Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen Nourishes a Changing Community

The mainstay Jamaican restaurant provides encouragement and opportunity for Linden, as the neighborhood awaits long-promised improvements from the city.

Erica Thompson
Columbus Monthly
Ena Hayles with her son, Marlon Hayles, at their family restaurant Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen in the Linden neighborhood of Columbus

It could be a phone store in Columbus, a hotel in Miami or even an airport in Jamaica. In any setting, there’s a chance Ena Hayles will be recognized. If people don’t know her face, they certainly know the name of her restaurant, Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen, based in the Linden neighborhood of Columbus. 

Her son and general manager, Marlon Hayles, says the 71-year-old entrepreneur doesn’t realize the extent of her fame. 

“She’s super humble,” says Marlon, 43, of the North Side. “Someone tried to chastise me for calling my mom a living legend, but she’s done with a middle-school education what some people with college degrees can’t do.” 

Since 1999, “Ms. Ena” has been serving up authentic cuisine from Jamaica, from where she immigrated in the early 1980s. Her famous jerk chicken drew out Food Network star Guy Fieri, who filmed an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives at the restaurant in 2017. 

Despite the fame, Ena’s remains grounded in Linden, a tenacious community working to combat food insecurity, limited access to jobs and high crime rates—while awaiting the effects of the city’s long-promised redevelopment plan. In addition to feeding the residents, the establishment offers nourishment through encouragement and opportunity. 

After running the restaurant for 20 years, no one would fault Ms. Ena for taking a backseat to the business. But she’s always in the restaurant, stirring pots, taking orders and more. 

“I’m going to be in the middle of it,” she says. “You know how everything tastes. You know how everything looks.” 

Such was the case around lunchtime on a recent afternoon in March. A steady stream of diverse patrons filed into the small restaurant, which is enlivened by vivid green walls and a reggae soundtrack. Some recognized Ms. Ena behind the counter and some did not. 

“I have a lot of fun with the people,” Ms. Ena says. “They say, ‘Is Ms. Ena here today?’ And I say, ‘You know what? I don’t think she’s here today.’” 

Bruce Davis, 66, of Westerville, knows the Hayles family well. He has been visiting the restaurant once a week for several years, ordering the same meal each time: jerk chicken, rice and beans, and cabbage. 

The menu at Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen features authentic Jamaican cuisine.

“She makes the best food in town,” says Davis, general manager of a manufacturing company in the neighborhood. “People come from all over to eat here. She’s a magnet for foodies like me.” 

Ena’s offers a variety of chicken, beef and seafood dinners. While jerk chicken is the most popular item, oxtail is a close second. Fieri’s fried-food selection of choice was the escovitch red snapper. Ms. Ena says the secret is in the seasoning, which happens overnight. 

The proteins are complemented by a wide selection of sides and extras, from collard greens and mac ’n’ cheese to fried plantains and coco bread. 

When asked about the taste, customers erupt in praise. 

“That flavor, oh my God, it’s so good,” East Sider Tajanae Smith, 18, says of the barbecued jerk chicken. “There’s a little spice to it, but I like that sweet heat.” 

Denis Simiyu, a 20-year customer, is a fan of the oxtail. “There’s a lot of Jamaican restaurants in Columbus, but the closest to the real food in Jamaica is Ms. Ena’s,” he says. 

Ms. Ena began sharpening her cooking skills in Mendez, St. Catherine, largely a farming community in Jamaica. She gained even more food knowledge from her job at Linstead Market. Collecting taxes from vendors, she had to be strict. “That’s where she gets her edge from,” Marlon says. 

Later, while raising five children in Linden, Ms. Ena’s Sunday dinners were attracting not only her kids’ friends but others in the local Jamaican community. 

“It would just get bigger and bigger,” Marlon remembers. 

It was only a matter of time before someone said, “Ms. Ena, you should probably sell this food.” That person happened to be a restaurant owner on Cleveland Avenue who was planning to close his business. Ms. Ena and her husband, Lloyd, took it over and the Caribbean restaurant was born. 

As Ena’s thrived, Linden declined. The effects of redlining and disinvestment have taken their toll on the predominantly Black neighborhood. According to the city’s 2018 One Linden Plan to revitalize the community, 45 percent of residents live below the poverty line. And the unemployment rate is more than twice the rate for the city of Columbus. 

The only full-service grocery store in the neighborhood is Saraga International Grocery, but some residents say not everyone is familiar enough with the products to shop there. With few healthy places to patronize, some residents rely on Ena’s, which is a frequent caterer of community events. 

Adam Troy, director of missions at Linden’s New Salem Baptist Church, called Ena’s a “gap-filler” for many community needs. “There has never been a time when I have reached out to Marlon for a meal or a food subsidy for a needy individual or family where they haven’t come through,” says Troy, who also runs the church’s foundation. “And in many cases, it happens without any sort of remuneration. That’s just the heart of Ena’s.” 

Oxtail with collard greens and rice and beans from Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen

Homicide rates have been higher in the Columbus area in recent years, and Linden is one of the sites of increasing violence. Young people are often sucked into dangerous lifestyles, Marlon says. 

“They don’t have hope,” he says. “The reason there’s no hope is because there’s no opportunity. … Most of them don’t want to be in the streets. [But] we can catch them.” 

Ena’s employs young people in the neighborhood. Marlon also partners with other local entrepreneurs to ensure young men and women are getting job experience in landscaping and home renovation. And he participates in a mentorship program. 

One person Marlon has influenced is Miguel Geno Tucker, founder of Linden-based Urban Scouts, a youth development organization that focuses on entrepreneurship training. “Marlon personally helped me get more connected with the community in Linden, as well as some members of the city council for my organization,” he says. “Business owners in a lot of communities don’t do that.” 

Tucker also received encouragement from Ms. Ena, whom he calls Mom. “They watched me grow up from a young man that was headed in the wrong direction to who I am now,” he says. “[Ms. Ena] is there to help me in any way that I need. I’ve been invited to the family dinners and cookouts, so they’re family to me. They’re family to Linden.” 

Because of what Ena’s contributes, the restaurant is “the safest corner in all of Linden,” Marlon says. “We embody Linden,” he adds. “We have the rough edges of Linden. We have the loving warmth of Linden. We have the pride that you get from being a part of Linden. But at the same time, it’s the realness of Linden.” 

Businesses like Ena’s, as well as community organizations, have stepped up to improve the neighborhood as residents have grown impatient with the city. 

“They come around and promise all these things that they’re going to do,” Ms. Ena says. “They tear down all these buildings and nothing gets done. The crime rate is bad, but if they invest in Linden, the crime rate will go down.” 

But some residents fear that investment might mean they will get priced out of the neighborhood. 

“That’s where they’re going to get backlash,” Ms. Ena says. “If they start to force people out who lived there for years.” 

But Marlon and his family aren’t worried about the restaurant; they started their own development company, which owns the building and other properties on Cleveland Avenue. They have plans to open a bakery and add an outdoor dining area to the restaurant. 

“Not only is the food outstanding, but they are well-positioned simply because of their level of professionalism, the way they have given back to the community and where they’re located, to serve as that cornerstone for community revitalization,” says Troy, who is working with a collaborative to advance the One Linden Plan. 

Though Ms. Ena and Marlon don’t always see eye to eye, she feels good about inevitably passing the torch to her son. 

“I’ve got to give thanks,” she says. “God is good.”

Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen, 2444 Cleveland Ave., Linden, 614-262-0988, enascaribbeankitchen.com