JERKebago Brings a New Taste to The County and the Bay of Quinte Region
Finding that there was a need, bordering on a craving, for unique food and flavour experiences in Prince Edward County, Toronto couple Saiqa Sheikh and Josh Blake, decided to take their love for Afro-Caribbean fusion food and turn it into a burgeoning business. It is one that has definitely added a little spice to the culinary offerings to both locals and visitors alike within the region.
JERKebago opened at the end of June 2017 on a lot at 22178 Loyalist Parkway in Carrying Place and became an instant hit. With a little help from the weather, the couple was able to keep their establishment open until November. Focusing on ‘Jerk’ chicken and related items. A second location in Picton’s Industrial Park, is set to open by the spring of 2018.
A Leap Of Faith - Moving From Toronto
It’s been a blessing for both the couple and their three young daughters, as well as for the taste buds of everyone who encounters the flavourful fare offered by JERKebago to see the business be a success right out of the starting blocks. And in a weird way, the skyrocketing housing prices in the Greater Toronto Area can be thanked by all involved for these circumstances.
“We were looking to put down roots because we had been renting for so long. We just kept hopping around Toronto looking around, where we might want to buy and then the housing market got crazy so we started looking east. We saw a house we liked online and it was in Prince Edward County,” said Saiqa, who added that she, her parents and two of the couple’s kids (a third was born after they moved) went out to see a couple of prospects, fell in love with one, and after consulting over the phone with Josh, put an offer down.
The couple moved to Carrying Place in October of 2016 and then decided they needed to open a business locally, as Blake was still commuting every week to his job in Toronto.
“We didn’t know that it was going to be called JERKebago, we just knew that we wanted to provide some sort of ethnic cuisine here. I had been craving this kind of food when I was pregnant and because Josh was commuting, and he could bring it back to me. So we just thought, ‘why don’t we do something like that here?’ We decided to provide jerk chicken. For me it reminds me of Africa and for Josh the Caribbean, where you can be out on the street and buy freshly grilled meat off a drum BBQ [using something like oil drums]. We wanted to provide our guests with a similar experience – when you come to JERKebago, it should feel as if you’re in a tropical country” said Saiqa, who was born in Kenya, while Josh’s dad is Jamaican and his mom Jewish-Canadian.
“We serve chicken as authentically as possible. We have a 36-square-foot grill and we cook with charcoal and pimento wood. We slow cook the meat for about three and a half hours and then grill it over the coals, the pimento wood gives it a wonderful smoky flavour. It’s a 3 day process and there’s a lot to go into it to make sure it’s the same quality and taste every time we serve a piece of meat,” Blake said, adding that the Jerk term refers to the cooking method and also to the unique array of spices used.
From Social Media To Social Success, All With Challenges Along The Way
From the moment the couple decided to open a business, they opened an Instagram account and Facebook page to document their journey and started letting local folks know. The response was overwhelmingly positive and inspiring, a relationship that continues to this day. Considering Prince Edward County is a major tourism destination, especially from May to October, it may come as a surprise to some that the bulk of JERKebago’s customers are locals.
“It was because of our locals that we were able to open in the first place. It was their support and enthusiasm that really motivated us even more to get through all the hurdles and persevere through all the challenges,” said Saiqa.
As for challenges, as with any small business, especially one in the food services industry, there have been a few. The first one was the cost, time and effort involved in refurbishing the trailer into a restaurant grade kitchen and prep area, with the accompanying food storage.
“We ripped everything out and pretty much just left the shell. It was cleaned out thoroughly, refitted with insulation and walls – everything was food grade, it had to be. A walk-in cooler was built in and this was all done by myself, and our contractor and at times some family. It was a lot of work. Health & Fire were kept in the loop through the entire process, to ensure we met all regulations” Josh said.
A more significant challenge was enduring the trials and tribulations of all the paperwork involved, especially as it related to getting a bylaw amendment from the local council. At the last hour, they were thrown a curveball by municipal staff, which jeopardized the whole project. But they persevered.
“Sometimes with these things there is a lapse in communication or a miscommunication. In order to overcome all that and not be stressed out because you are on a time crunch, we would suggest for new entrepreneurs to give yourself lots of time. Honestly, if you’re looking to open in May 2018, you need to have started in May of 2017. So we were blindsided right before we were to make our appearance to council, but we went through the report point by point and made sure we had all the paperwork and documentation to counter each issue. It was overwhelming because we were so new to the community and our fate was literally in the hands of people we had never met before,” Josh said, adding that they used their existing Instagram account, which they had set up simply to chart their journey, to let folks know about this wrinkle. It helped generate publicity for their cause, and rally support and to this day the couple is grateful and thrilled at how the goodwill they had built up through social media with local residents garnered them so much support.
RAYN In The Off Season
As the off season approached, their guests inquired as to how they could still be fed and so RAYN Events & Chef Services was born. This allows Josh and Saiqa to strut their culinary craft across a host of different culinary genres.
“RAYN is where we get to show off our creativity and diversity and do a variety of food and styles. We have already done a number of corporate and social functions and are also booking weddings and intimate gatherings. Josh has trained with some top chefs in Toronto and previously had his own restaurant, he is super skilled and has tons of experience. I grew up around food. At family gatherings we all chipped in to help cook. We can do all kinds of cuisines from French to Italian, Asian to South Asian, we specialize in good food” said Saiqa adding that they also collaborate with other businesses, such as 555 Brewing Co & Prince Eddy’s to bring their unique food to those popular destinations, where guests get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
For more information on JERKebago, including their menu, visit www.jerkebago.ca.