Restaurant Reopening Diaries: Omar McKay of Irie Jamaican Kitchen

At Irie Jamaican Kitchen, the island vibes and “jah-potle” goodness are in full force on any given day. So when Governor Mike DeWine announced that all restaurants and bars would close to in-house patrons on March 15, owner Omar McKay’s world was turned on its axis.

“Life as we knew it in the service industry was flipped upside down,” says McKay.  “After the initial shock and having to make the difficult decision to temporarily close both our East and West [side] locations, we took a few moments to breathe and regroup.”

After taking a few weeks to plan and prepare, Irie Jamaican Kitchen reopened its East 185th Street location on April 1 for online ordering and curbside pickup (with limited hours of operation). While the busy restaurant’s lunch service suffered, McKay found new momentum in offering four options for family meals — such as the “Rasta Pasta Pack,” featuring spicy alfredo penne with bell peppers, onions, and corn; choice of jerk, curry, or stew chicken; and four pieces of housemade cornbread.

“People’s food needs have changed in that they are not just buying one meal, but they need to feed their household in one visit,” says McKay. “The family meals have been a big hit with our customers.”

As the restaurant worked quickly to adopt key safety and sanitary practices, McKay also enlisted employees from Irie Jamaican Kitchen’s Old Brooklyn location to work in the Euclid location to get training on new practices and protocols for when the west side location would reopen. McKay says the decision to reopen solely the Euclid location hinged on the fact that the east side location has been open for three years, while Old Brooklyn is just “three months young.”

Luckily for west side devotees, the Old Brooklyn location reopens today, May 22, for business. In the meantime, McKay and his partner Debra Drobnick have made some necessary adjustments to the Euclid location in light of its small size — such as adding a pickup window to accommodate walk-up business rather than reopening the intimate dine-in area.

“At most, two people can be in our lobby at any given time based on social distancing guidelines,” says McKay. “We’ve decided a safe and effective way [to combat that] is to install a walk-up window near our parking lot on the side of the building for easy and convenient pickup. We may open up the lobby again after making necessary adjustments, but that will depend on the accountability people have for themselves entering our restaurant and following written sign guidelines.”

McKay adds that the restaurant’s primary business model has always revolved around take-out, so these adjustments have been well-received and relatively easy to execute. The most important thing to him and Drobnick is continuing to bring fresh, traditional Jamaican cuisine to their loyal Cleveland following.

“Our goal is top provide top-quality food and service as part of the Irie experience, while maintaining food safety, a healthy environment, and keeping the Irie experience as contactless as possible for the time being,” says McKay. “We still want the island vibes and no stress.”

Jen Jones Donatelli