A new food truck is delivering the savory tastes of Jamaica to the Historic Triangle.
Its owner, Carmen Blair, launched her mobile restaurant this summer. Carmen’s Jamaican Authentic Cuisine has appeared at Billsburg Brewery, Brass Cannon Brewing and the Summer Breeze Concert Series.
In fact, Blair said her pineapple chicken — deep fried chicken breast simmered in crushed pineapple and orange marmalade — sold out at the Summer Breeze concert in July.
Blair’s cooking was a hit among her friends before she even had her own business. She made lunchtime deliveries for friends and co-workers and prepared curry goat for birthdays.
“If I’m giving food away like this and it’s getting these reviews, why don’t I get a food truck?” Blair said.
Now that Blair has a kitchen on wheels, she believes her food will be as popular throughout the community as it is with her friends.
“The difference I’m trying to bring to Williamsburg is this: Other food trucks do barbecue everything, or fries or burgers. I’m not trying to step into what they’re doing. I’m trying to bring something new,” Blair said. “People might be like, ‘Oh, another food truck,’ but I’m not selling what [they’re] selling. It’s no competition. If I see someone lined up at a barbecue truck, I’m not jealous, because they want barbecue.”
From humble beginnings
Blair’s first kitchen was no more than a small wooden table and an oil stove behind a one-room house in Matthews Lane, Jamaica.
Still a child, she prepared meals for her family, learning from her mother, Imogene.
“I’ve been cooking my whole life,” Blair, 53, said. “I followed my mom around the kitchen and she was a great cook.”
Her mother taught her how to prepare Jamaican staples like ackee and salt fish and jerk chicken, often served with boiled dumplings or bananas. Making use of spices like ginger, cumin, thyme, and scallions, Blair said she knows how to strike the balance between too spicy and too mild.
“What you’ll find in my menu is a lot of herbs and spices,” Blair said. “Spice doesn’t mean hot in my culture.”
Blair was one of eight children. She and her seven siblings had to turn on their side so they could cram into the double bed they shared while living in extreme poverty.
“If we had to sleep on the floor, we did,” she said.
Both her parents worked, but their combined income could barely pay the bills. While they could not provide much for their kids, Blair said her parents kept them safe in a rough neighborhood and made sure they took their education seriously.
The upbringing they provided set her on the right track to pursue a better life.
She left Jamaica for the United States 25 years ago and settled in Williamsburg. Her oldest son, 24-year-old Andre, now works alongside her on the truck.
“I didn’t want my child to be born where I was,” Blair said. “If I wanted a better life for him, I needed to come to the U.S.”
‘This is my dream’
Blair now has much more to her name than she ever did in Jamaica. She still sends money to support her siblings who remain on the island.
While she has found a better life in the U.S. and has been able to provide a comfortable life for her sons, launching her own business has not been easy.
“If I told you there were no challenges I’d be lying,” Blair said. “There are days where you don’t make a lot of money.”
She’s had to throw away excess food on days when she only served 10 customers. She recently lost the generator that powered her kitchen, and then parted with $2,700 to replace it.
The truck itself cost her nearly $16,000, and she said she spends as much as $500 on ingredients every two weeks.
Blair said she has yet to break even on her investment, but is confident that she will once word gets around about her truck.
“It’s a challenge, but this is my dream,” Blair said.
Blair also plans to open a second food truck once her first turns a profit. It will be named Imogene’s Kitchen, after the tiny backyard kitchen in Matthews Lane where it all began.
By: Andrew Harris