By Lillian Lema • Photos | Steven Bridges
If Mainers want to experience the ultimate taste of Jamaica, all they need to do is head to Portland’s Monument Square Public Market House, where they will find themselves pulled to the second floor by the smell of jerk chicken, oxtails, pork, and curry infused dishes, all served up by owner Shanna-Kay Wright at Yardie Ting.
“We serve authentic Jamacian dishes with a modern twist,” said Wright, who explained that whenever she is creating a new dish, she has her customers try it so she can receive their honest feedback. The constant modification to the menu and ingredients in her dishes has paid off – her customers keep coming back.
“I like the food not to be too heavy, but instead to be aromatic and lighter,” she said. Sometimes Wright asks her grandmother for the secret recipes to some of her favorite dishes – and says she is constantly told by the older women in her family to stop talking and pay attention when they are all cooking in the kitchen!
Wright arrived in Maine from her home of Kingston, Jamaica, in 2005, at just 18 years old, when her mother remarried and settled in Maine. She described her impression of Maine as “a whole new world” and one where the humidity was unbearable. “It is hot in Jamaica, but it isn’t humid… the humidity is rough here,” she said with a laugh.
After settling in and adjusting to the weather of her new home, she began to crave comfort foods from Jamaica. To her disappointment, she quickly learned that Portland didn’t have any restaurants or stores that offered Jamaican food. So she decided to do something about that. Alongside her studies at Southern Maine Community College in early childhood development, she also took culinary classes and began to cook and bake some of her favorite Jamaican dishes.
Eight years after moving to Maine, Wright decided the time had come to do something about the lack of an established Jamaican community here. Her first move was to found a T-shirt company that she named Yardie Ting. Then, in 2013, with the help of her friends and family, she organized the first Jamaican Independence Day Festival at Deering Oaks Park – still with the intention of bringing the community together. To her surprise, more people than she ever could have imagined showed up. “I met a lot of people and made new friends. I didn’t realize there were that many of us here in Portland!” she said.
The following year, even more people showed up for the Jamaican Independence Day Festival celebration and food. “It very quickly went from a T-shirt company to a catering company,” Wright said. By 2016, Yardie Ting was catering for weddings, birthday parties, Sunday church services, and summer festivals such as the Old Port Fest and Eats and Beats. As the years went by, and Yardie Ting’s popularity grew, so did the expectations from the public. Yardie Ting’s first year at the Old Port Festival sold out their 300 pounds of meat within the first three hours, and at the last Old Port Festival they sold out of 1500 pounds in four hours.
“We were at the Old Port Festival and people were lined up before the festival even started,” Wright said. “It took off from there, and I knew it was time to jump in deeper and see what happened!”
In 2019, Wright left job, which wasn’t an easy choice, as she is a single mother with two children, and financial security was of utmost importance. But, by then, she had given her two-week notice on three different occasions, and each time that she’d decided to stay, she’d found herself unhappy.
“So I cashed out my 401(k) and looked into getting a food truck!” Wright explained. However, to her surprise, a lease at the Portland Public Market House became available just a couple days before the last Old Port Festival and she decided to sign. Now the public didn’t need to wait until the next summer festival or event to try Yardie Ting’s food. Her Jamaican treats had found a new home.
The pandemic has made Wright more appreciative of her customers. She misses seeing the high school students and her regulars, and the noise that crowds bring. The challenges brought by the pandemic have taught Wright to be relentless, take risks, be creative, and think quickly. At the beginning of the state shutdown, she and her two daughters moved into her mother’s house while Yardie Ting closed for two weeks. During that time, she spent quality time with her family, cooking and continuing to work on Yardie Ting’s website, social media pages, and a new menu.
During a period that was filled with uncertainty and some loneliness, she took to Yardie Ting’s Instagram account to create videos of her interactions with customers. “People messaged me and told me it was nice to see me interacting with them,” she said. These words of encouragement gave Wright optimism for the future. Recently, Wright has been working as a cultural broker with the Maine Center for Disease Control, helping translate and educate Jamaican migrant workers about their rights and where to get COVID-19 testing. She has even allowed the use of the Yardie Ting van as a form of transportation to drive people to get their vaccines.
As Yardie Ting continues to grow, Wright ultimately hopes to create a hub for the Jamaican community in Portland. The hub will help the community connect with one another and access resources to make their adjustments to Maine a bit easier. “Mainers are huge foodies, and eating is an experience that helps get people together,” she said.