Ronny White and his partners, chef King Barr and Danny Serrant, wanted the perfect name for their new Harker Heights-based Jamaican restaurant.
The three co-owners wanted to come up with a name that “says it all,” White said. And that is how they arrived at Irie Jamaican Restaurant.
“The partners sat down and asked, ‘What would be a name that says it all?’” White said. “‘Irie’ means ‘everything is good.’ It’s like it’s a perfect world, a utopia. That is the atmosphere we are trying to create.”
White has a degree in business management from Huston-Tillotson University in Austin. He moved to New York from Kingston, Jamaica, about 18 years ago. He has a background in event promotion, but opening a restaurant was a longtime goal of his. He said demographic research led him to believe the Killeen-Fort Hood area would be the perfect place to make that dream come true.
“It’s needed,” White said. “I realize there are plenty of restaurants to compete with in Killeen, but this is a growing market. We chose Harker Heights because although there are other Jamaican restaurants in Killeen, we are the only one in Heights.”
White and Serrant met Barr through a mutual Jamaican friend living in Central Texas. Barr, also a Kingston native, said he got his kitchen experience in Jamaica and via on-the-job training in the United States.
“I grew up in Jamaica with my grandmother,” Barr said. “She’s the one who got me into cooking. I was cooking, but I didn’t have much experience. I met a Rasta with a restaurant when I was living in Maryland. He gave me a job and taught me the game. He gave me a lot of skills. After that, I kind of got much better on my own.”
Barr said Irie’s menu reflects the food of Jamaica’s countryside and inner city.
“I came from Kingston in the ghetto,” Barr said. “Tourists think Jamaica is heaven, but Kingston is ... a slum. Hunger is a regular part of living in Kingston. You are lucky if your feet don’t grow so you don’t have to buy new shoes. So I always spent time in the country when I could. Our food is all of Jamaica. It’s a little bit of country and a little bit of Kingston.”
White and Barr have lofty goals for the business. Both would like to see the restaurant become a franchise in the future. And Barr would like to see the dish he invented, the “Dready Ready,” packaged and sold in frozen food departments at grocery stores.
Of course, the business has to first succeed locally. White is confident his business background will be a difference maker.
“We have planned ahead for the future,” White said. “We know where we will be in two, three years. We are financially stable. We won’t be put out of business by start-up costs. I would say preparation is what separates us.”
White knows focusing only on the bottom line is not enough for a new restaurant to succeed. He realizes he needs to provide his customers with a value and experience they can’t get anywhere else.
“Our main goal is to create a welcoming environment,” White said. “If you haven’t been to Jamaica, this is the place you should be.”