An abandoned 19th century pub is being turned into an Afro-Caribbean restaurant amid a raft of changes in Ashford town centre.
Mum-of-three Janet Odeyale, known as Lady Jay, has secured the lease for the Old Prince of Wales in New Street, which has been boarded up since 2019.
The Hamstreet resident is planning to open the site – called Jays Soul Food – in February, offering a variety of Afro-Caribbean and West African cuisine including jerk chicken, curry goat and jollof rice.
Ms Odeyale, who moved to the borough from Greenwich in 2006, has been working on the historic spot since March and hopes to employ up to 20 staff.
“The pub had been abandoned for a long time and was a complete dump,” Ms Odeyale said.
“I had looked at other sites, like Elwick Place, but I grabbed it when this one came up.
“It is a dream for me; I want to create a comfortable place for people to come in and dine with good food.”
Ms Odeyale says she may offer a takeaway service before fully opening the site in February.
When complete, the restaurant will have room for 120 covers, with staff set to use the former pub garden as a barbecue area.
“It will be very different to the pizza and kebab places – it will offer food cooked with love,” Ms Odeyale added.
“My mission is to be known as the best Afro-Caribbean restaurant in Kent. I’m turning an old building into something the community can use and it will be a nice environment for people to come in and unwind.”
Ms Odeyale, who has been cooking since she was 14, has worked in the catering industry for more than 30 years.
She was previously part of the Ashford Farmers’ Market and her catering business has a five-star food hygiene rating from Ashford Borough Council.
“Setting up a restaurant is something I have always wanted to do – it will put the soul back into Ashford,” Ms Odeyale added.
“I only use the best ingredients and source as much as I can locally.
“We are in the process of bringing the building back into use – it has been a lot of work.”
Ms Odeyale plans to keep The Old Prince of Wales hanging pub sign up as it “holds a lot of historical value”.
Her project is not connected to the Dansaki Afro-Caribbean restaurant planned for Elwick Place, which is yet to open.
Elsewhere in the town centre, the former Cashino site in the Lower High Street is set to become a restaurant featuring a sushi bar.
The unit, which was previously home to a Headley Brothers store, is opposite the former Mecca Bingo hall.
A planning application has been submitted to Ashford Borough Council by agent Taylor Roberts Ltd on behalf of Hangsa Limbu.
Close by in North Street, part of the former Merchant Chandler/The Collection unit could become a multi-cuisine restaurant and takeaway if an application is approved.
The AJW-CS Property Services Company, which has submitted the application on its client’s behalf, says the changes “will have a beneficial effect on the building and will not detract from the historic character and significance of the Ashford conservation area”.
In New Rents, the Aji Japanese restaurant is being turned into Aji Bhaji, serving Indian food.
It is currently offering a takeaway service but is expected to open to sit-in diners soon.
Just a few doors down in New Rents, the former RBS site is also set to become a restaurant.
It will be open from 8am to 4pm Tuesday to Saturday.
Chartered surveyor Richard Stafford, of Stafford Perkins, says 2021 has been a “cracking year for commercial property all round”.
“Business has been very good; the Ashford retail market is very buoyant,” he said.
"There’s hope for the high street..."
“You are never going to get to a stage where it is 100% full – there will be peaks and troughs when there are more or fewer empty shops.
“If you think Ashford is bad, then go and have a look at Canterbury.
“I was appalled by the empty shops in Canterbury when I went there recently.
“Ashford is filling up with things you can’t get on the internet: food and beverage; nail bars; hairdressers.”
Ashford MP Damian Green says there are “successful shops in the town centre and people have to learn from them”.
“There’s hope for the high street,” he added.
“Stag Coffee, which is a new local venture, looks very successful so it can be done. In the long term, we have got to get people into the habit of going into the town centre by having events there.”