as a singer as well as a calming presence on the northside during COVID and during the unrest which followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

McDowell was also a longtime member of Shiloh Temple. And according to Bishop Richard D. Howell, Jr. McDowell was in attendance at the church last Sunday.

“I don’t believe he was feeling well when he stepped into the church house. He was just sitting there, kind of quiet,” Howell said. “Some people noticed that he was not the same.”

McDowell collapsed toward the end of the service. He was taken to North Memorial Hospital where doctors tried to save him but he later died, Howell said.

Howell said McDowell’s death was a shock to the community.

“Some people just didn’t know how to process their grieving after the abrupt loss of Sammy,” he said. “And so we felt like well, maybe this would be a good time for the grieving community to come together, and have some Sammy stories, share some good news about him and release some balloons together.”

It’s appropriate, considering the man.

“He was all about community. He was a champion of the community. He was a gentle giant,” Howell said.

Priscilla Roberts, a senior executive admin at Shiloh, has been a member of the church for 25 years. She met McDowell the year she joined Shiloh and they were friends ever since.

“He’s always been the same,” she said. “Very giving, incredibly warm, always looking out for other people.”

Roberts met him when he was part of the choir. 

“He did his own CDs,” she said. “I loved his voice.” 

Roberts said elders used to say that people could move between the outhouse to the penthouse. In other words, people can interact with others the same way in different scenarios.

“That was Sammy. He would give a man a cup of coffee on the street corner and able to just serve the same coffee to Gov. Walz,” she said. “It didn’t matter to him.”

One of McDowell’s friends, Brian Bogan, attended the event with his two children.

Person stands for a portrait
Brian Bogan, who has been friends with McDowell for over 25 years, at Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

“He meant everything because he just really wanted to see the community thrive,” said Bogan, who has been friends with McDowell for over 25 years. “Like he wanted more for the community than he wanted for himself.”

Church officials say funeral details have not yet been finalized.

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