Friday, June 16, 2017 || By MARSHELLE SANDERS || @maywoodnews
When he was younger, Kertis “Luchie” Willie (his middle name is pronounced loo-chee), never really imagined that he would own a restaurant one day.
A native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Willie (pictured) migrated to the United States in 2004 to pursue a career as a biomedical technician.
Nowadays, Willie owns Montego Bay Restaurant & Grill, located at 700 Bellwood Ave. in Bellwood. When Willie took over the restaurant in 2011, he didn’t expect that he would be responsible for a business that had fallen on hard times.
“The place was literally shut down but that’s not what the previous owner told me,” Willie said during a recent interview inside of the colorful establishment, which is festooned with the flags of various island nations.
“I ended up having to buy him out and that’s how I ended up with the place,” he said. “I kept the name because it had been here for over five years before I bought it and it had an established clientele.”
Along with the restaurant’s distressed condition, Willie also had to contend with the many young people who would sometimes crowd within proximity of his store.
“When I started the place, I wanted to transform it and embrace the youth and at-risk teenagers,” he said. “Sometimes when you ignore them it makes the situation worse. I try to be a father figure to them. I talk to them. They’re easy to talk to. People think they’re bad but they’re not bad.”
By embracing the young people, Willie gained strong bonds and lifetime relationships with them. Recently, he said, a former Bellwood resident stopped by the restaurant to let Willie know that she graduated from Illinois State University and that she is looking to complete her master’s degree at DePaul University next semester.
“A lot of young people who have graduated from college come back to say hello,” he said. “They were kids coming in to buy fries and would get off the school bus. The police didn’t want them hanging around and fighting. I used to make them come inside and hang out for a little bit and then I would send them straight home.”
Over the years, Willie said, Montego Bay has become a community hub, attracting people of diverse personal backgrounds and cultures. At the center of everything, of course, is the food — jerk wings, jerk catfish, oxtail, grilled red snapper, curry goat and jerk ribs cooked in an authentic Caribbean style that is both unique and inviting.
“We have people from Belize, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad, you know, so we bring those food cultures together,” Willie said, adding that the restaurant will soon start serving jerk salads.
“Some countries prepare their food differently but they have a taste from each island blended in one plate,” Willie said. “It’s a taste of the Caribbean and it’s authentic. We come in the morning and prepare the food fresh every day. We want to make our customers happy with their food. We want to prepare it the way they’re used to eating it.”
To create a lively and welcoming atmosphere for his customers, Willie hosts a Domino Hang Out night on Friday and Saturday nights. The wholesomeness works to crowd out any negative elements that may ward off business. It also helps that the Bellwood police are fans of the restaurant.
“Bellwood police officers come in on the regular,” Willie said. “They’re the best thing you can find around a business because if someone is up to something, that person will think twice before they do anything. It’s not bad when you see the police. It’s a good thing. We make everybody feel safe and comfortable.”
Willie said he has a few words of advice for anyone who wants to open a restaurant of his or her own: Do your homework.
“You have to do your research on where you want to open the restaurant,” he said. “Make sure all of your legal stuff is together. It will cost you a little money but it will save you in the end.”
Montego Bay Restaurant & Grill is open Monday through Saturday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information about prices and the menu, call (708) 547-4625.
Michael Romain contributed to this report.
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