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Restaurateur shares Food Network winnings with her employees

Carena Ives in front of Jamaica House, one of her two restaurants in Richmond. (Sydney Williams)

Before she was a contestant on “Guy’s Grocery Games” on the Food Network, Carena Ives had never encountered a can of cheese that operated with a nozzle.

“I think I beat it on the counter a few times before I figured out that you were supposed to press it,” she says. Ives, who owns Carena’s Jamaican Grille and Jamaica House in Richmond, not only bested the difficult ingredient, she ultimately swept the competition, winning over the judges with tastes of her native island mashed up with American diner-style foods: jerk-spiced meatloaf, lamb curry and grits blended with okra (and a bit of that pesky cheese).

At the end of the episode, which aired this week, Ives was presented with a $17,500 check, something she knew exactly how to handle: She shared it with the approximately 60 employees of her two restaurants, from servers to line cooks to dishwashers. Ives knew they had been through a lot in the pandemic’s twists and turns.

Initially, Ives had envisioned taking everyone on a much-needed vacation, maybe renting out a small resort or cabins for a bit of team fun. But when it came time to make plans after the show taped in August, and with the omicron variant circulating, she realized what people really wanted was a break to spend just with their families. And so everyone got a paid week off at the end of the year courtesy of her game-show winnings.

“I wanted to remind them that they’re the engine of this entire operation,” says Ives, who prides herself on low turnover — such as the dishwasher who had stayed for almost 12 years who’s now a line cook. “I don’t want to sound corny, but I’m so grateful and thankful to have them in my corner.”

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Many contestants on host Guy Fieri’s “Triple G” show, in which chefs scour the shelves of a mocked-up supermarket then prepare dishes in various challenges, talk about using their winnings to grow or invest in their businesses. But Ives’s vow to reward her employees is rarer — and comes at a time when restaurant workers are particularly stressed and stretched thin.

Ives’s staff, like those of many restaurants, had adapted since the coronavirus shut down indoor dining in 2020. They adjusted to a takeout-only business, she says, and they all struggled to master the new online ordering system she put in place. They reopened with limited seating, living with the stress of encountering customers — and one another — in tight quarters. Ives says they didn’t complain, but she could see the cracks.

“When someone who is usually calm blows a gasket because a busser forgot to clear a glass from Table 3, you know that person is under stress,” she says.

Ives says she was grateful to have the chance to share her windfall, but it wasn’t a given. When producers for “Guy’s Grocery Games” called to see if she would participate, she was initially skeptical. She wasn’t sure she was up to it, since she hasn’t cooked regularly in her restaurants’ kitchens in years (she opened the first location in 1994 and a second in 2007). In fact, she was pretty sure she would blow it.

But Ives had appeared previously on another of Fieri’s Food Network shows, “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” and the attention from the spiky-haired TV personality had been great for business. Day-trippers from as far away as Kentucky and New Jersey came in following the 2019 broadcast. Her restaurants were already busy before the national publicity, but Ives says the pressure from “Triple D” fans has made her and her staff up their game.

And she liked the premise of the international-themed episode she was being asked to join, in which restaurateurs from immigrant-owned spots Fieri had highlighted on “Triple D” were competing. It was a chance to show off the cuisine of her native Jamaica, which she left in 1989 for Brooklyn before moving to Richmond, where she says she was surprised to find so much of a market for then-unfamiliar oxtails and curries.

“I thought it would be so ungrateful of me to say no,” she says. “So I thought, I’m just going to have to find my big-girl panties and do this.”

And so she found herself, amid covid protocols and testing, competing against Brazilian, Korean and Pakistani chefs. To her own surprise, she won both rounds of the two-challenge show.

Ives is already seeing another round of what has come to be known in the restaurants industry as the “Fieri effect” — the well-documented boost in visibility that follows an appearance on the food personality’s shows. People are asking to try the dishes she made on the show, which she might add to the menu as a special.

But even if business picks up, she says she’s content to rely on the strategy she has found to work so far. “I take care of my people,” she says, “and they take care of the customers.”