A Q&A with Melissa Bailey of Irie Island
If you’re craving something exotic to eat on a summer’s day, cruise over to Irie Island, Stark County’s sole (and soulful) Jamaican restaurant. Melissa Bailey will take care of you.
Bailey’s warm, good-humored and positive vibe permeates her small restaurant at 3407 Mahoning Road NE in Canton, which will celebrate its second birthday on July 28. Her slow-cooked, well-seasoned and authentic Jamaican cuisine—jerk chicken, oxtail, red snapper, curried goat, rice and peas, island cabbage—has won her a loyal following.
Q. Congratulations on your success. Were you nervous when you opened Irie Island whether Canton would support a Jamaican restaurant?
A. “No. I was very excited. I have strong faith in God, and I knew it was going to be all right because he gave me the go-ahead.”
Q. Did you have any restaurant experience before this?
A. “I managed a KFC-Pizza Hut for five years up in the Bronx, New York, then I cooked out of my home for five years.”
Q. You have a very welcoming personality. How important is that to the success of the restaurant?
A. “100 percent. I make a point to greet everyone. They passed so many other places to come to Irie Island, I have to make them feel important. Every day I get first-timers, which is an awesome feeling that the love is still spreading. Two new customers just came in through the door, and they are in the groove.”
Q. What is it about your food that people respond to?
A. “It’s something different, something unique and it’s healthy. I don’t fry the food, there’s a lot of steaming and grilling. It’s health-conscious. I have a lot of diabetic customers. Their doctors tell them, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.’ They’re eating at Irie instead of these fast-food joints.”
Q. Have you had many Jamaicans come to the restaurant?
A. “I get Jamaicans, people from Honduras, Trinidad, Dominican Republic. I had a group of airline pilots here the other night, one was from London, one from Canada, one from Amsterdam. They flew into Akron-Canton. A (flight attendant) from St. Croix who lives here in Canton told them about it.”
Q. It’s time for you to tell me about your food. What’s on the menu at Irie?
A. “Jerk chicken is the main dish everyone knows about from Jamaica. We take a leg quarter, marinate it with all-spice, nutmeg, different types of peppers and a secret recipe passed down from ancestors in the foothills of Jamaica. My husband, Karl (Green), was born in Kingston, Jamaica; I was born in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida. Our curry is slowly simmered for three hours; it’s not a rush process. Our red snapper fish—we get it fresh every Thursday from Tampa, Florida, we brown it in a little canola oil, then steam it down with coconut milk, thyme, scallions, fresh garlic, red and yellow onions, red, yellow and green peppers. Our famous oxtail is high-grade beef slowly cooked.”
Q. What about the goat?
A. “The goat, believe it or not, is really surprising me. One guy told me it reminded him of his first kiss.”