Photos: Willie Ivy, Umekia Ivy, Jamar Woods
Written and Photographed by William Bryant Rozier
Willie Ivy’s bona fides were cemented for him when Chris Henry, a cook from Kingston, Jamaica (the home planet of jerk chicken), tasted his Fort Wayne-grilled jerk.
Ivy’s interactions with Jamaicans -- up until that point -- were purely transactional, when he bought his jerk seasoning and sauces in Chicago. In fact, it was Ivy’s aunt who made the introduction to Henry two weeks before Ivy’s Jerk Joint opened on January 20, 2018.
Ivy and Henry met to see how well they would work together. “[Henry] tasted my jerk chicken and said, ‘All you have to do is eat it. Just eat it. It’s perfect.’”
Chris Henry now cooks the curry chicken and the oxtails. Willie Ivy does all of the grilling.
Family-owned Ivy’s Jerk Joint, 2836 South Clinton Street, Fort Wayne, 46806, serves up a Caribbean-infused menu, headlined by his Jamaican-inspired jerk chicken, doused with hot(!!!) and mild jerk spices like chilies, garlic and nutmeg.
Of course, they also have award-winning chicken wings and ribs, tacos and salads, dinners and platters. They got Turkey Tips.
“Nobody has this in Fort Wayne,” Ivy said, referencing his flavorful Turkey Ribs.
They have veggie options, authentically Jamaican: red beans and rice, cabbage, rice and peas.
“We got Rasta Pasta,” Ivy explained, referencing a popular veggie option. “It’s just jerk seasoning and garlic on tricolor pasta.” Ivy discovered Rasta Pasta through an Instagram follow.
Other than the usual business misadventures (pop-machine stopped working, the supplier didn’t bring an already-paid-for order of charcoal the day before the Super Bowl, etc.), Ivy’s Chicken Joint is an across-the-board success, according to Ivy, exceeding expectations.
It was Ivy’s idea to close at 5 A.M. on Fridays and Saturdays. Good thing. The jerk joint will get slammed at 4 in the morning.
The momentum started with the explosive grand opening. Ivy’s sister Vickii Forrest-Ivy, a business owner herself, drove up from Memphis to help. “The line of customers continued to stay out the door all day,” Forrest-Ivy recalled. “Before we opened the doors, people were calling to place an order and filling up the parking lot.”
That taste test with Henry, the one where Ivy passed with flying colors, was actually five years in the making. Five years previously, Ivy first tasted jerk chicken with his brother, Nick, in Chicago. Willie loved it so much, “I had to figure out how to make it.”
Ivy didn’t ask the cooks right then and there how to make jerk chicken; they were behind a glass, just like at his restaurant.
He ambitioned to discover the ingredients himself, like a computer geek from the ‘80s trying to reverse-engineer how an exciting, newfangled computer works.
“I [just] started buying sauces and seasoning. I made it every holiday. Kept practicing. Burnt it up. Kept barbecuing.” A year later, Ivy’s Uncle AB (Abram Brown) came from Memphis to live in Fort Wayne, and advanced his training, showing him “the ends and outs of barbecue, how to marinate. Everything to do with grilling.” Uncle AB has since passed. “I know he’s watching over me when I’m grilling.”Ivy kept experimenting.
When Ivy married his girlfriend of three years, Umekia, they honeymooned in Jamaica. The Jamaican jerk “had the same seasonings” as the Chicago chicken, Ivy said, the same seasonings he was trying to replicate himself back home.
The similarities between Jamaica and Chicago made it more real, for Ivy. But it wasn’t until childhood friend and barber Richard Bevelle (Unity Barber Shop) convinced him to turn his holiday hobby into paid work. For a full year, Ivy hosted Jerk Fridays at Unity Barber Shop. “I didn’t buy anything spectacular, just bought trays.” The following year, Ivy jumped to selling on Mondays (at the American Legion) and Fridays (various barbershops).
“I let them taste it a few times,” Ivy said. “But the demand was so high that I had to turn it into a restaurant.” It took another year to renovate 2836 South Clinton Street, transforming the empty space, with help from a licensed contractor, into little Jamaica: walls painted in Jamaican green yellow, speakers with Jamaican music, and tikis above the TV menus.
Fort Wayne’s Ink Spot’s publisher John Dortch coached Ivy through the process.
Cornelius Key, owner of the building, was present for all of the renovations, but never got to see the grand opening; Key was killed by a drunk driver two weeks before January 20.
When Key first met Ivy, he didn’t even ask the new business owner to sign a lease. There was a trust between the two. When Henry first spoke with Ivy on the phone, the Jamaican could tell Willie was a good dude, recalled the business owner. There was a trust between the two.
Willie Ivy first started cooking on a backyard grill. His first, first day, not his grand opening at 2836 South Clinton Street, but his first first day cooking, after Richard Bevelle had convinced him to start charging, he got slammed. “I bought a couple of cases of wings, about 400 wings,” Ivy said. “I sold out in four hours.”
Ivy’s Jerk Joint is open:
Tuesday through Thursday (11 A.M. to 10 P.M.) & Friday & Saturday (11 A.M. to 5 A.M.) Ph: 260.999.6133
Hit up their Facebook (ivysjerkjoint), Instagram (ivysjerkjoint06) & Snapchat (ivysjerkjoint06)
I run Scrambled Egg(s) Design and Productions, based out of Northeast Indiana. In addition to producing in-house company projects, I also create advertising materials for companies and organizations, with an emphasis on interactivity.