‘Half Way Tree’ – A Slice of Jamaica in Providence
By Hume Johnson, PhD
At the corner of Chestnut and Pine Streets, in a quiet area of Downtown Providence, Rhode Island, a massive Jamaican flag hangs from a solid brick building, flapping with pride, billowing warmth in the frigid New England air. At first, the name ‘Fat Squirrel’ plastered in large letters across the building catches us off guard but on closer approach, a black, green and gold signage (reminiscent of the brand logo of Wray and Nephew white overproof rum) comes into view with the words ‘Half Way Tree’. Opening the door, the sounds of 1990s/early 2000s Reggae greeted us, penetrating the room, serving as backdrop to lunchtime dining. There was no doubt. We had entered the belly of Jamaica in Providence.
Half Way Tree is a full service Jamaican restaurant and take out, serving strictly Jamaican cuisine. It is only the second operative in Rhode Island (The other is called Tina’s located on Federal Hill, Providence and run by a Clarendon woman called Miss Tina). Half Way Tree morphs into a nightclub on weekends, featuring Rhode Island’s top Reggae selector, DJ Paul Michael, and once in a while, popular Reggae acts brought in from Jamaica. Lady Saw was latest to hit the stage, performing to a packed crowd on March 15; Shaggy, Mr. Vegas, Freddy McGregor previously. The audience? The nightclub aspect of Half Way Tree is patronised by a mix of people – Africans, particularly Liberians as the constitute the largest contingent of Africans in Rhode Island, West Indians, African-Americans, Cape Verdeans and white Americans, mostly from Rhode Island and Massachusetts – ready to sample Jamaican cuisine.
The proprietor is Ted Panagiotis, a pleasant guy of Greek-Italian heritage. Between hitting the waves of the seaside town of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island as a teenager (Ted’s Dad owned a surf shop), and listening to Reggae supplied by Jamaican neighbours, Panagiotis developed an intense affair with Reggae and Jamaica. Intrigued by his fascination with Jamaican culture, we gladly accepted his invitation to dine with him at his Half Way Tree restaurant recently. Amidst large plates of sizzling spicy jerk pork, green bananas, boiled dumplings (which I haven’t had in ages), ackee and saltfish, rice and peas and fried plantains made by chef whom by the way hails from Portland, Jamaica, we got down to chatting.
Re:imagine Jamaica: Ted, you are not Jamaican, your heritage is Greek-Italian. Yet you open a Jamaican restaurant. Why?
Ted Panagiotis: From the time I was in High School, all I could think of was Reggae music. I had a backpack with all these Haile Selassie buttons; when I played Basketball in Woonsocket (suburb in Rhode Island), I had a red, green and gold wristband and my friends would always harass me. Reggae has always been a major part of my life. Since I was around the culture, I’ve been eating Jerk chicken and stuff like my whole life; and my girlfriend is Jamaican, and she is always cooking the curry chicken etc. Eventually, after losing my job and couldn’t find another job, I decided to start my own thing. At the other location I operated a club and played Reggae and Dancehall music for 8 years, and I heard that the guy who had a Spanish restaurant there wanted to leave so I said, you know what, why don’t I try to start a Jamaican restaurant.
RJ: What was it about Jamaican food that intrigued you?
TP: I love Jamaican food, and that is one aspect of it. I eat Jerk chicken almost everyday, and I will eat boilings and jerk chicken every single day. I wanted to do something with Jamaica. The other aspect is, as a businessman, there aren’t a lot of Caribbean restaurants around in Rhode Island. There was a Jamaican restaurant called ‘Caribbean Sizzle’ which was on Broad Street, which was good, and I used to go there a lot, and now there is ‘Tina’s’ on Federal Hill- the one Jamaican restaurant in all of Rhode Island. So I figure, I do the Dancehall parties, for eight, nine years, we already sell out all of our parties so I already had a link to the market. I don’t like Greek food so I wasn’t going to open a Greek restaurant. I like Italian food but there are a million Italian restaurants around.
RJ: Jamaican cuisine has lagged behind other cuisines around the world, and has remained virtually unknown. What do you make of this?
TP:I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that many people who open a nice Jamaican restaurant, they never keep it authentically Jamaican.They play on the Jamaican name but its not authentic. Restauranteurs need to also love the country not just the cuisine. The focus on the bottom line sometimes prevent the true exploration of the cuisine and the culture and what it has to offer. Interestingly, there is a Greek guy following me on Instagram, who opened a very popular Greek restaurant in the middle of Kingston called ‘Opa’, right on Constant Spring Road.
RJ: You name your restaurant ‘Half Way Tree’, calling upon a popular place in Kingston, Jamaica familiar to all Jamaicans? What made you select this name?
TP: I had a million names. I first wanted to call it Rocksteady, my favourite era of Reggae and I looked online and there is a huge Jamaican restaurant in Tampa called ‘Rocksteady’, and I didn’t want to copy it. So my girl says to me, when you went to Jamaica, where did you have the most fun. I said ‘I went to ‘Hot Mondays’, ‘Uptown Tuesdays’, ‘Weddy Weddy Wednesdays’ and all of this was in Half Way Tree. So I stuck with Half Way Tree because this was really where I had the most fun, and that’s the meeting spot.
RJ: How important is it to Brand Jamaica and how does your restaurant ‘Half Way Tree’ contribute to this?
