Since coming to Newcastle, Keleen Watson and Peter Ebanks have not always found it easy to locate Jamaican sauces and seasonings to prepare their favorite dishes. Before opening their own business, J & J Jamaican Grocery and Gift Shop, the couple frequently traveled to specialty markets in Portland, Lewiston, and Boston to pick up products that Lincoln County lacked.
“We have such a colorful variety of flavors and ingredients in Jamaica that Lincoln County deserves to taste,” said Ebanks, co-owner of J & J Jamaican Grocery and Gift Shop.
With the pandemic restricting travel, Ebanks and Watson hope customers can explore the world of Jamaica without leaving Lincoln County.
“We’re bringing people on a Jamaican staycation,” Ebanks said.
Ebanks and Watson opened the grocery and gift shop at 88 Main St. in Damariscotta, in a space above and behind the new location of Best Thai, on March 1.
“Since opening our doors, we’ve been so warmly welcomed by the community,” Watson said. “Everyone has been so curious to try our products.”
The Jamaican flags on the railing outside and colorful lanterns in the window distinguish the shop. Inside, the shelves are lined with an extensive collection of Jamaican dry goods, seasonings, jerk spices, canned fruits and vegetables, sugar cane, and several varieties of citrus soda. The goods vary from familiar to exotic.
Ting, a soft drink made from a concentrate of Jamaican grapefruit, is one of those items not easily found outside a Jamaican community. “It’s a favorite, especially among the students that come in after school,” Watson said.
Watson and Ebanks source most of their products from Caribbean Choice and Varieties LLC, a Boston-based distributor specializing in Caribbean and African foods.
Gift items, including T-shirts, hats, and handmade jewelry, get shipped from Watson’s grandmother in Jamaica.
Ebanks and Watson said that with ingredients found in their store, customers can easily prepare the most popular Jamaican dishes, such as jerk chicken, beef patties, goat meat and curry, and oxtails.
“Jamaican recipes are so simple to create,” Ebanks said. “Onion, garlic, pepper, and salt are the staples to our dishes. You don’t have to be a professional chef to prepare a very traditional Jamaican meal.”
While customers can buy everything they need to create a Jamaican meal at home, Watson and Ebanks hope to eventually offer home-cooked samples of Jamaican staples, such as jerk chicken on sliders, salt fish on crackers, and thinly sliced pork.
“Eventually, I’d love to grill Jamaican jerk chicken, oxtails, beef patties right outside the storefront,” Ebanks said. “I’d grill on a wood-fired charcoal grill, with reggae music playing in the background, just how we do it in Jamaica.”
In the meantime, Watson posts recipes on the store’s Facebook page for popular Jamaican dishes that can be prepared with ingredients in the store, such as ackee and salt fish, Jamaica’s national dish. Watson plans to create and sell a Jamaican cookbook in the store.
Ebanks grew up in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, while Watson grew up in Hanover, on the northwest part of the island nation.
Ebanks said he learned how to cook from his mother, but started his professional culinary career in a Sandals resort in Jamaica. After five years there, Ebanks moved to Florida, where he worked as a chef on luxury cruise ships. He then cooked at the Pelican Bay Foundation, a luxury community in Naples, Fla., for seven years.
Co-workers at the Pelican Bay Foundation connected Ebanks to King Eider’s Pub, where he landed a job as a cook. He moved to Newcastle, followed soon after by Watson and their first child, Jhady.
Ebanks and Watson now live in Newcastle with their 13-year-old daughter, Jhady, and 6-year-old son, Jhay, both of whom attend Great Salt Bay Community School in Newcastle. They named the store after their children.
Ebanks still cooks at King Eider’s Pub and often works for the owners’ catering company, Stone Cove Catering. Watson works at Best Thai two days a week.
“It’s a hustle to run our own business and work at the restaurants, but I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I stopped working,” Ebanks said.
The uncertainty of starting a first business during a pandemic did not stop Ebanks and Watson from opening. “You have to face the challenges that life presents to you,” Ebanks said. “You have to adapt and move forward.”
J & J Jamaican Grocery and Gift Shop is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 563-6652 or find the shop on Facebook.