By Cindy Atoji Keene
While seafood is a staple on Martha’s Vineyard, the island has also become a smorgasbord of ethnic flavors in recent years. But longtime Vineyard resident Melody Cunningham believed the cool island vibe was still missing one thing: the taste of another beloved far-off island, Jamaica. The widow of iconic reggae singer Peter Tosh, Cunningham envisioned a lively Caribbean-style open-air stand and the smell of authentic Jamaican jerk chicken wafting down Main Street.
Last year, the Vineyard welcomed Cunningham’s mobile food truck, Irie Bites, and a new cuisine to Vineyard Haven. “Irie means love, happiness, everything blessed,” said Cunningham, who, with co-owner Peter Simon, maneuvered town regulations and permitting processes to get the truck up and running. The Irie Bites truck is popular not just with tourists but also with the island’s seasonal workforce, said Cunningham, many of whom are Jamaicans craving their authentic home food, such as jerk chicken, rice and beans, and plantains, served up with ginger beer or guava beverages. While the truck had to be buttoned up tight for the unwelcomed visit of Hurricane Irene last summer, this season it has been smooth sailing so far.
Q: How did you get interested in Jamaican food?
A: I’m originally from Boston but lived in Jamaica for eight years and still travel there frequently. Jamaica is my second home – my children were born there and that’s where I learned to cook Jamaican food.
Q: What are the best and worst parts of owning a food truck?
A: Food trucks are all about fun and spontaneity, taking food and bringing it to the streets. But serving meals out of a truck can sometimes be more work, and definitely more preparation and planning.
Q: How did you find your truck?
A: It was very serendipitous; we got a phone call from a friend who had a mobile truck that he used only off-island in the winter to feed homeless people. We initially rented it from him but now purchased it. It’s a workhorse GMC with 29 thousand miles and is outfitted with a full kitchen, including food warmers, hand sink, commercial freezer, water and waste system, and generators. We did have to put in a grill, because if you’re doing authentic jerk chicken, it needs to grilled.
Q: What was your biggest lesson after you started on-the-road vending?
A: Learning to manage production is the biggest learning curve. We do the prep work – cutting the vegetables, marinating the meat, and other tasks – in a restaurant kitchen and then stock the truck. For a food truck festival, such as the one we are doing in a few weeks at The Suffolk Downs Food Truck Festival on Sept. 22, we need to have hundreds of servings of three different dishes, such as jerk chicken, plantains, and dumplings. Then there are the forks, napkins, and food containers; you don’t want to run out of anything.
Q: How do you attract people to your truck?
A: It’s all about branding, and my goal is to make Irie Bite visitors feel like they’re in Jamaica. We’re in a great location, right downtown, which is key for a mobile business. The reggae music is playing; there’s the smell of beef or vegetable patties or sweet brown sugar in the air, and the truck is decked out with colorful photos and images of Jamaican imagery that really sings. Children are running around and people are enjoying the food. It’s ‘Irie.’
Q: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
A: I love the rice and peas. They’re cooked in coconut milk, flavored with scallions, thyme, and seasoning. It gives it an awesome flavor.
Q: Food trucks have been popularized on food networks lately. Do you watch these shows?
A: I do learn from these shows and get lots of ideas. It makes me want to make my truck more snazzy and get new wheels and a bigger grill. But for now, it does the job.