TP: One thing I don’t like is when I go to a Jamaican restaurant is all they have depicting Jamaica is Bob Marley. So all people think of Jamaica as just weed and Bob Marley but its so much more than that, especially the food, oh my God, it is amazing! Not enough people push other aspects of Jamaica. I have a picture of Bob Marley here somewhere although my favourite is Peter Tosh. Everything in here is going to be Jamaican. The 7 national heroes of Jamaica are here because that’s important. Not even the Jamaican restaurants owned by Jamaicans push the Jamaican culture. There is so much more to Jamaica than Bob Marley and so much more to Reggae than Bob Marley too. I would like to bring Jamaican plays and actors here; bring the comedians here; full on, everything Jamaican. I wish other people with do this (help to promote Jamaica) on other areas because if you talk to people who don’t know the country, many people have a bad idea of Jamaica. ‘Oh you went to Kingston, that must be scary!.. but what about New York City. You are not going to walk in Brownsville Brooklyn in New York in the middle of the night in the same way as a tourist, you wouldn’t go strolling in Trench Town in the middle of the night. I am in the business of promoting Jamaica, not just what’s on my menu. I am having a poster done of Half Way Tree showing the clock and the traffic and may the history of the place etc.
*The majority of the top restaurants in Rhode Island are located on a popular strip, called Federal Hill, famous and historic in the State’s history. This is where Jamaican restaurant ‘Tina’s’ is located which serves a largely American clientele. This is while ‘Half Way Tree’ sits in a fairly secluded section of town. So I was compelled to ask Ted the following:
RJ: How is business, and how is this location working out for you?
TP: I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the business so far, especially given the winter we have had. I have had to close ten times since February even though the costs don’t change. I’ve been very happy with the response so far. The first thing people ask for is Red Stripe beer. When we were at the other location, we already had a strong customer base, but we had to close down; people were very disappointed but they waited for it because the first day we reopened – January 12 – we couldn’t keep up. The good thing about this spot is that the roots to Reggae music has gone back so many years that the older Jamaicans, younger Jamaicans, the locals all know this spot. Ten years ago, the locals know this spot. My DJ, my business partner on the music stuff, Paul Michael, he used to play parties here in a lounge called Century 21, and he had Mr. Vegas here, he had Stone Love here. Now we have parties every Saturday nights and we have been doing it for 2 years, and the locals all know this spot and support us and this has been very helpful.
RJ: How do you plan to expand the knowledge of Jamaican cuisine beyond the local market, to people who don’t know it?
TP: One of the big things that we did at the last restaurant- that cost us a little bit of money – but I thought it got us out to a broader market was- we did a GroupOn, and also Yelp. (Groupon is a deal-of-the-day recommendation service for consumers. Every 24 hours, Groupon broadcasts an electronic coupon for a restaurant or store in your city, recommending that local service while also offering you a 40% to 60% discount if you purchase that service while Yelp was founded to help people find great local businesses). These services got us to a group of people that had perhaps never tried Jamaican food. That’s also the reason I use Jamaican waitresses because the questions that they ask, only a Jamaican can answer. That was a major boost for us.
RJ: What does the future hold for Half Way Tree? What do you imagine for it in next 5 or 10 years.
TP: I want to expand. I don’t just want to do music, I want to expose people to all aspects of the culture. For example, I would like to bring comedian Shebada here to Providence. I have him on Cds and we play them here in the restaurant (chuckles). In the past, we did a Fish Fry, had a bouncy house for the kids and we took part of that money and we sent a barrel down to Waterhouse in Kingston with stuff. I want to do that too. Just because I am not Jamaican doesn’t mean…I want to support Jamaica. Many people do not realise how rough it is in those parts. People don’t have books or food to go to school so I just don’t want to do only a restaurant.
RJ: Finally, beyond the food and the music which you most clearly love, what is your overall impression of Jamaica?
TP: In Kingston, I couldn’t believe how friendly people are. They were welcoming. The people on the street in Jamaica were nicer to me than the people in New York City. I tell people, I don’t understand why you would not want to go to Jamaica; walking up and down the street, the stores, everyone was so nice. When I went to Jamaica, it was election time, many people told me not to go. I was there 3 days before the actual voting. The US embassy made me sign something that says if anything happen to me, they can release my name to the media. I think they over reached. I did not wear any green or any orange, so they went overboard. I was in Red Hills and this was orange area, PNP area, and they were jeering and yelling at a selector in green shirt but it was mostly fun. I did not feel unsafe. The food was unbelievable. The people were friendly. You blend in in Kingston. I completely blend in.
RJ: What is your view of Brand Jamaica, the image projected of the country overseas?
TP: The only nice thing about Jamaica that people show on TV is the beaches. I think it is completely wrong. They don’t talk about the food, they don’t talk about the culture and the people who live there. Some of the people in Jamaica work hard, their whole life is one of hard work. They don’t talk about any of that stuff. They talk about the violence. They talk about ‘Come to Sandals’ and tell you not to go off the resorts. That to me is all wrong. I go there for three days with my friend. I know nothing about Jamaica. I am in Jamaica, what is there to do? What am I supposed to do, sit in a hotel? When I talk about Jamaica here, people think I am crazy because their view of Jamaica is dreadlocks. They don’t understand that there are white Jamaicans, Chinese Jamaicans….
RJ: Tell us one thing that may surprise us, with regard to your knowledge of, and interest in Jamaica.
PG: I read the Star every week. You can buy the weekly Star from New York. I keep updated on what’s going on. Plus the pastor; Pastor Dumas is very funny!
*Half Way Tree is located at 150 Chestnut Street, Providence. It is opened 7 days a week. Learn more at:
Hume Johnson is Chairman of The Re:Imagine Jamaica Project, and Professor of Public Relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org