For a final taste of Jamerica’s jerk chicken, stop in soon to the Jamaican restaurant on Williamson Street. Owner Martin Deacon has announced that after 24 years, it’s time for him to retire.
“Business is not as good as it was before,” said Deacon, who does not have a set closing date for Jamerica but says it could be as soon as two weeks. “I’m tired, ready to retire physically and mentally.”
Jamerica opened as a grocery and deli in a house at 1236 Williamson St. in May of 1995, three years after Tim Erickson opened Jolly Bob’s down the street. Soon Deacon added a seating section to serve his jerk pork and chicken, curried goat, and mango rundown catfish. Diners came for the deep fried plantains and saucers of habanero salsa. Dishes cost about $7.
“I struggled,” Deacon said. “I don’t know how I did it. I’ve seen the blood, the sweat and the tears, the good, the bad and the ugly. But there was some good fun.”
The business grew, and by 2002 Deacon was serving breakfasts of Jamaican omelets, plantain porridge and jerk hashbrowns. Diners could sample ackee (a fruit, like lychee) and saltfish, a Jamaican national dish, and Jamaican bammies, thick flat breads made with cassava flour.
Deacon opened a food cart to work neighborhood block parties and the Taste of Madison. He expanded Jamerica to a second location in 2003 at 6644 Odana Road in the Market Square strip mall. There, he added specials like jambalaya and barbecue jerk pork on a bun. That location closed in 2004.
Deacon moved to the United States from Jamaica, spent two years in Florida and moved to Madison in 1966. For 23 years, he worked as a lab technician in the medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I know best about the kitchen,” Deacon told a journalist in 2007.
By then, 12 years in, he was already mulling an exit.
“I sometimes think about getting out of the business, but then I think about all my customers who have become friends,” Deacon said at the time.
Jamerica found a community, Deacon said, of “not only people from the Caribbean but tourists, people who travel and get a taste of the island. They come back here and are looking for a Caribbean restaurant. The neighborhood will miss this kind of culture.”
Deacon cites family illness — his wife’s struggle with dementia, his own physical struggles — and more universal challenges, like restaurant competition, limited east side parking and staffing as reasons to close the doors.
“I wish there would be someone else interested to carry on,” Deacon said, but his children “see the hard work and suffering” and aren’t interested. He may keep the food cart going occasionally, after the restaurant closes.
Deacon believes he’s been known for “courtesy, kindness, lovingness with neighbors and customers.” If he could choose what would come in after Jamerica closes, he’d like it to be the same thing.
“Then I could come in and try that and enjoy it,” he said. “So many restaurants are going up, and some are coming down too. The only thing that’s kept me open for a good while is the specialty type of food that I have, Caribbean style.”
For diners, he has a final message.
“I would say, if they need to have a taste of it, to hurry,” he said.