Photo by Miranda Ploss

Ihave never been to Jamaica, but something deep within me tells me that the food at Just Jerk Cafe at 119 E. 79th St. is truly authentic, which makes perfect sense considering two-thirds of the ownership were born and raised in Jamaica. They are more than worthy of being a Best! Located in the restaurant space attached to Duke’s Lounge, they have proven their value and quality after being open for more than ten years in a space where other restaurants could barely stay open for more than a year or two. 

I spent a lot of time there during my childhood, in the back office at Duke’s, learning about business from my aunties, or in the apartments upstairs hanging out with my cousins, as Duke’s and the building itself are owned by close family friends. For the longest time, there was a Chinese restaurant in that space. After closing in the early 2000s, many other restaurants came and went, and there even were some years where the space was just vacant. So in 2011 when Just Jerk Cafe opened, I was super excited that another Black-owned restaurant had opened in Chatham. Aside from knowing just how amazing their food is and being a regular customer, I didn’t know much about the business or its owners: J.R., Gia Lake and her husband. 

In an in-depth conversation with Gia about Just Jerk Cafe and its impact on Chatham, I learned that she and her husband had an affinity for the South Side and wanted to support the community while providing jobs for the people that live here. As for the rest, I think it’s best that her words speak for themselves.

Why did they choose this location to open their restaurant?

People rely on public transport for their jobs. So having something that’s in the city on the South Side that might be in their neighborhood, or not too far that they had to commute. That it would give them a chance to have a job.

How do you feel about Chatham and your time that you’ve spent here thus far as a business?

So love Chatham. I had family in this area for a long time. I actually grew up in Bronzeville, but my family are all [on the] South Side, like [deep] South Side. So 79th street, my grandmother is over east, their first house when they moved from the low end [was in the Greater Grand Crossing] area. So we’ve kind of always had an affinity for this kind of area. As a business owner in this area, I can’t picture us being somewhere else. I mean, of course we have kinda considered it and said like, ‘Oh well could we maybe open up a second location? Are we robust enough to be able to do that yet? If for some reason something happened and we couldn’t be here? (with the idea of gentrification right).’ I do know they’re planning a kind of project for 79th and State. So in kind of thinking about that, we don’t know what else would be home and this is truly home for us. That’s what’s kept us here as a business. I don’t know if [there is another neighborhood that] would capture our customer base, the people we end up [meeting]. There are some people that come from as far as [the] south suburbs. We have people that come from Indiana, the West Side. They’ll call us and say, ‘Hey please don’t put my food away. We’re coming all the way off of 290 from the West Side,’ and we’re like ‘Ok, no worries. We will put your food to the side. We won’t give your food away.’ They’re like, ‘No cause I know that you guys will sell out of things.’ I think, being able to be here, a staple of this area and this community as we’ve reopened.

Which I don’t know if you were aware, that we actually had to close for like three months, because someone ran into the building. We closed, the accident happened May 30, [2022] and we just opened back up [Aug 22, 2022].

Coming back, being open and hearing the outpour of people that are like, ‘Omg I’m so glad that you guys were back, I thought you guys weren’t gonna reopen.’ People saying, ‘Oh I live around the corner, I always come to your restaurant. I always ride down 79th, I see you guys. I kept checking, riding by to see if  maybe you guys opened back up.’ You know, people were calling and saying ‘Oh I wasn’t sure if you guys relocated.’ Calling the number to see if maybe that was what happened. To know how we do truly impact the community, was just like, for me coming back and us being reopen was definitely touching. [Be]cause I guess I just didn’t really think about how much we were, like I knew what we wanted to be able to do, but I guess I didn’t realize how many people really did love our food and love that we’re here. You know, [some people] would have felt maybe a little bit of a void had we moved somewhere else.

What’s something special about Just Jerk Cafe that people should know?

Something special, I mean other than we put just a ton of love and care into the food. Not to say that other restaurants maybe don’t do it. I mean in the restaurant industry you kinda hear different things, different stories. 

We intentionally show people their food before they leave. I know in some other restaurants you can just like get your food packed up, [and you leave]. That’s part of the experience that we feel you should have coming into the restaurant, is [to] see what your food looks like, [and] know that you have everything correct. We want to make sure that you’re happy with your food before you leave. So it’s not a situation where you get all the way home and then something is missing. Or, again thinking about some people may be traveling from pretty far or just sometimes them coming from around the corner, but having to leave back outta the house, come back to the restaurant. That’s just so disappointing when that’s something you’re intending to be able to eat, your food. You’re like ‘hey I’m excited about my food,’ and then you open it up and it’s not what you were expecting. So that’s one thing that we really have always kept, even when we’re busy. A lot of times, people have gotten so used to our food, some people that we have that are the regulars, they will come in, they’ll be like ‘y’all don’t gotta show me this food, I know its gon be good.’ So that is a thing where I’m like oh that feels great, they know that we don’t even have to, they’re trusting us to know that they don’t even have to look at their food. That they know that it’s gonna be good. 

Then I mean, it’s fresh food, we’re not doing frozen quick-ready kind of cooking. The chicken, we’re buying fresh not frozen chicken. From an expense stand point, for us that is more expensive in terms of chicken, but I think a lot of people don’t necessarily think about that when they’re ordering food. Some restaurants maybe don’t necessarily think about that, they’re just like ‘hey I’m trying to cut costs as much as possible,’ and I get that. We just don’t want to sacrifice on that, when it comes to getting people fresh food.

I truly hope this added insight into the passion, consideration, and purpose behind Just Jerk Cafe will bring you in to grab a bite. Because once you get to experience the warming and inviting atmosphere and you’ve tried their food, you’ll definitely become a regular!

Just Jerk Cafe, 119 E. 79th St. Monday–Saturday, 11:30am–9pm; Sundays, closed. $3.50–$20. (773) 846-2232.

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