In the last three weeks, you’ve probably smelled one of the newest food trucks to enter the city’s foodie scene downtown. The aroma is the tantalizing smell of jerk chicken.
Francena Parker, a self-described country girl, originally from Manchester, Jamaica, is responsible for that aroma, as the owner of the Reggae Vybz food truck. She and her family are dishing up traditional Jamaican food like jerk chicken, snapper escovitch, and oxtails near the intersection of Elm and College streets.
“We have jerk chicken every day,” Parker said with a laugh. “People love the jerk chicken.”
Parker is a licensed practical nurse Monday to Wednesday and a cook and food truck operator Wednesday to Friday and some Saturdays. She said she was surprised much of hit her chicken was with people who have lined up at the window of her big black food truck with its Jamaican flag flying under the canopy of trees lining the upper Green.
She’d intended to serve only occasionally the succulent pieces of chicken, which she cooks on a grill that attaches to her custom-made truck and then covers in her homemade jerk sauce.
But on days she didn’t have it on the truck, customers asked after it so much that she decided it would be a menu staple even if everything else on the menu changes. And she does have plans to introduce New Haveners to the wonder of Jamaican cuisine beyond jerk chicken.
“It’s baby steps,” she said. “Pretty much my whole goal is to have authentic Jamaican food with a twist to it. We’re trying to figure out what the people like, but eventually, we’re going to have traditional American food with a Jamaican flavor.”
That twist might come in the form of a jerk chicken pizza, a roti wrap with jerk or curry chicken, and maybe even some chili.
“My family goes crazy about my chili,” she said. “Eventually we will have that on the truck as well. But we’ll still have our traditional stuff.”
And eventually, the 29-year-old Parker, who moved to New Haven 12 years ago, said she plans to expand her food empire. She can already picture it.
“There is a bigger dream, definitely,” she said. That dream starts with this first truck, then a second truck or a smaller food cart, possibly a year from now, in one of the city’s other mobile food locations near the hospital or Yale University’s Ingalls Rink. And then, a sit-down bar and grill.
“I can envision it,” she said. “It will not be a restaurant where you order your food and go. You’ll sit down, maybe there will be a live band and stuff like that on the weekend.
“Listen,” she said, “I have dreams. This is the first step.”
The first step involves turning out delicious food with her mom, Terri Jackson, who moved to the Elm City two years ago to help with the business. The Reggae Vybz truck appears to be one of the first up and running downtown, particularly around the Green, under the city’s new food truck laws, which went into effect July 1. Parker also has the distinction of running the only downtown food truck featuring Jamaican cuisine.
(There is a Caribbean restaurant downtown, Ninth Square Market II Caribbean Style restaurant, that focuses on all food from that region of the world. The owners, who also happen to be Jamaican, had so much success with their vegan and vegetarian options that they decided to stop serving meat, leaving a niche for Parker.)
Parker said she learned to love cooking out of necessity. When she was a child and her mom had to work, there was no sitting around waiting for food to magically appear.
In the morning somebody had to make breakfast if her mother had already gone to work by the time Parker and her siblings got up. And if she beat her mom home, somebody had to start dinner.
The necessity of cooking could have been a total turnoff to a life in the kitchen, but not for Parker.
“I love food way too much,” she said with a laugh.
Though she’s fully invested in seeing her food truck succeed, she’s not giving up on her nursing career. She’s working toward becoming a registered nurse.
“This is my family’s future right here,” she said of the food business. “You have to have your own something that you’re working toward—something you’re building as a family. My nursing? I’ll have that to fall back on and why not? Why not be a boss and an employee too?”
“I think the sky is the limit and once you have that mentality to want to move forward and building something you just do it,” Parker added. “It just so happens it’s two things that I’m passionate about. I love food and I also love helping people. It’s the best of both worlds for me.”