Tourist board depictions of Jamaica usually focus on impossibly white sands, cocktails with tiny umbrellas, and fruit salads. But for many of the 3 million people who live on this Caribbean island, the reality is very different.
Of course, this is not to accuse Kingston’s silver service restaurants or the beach resort bars of offering an in-authentic Jamaican food experience. But those who venture away from the urban and tourist centres will find some of the best—and cheapest—dishes that this country has to offer.
My first stop on a recent trip to Jamaica is a no-name restaurant on a hill that links the popular tourist town of Ocho Rios to the countryside of the Saint Ann parish. Situated beside a car auto parts station, it has all the features that I will soon come to seek in a good food stop: a makeshift wooden structure, a handwritten menu (signalling that the dishes change everyday, depending on what’s in season and available), taxis parked out front, and elders who gather outside to place dominoes come sun fall. A full meal here with all the trimmings sets me back $J350 (£2)—a fact that I have the pleasure of relaying to a group of tourists, who boast that the curry goat only cost them $J3,000.
For most Jamaicans living in residential areas, eating out is a rarity, meaning that these type of roadside food stops are kept afloat by single men and people in need of meals on-the-go. Much of Jamaica’s national economy income is derived from foreign spenders and, more often than not, this money doesn’t find its way to small businesses. At another roadside restaurant, the owner explains why this might be: “It’s hard to get foreign customers to come because the big resorts tell their people not to trust the locals.” Indeed, resorts often house dozens of restaurants, so it follows that they would encourage guests to spend their money at one of their own establishments.
Despite this, Jamaica’s roadside eating posts and street food vendors persist, often located just a few roads away from main towns or in residential areas. Having spent some time in the UK talking to people of Caribbean descent who started food businesses, I recognise the same can-do attitude when meeting these Jamaicans who literally built their own restaurants from the ground up. Both groups have created successful businesses from simple, homely food.
Around the corner from my first stop is Great Pond, a sleepy neighbourhood dotted with colourful bungalows. Here, I am befriended by Gregg, the owner of a similarly small wooden food shack. It sits on edge of a tropical green with an area cut back for customers to eat and hang out on benches. The number of taxi drivers who stop at Gregg’s shack within the first ten minutes of being there is very promising. Taxi drivers are an indicator of quality in Jamaica, they travel all over and can stop anywhere so you know that where they choose to cease work and eat must be good.
Though the business is still in its infancy, Gregg is proud of how things are turning out. From sunrise until the food sells out, he serves ackee, brown stew chicken, boiled food (root vegetables), and whatever else he decides to cook that day. The only constant is a creamy oat porridge that works out at around 55p.
“When I started I didn’t even have this,” Gregg says, pointing to the walls and ceiling of the small wooden building. “I just had two pots. I had to worry about lizards, birds, and goats getting to the food everyday.”
As a former employee at one of the foreign-owned hotels in the centre of Ocho Rios, Gregg corroborates the story of hotels warning tourists to eat within the resorts they are staying at. This impacts Gregg’s business but, as he says while bobbing skilfully bobbing from pot to pot, “I built my way up, being consistent everyday.”
The attitude of Gregg and his fellow food shack owners offers a refreshing change from the dining scene in London, where restaurateurs need to have a perfectly cultivated brand, marketing strategy, target audience, and eye-watering investment before launching. In Jamaica, food entrepreneurs appear to have the freedom to experiment with dishes and selling techniques until they find out what works.
Most roadside food shacks are unlicensed, but the threat of closure is low as the government is unlikely to want to do anything that could stunt employment. The challenges that owners like Gregg do face echo those of restaurant owners anywhere in the world, just with a local slant. He worries about growing his customer base beyond locals and finding good employees, but also where to find durable wood and corrugated steel for the shack and an affordable painter for the eventual sign art.
These challenges haven’t stopped scores of people across Jamaica from entering into the food business. In Drapers, Port Antonio, I meet Jason, a young man in his early 20s who is working with a crew to build a new restaurant called Mannas. With no physical structure in place yet, Jason is still excited to reel off the menu for when he does eventually open.
A “build it and they will come mentality” may exist in Jamaica, but many would-be business owners lack the capital required to fully realise their plans. Violet*, a guest house keeper in North Jamaica, tells me she needs about $J170,000 (£1,000) to get her restaurant idea off the ground, but loan interest payments from the bank are too much. Much like Jason, she has a clear vision of how she’d like to grow the business.
“Everyone in the area says my French fried chicken is the best,” she tells me. “I know the people would just love it, no one does it like me.”
Prohibitive bank loans have pushed some food entrepreneurs to take a different approach. Near Halfway Tree in New Kingston, Lorraine, affectionately known as “Mama” by locals, has set up a food stall in her front drive. The only thing protecting her from the elements is a tarpaulin raised between the edge of her house and a large tree, but the queue at lunchtime stretches beyond the drive’s gate as customers wait excitedly for curry chicken and rice and peas.
In between serving, Lorraine can be seen dashing to and from her kitchen, restocking gravy pots and replenishing the juices she keeps in a picnic cooler beside the garden bench set up for customers.
As well as the dishes they offer, food shack owners take pride in sanitation. In Jamaica, it's rare to hear of a food poisoning outbreak at a public eatery—such a scandal would be business suicide in Jamaica, where word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire.
Word-of-mouth is also a saving grace for the island’s food shacks. Ask a local where to get the best food and they’ll likely point you away from urban restaurant chains and Reggae bars, and into a residential neighbourhood with a guy serving jerk chicken or soup from a wooden structure. My advice is to follow.
*Name has been changed.