EATONVILLE, Fla. – Central Floridians looking for a taste of Jamaica don’t have to travel far.
Chef Jenn Ross is the owner of Dajen Eats Café and Creamery and she is serving up some of the best vegan food with a Jamaican flare in Central Florida.
What started out as a dream, has now become a reality for Ross. She came to America by herself when she was just 16. Aspiring to be a lawyer, she settled down in Lake Wales, Florida, and began law school at Warner University. Her love for food pushed her to change her career path as a lawyer and she set out to fulfill her dream of being a chef.
After completing a cooking class, she immediately developed a passion for food science and the art of food. She stopped eating out at restaurants and began making meals at her house. Ross said it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows at first. She said there were a lot of cooking experiments with a few cooking disasters.
One day, Ross was reading a motivational book that really spoke to her and ultimately pushed her to achieve her goal. She decided to look up restaurants and came across an ad for a place that was located inside of a gas station. She knew that she was only five seconds away from coming up with at least one reason why she shouldn’t lease this place. So, before she could change her mind, she decided to call them. Five minutes later she was the proud owner of her first restaurant.
Dajen Eats was born shortly thereafter. People were already familiar with her brand through the pop-ups she held, along with having a strong social media following. She used the following to announce the opening of the first restaurant.
“I was like hey guys, I opened up a vegan restaurant in the gas station. We don’t have any tables and chairs because I don’t have any money yet. But I have chicken and waffles on Saturday, you should come,” Ross told her followers.
On the first Saturday of opening, there was a long line of people waiting to try her vegan Jamaican food; with some even bringing their own lawn chairs.
Although it was a bit overwhelming for her, she was overjoyed by the support from her community.
A year later, she was presented with the opportunity to move to a bigger space in Eatonville. Ross said choosing Eatonville was very significant for her with it being the first and oldest black incorporated city in the United States.
“I wanted to bring a healthier vegan version to the community because every community deserves healthy options. That was our commitment to the town,” said Ross.
She and her team have now been at the Eatonville location for three years.
“When we came to Eatonville, we learned of a study that was done in 2012, that stated that 25 percent of Eatonville residents had diabetes and 40 percent had hypertension. And most of these diseases tend to be diet-related,” she mentioned.
Ross has been vegan for eight years and said that it was important to share that culture with her community. She said it’s about loving the environment and living compassionately where humans and animals are treated fairly.
“Veganism is about compassion right, it’s really a way of living that causes the least amount of harm to humans and human animals in just about everything that you eat; with the whole premise being, live and let live,” Ross said. “There are lots of benefits to being vegan. It can be good for the environment and it can be good for your body. It can be all these wonderful things. But the heart of it is really about compassion,” she said.
She wanted to spread awareness to her community that people don’t have to break the bank to be a vegan.
“We really wanted to make vegan food accessible to everyone. There’s an idea that in order to be vegan, you have to have 800 million dollars of disposable income. I wanted to say, one, that’s not true. You don’t even have to look a certain way to enjoy vegan food. And I really wanted to say that there are other people that look the way I do who probably don’t have all that disposable income and they’re vegan but very underrepresented,” Ross told News 6.
Ross said that owning your own business has its challenges, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
“This isn’t for everyone, I don’t think. It has its pitfalls, it has its harsh moments, it has really great rewards and if that is what anyone wants to do, I would fully encourage them to do so,” Ross said. “I really feel like we should be frank with ourselves on what brings us joy and what makes sense in our lives and do that thing,” she said.
Ross said she knows all too well the troubles some people face when acquiring loans, owning businesses, and buying houses. She said this may be due to the lack of information and the unequal access to that information.
“Historically, minority-owned businesses are severely underfunded and systemically it’s kind of set up that way. And not only do we not have equal access to funds, but we don’t have equal access to information which is even more important than the funding,” Ross said
Ross said education is key when it comes to having your own business and urges people to support small businesses anytime, not just certain times of the year.
“I think we should educate people about what supporting minority-owned businesses looks like,” Ross said. “A lot of minority-owned business studies have shown, it’s not so much that they need funding, it’s more so that they need continued support,” she said.
Ross said June 2020 was their best month on record since they opened the restaurant.
“For example, last year, during the month of June, we had our best month on record ever, ever, ever. A lot of things factored into that; it was the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement, we had a lot of protests because of the unfortunate events, like George Floyd. And there’s this immediate awareness and it’s in the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Ross said.
She is grateful for the support she received but mentioned that it’s important to have continued support for small businesses.
Ross told News 6 coming to America was an adjustment for her.
“I really didn’t realize I was black until I came to America. In Jamaica, we have lots of people with different shades and backgrounds,” Ross said. “But it’s never Asian Jamaican or European Jamaican. We identify as Jamaican first. We have a lot of different backgrounds that people would not think Jamaica has. In fact, our motto is, ‘out of many, one people,’” she said.
Ross wanted to bring the Jamaican feel to Central Florida. Where customers can get all their favorite menu items they would see on the island but in a vegan, healthy way. The infamous Jamaican jerk chicken, buffalo cauliflower, and hoax tails are some of Dajen Eat’s top sellers.
The irie cream is very popular too and comes in many flavors ranging from red velvet cheesecake to rum raisin. This vegan twist on ice cream is dairy-free and made with real coconut milk. If you have a craving, she also offers the option to have it delivered to your door.
Dajen Eats also offers the option to have hand-crafted vegan meals sent straight to your freezer through her Exclusively Irie personal chef meals.
Chef Ross said they offer new specials every day and on Saturdays, they have a food truck parked right outside of the restaurant. It offers all the ‘cheat meals’ for anyone who wants to enjoy more decadence on the weekend. They offer several different types of mouthwatering burgers, including a steak cheeseburger topped with mac and cheese and one topped with boneless spare ribs.
“The restaurant is healthy, the food truck is anything but,” said Ross.
Ross also teaches cooking classes for kids and adults. These hands-on experiences are great for after-school programs private events, and parties. She now offers these classes virtually and teaches them about once a month amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She recently taught a culinary class at the Zora festival.
Like many others, Ross had to overcome a few challenges due to the pandemic, but her team has been adjusting well. They had to make some changes, but all of her employees kept their jobs.
“I always caution people that my story might not be the story of another black company. We’ve managed to get by and do well in the midst of this pandemic but I’m also painfully aware that a lot of other people have not been able to do that,” she said.
Ross said without the support of the community and social media following, she would’ve had to close her doors.
She feels blessed and fortunate because she knows success like hers doesn’t happen to the average person, let alone a first-time business owner.
For more information on Dajen Eats Café and Creamery click here.