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Thursday, September 27, 2018

After 22 Years, a Changing of the Guard at Johnny Mango

Posted By on Thu, Sep 27, 2018 at 9:45 AM

click to enlarge From left: Mandy Kiczek, JT Haynes, Shelley Underwood - DOUGLAS TRATTNER
  • Douglas Trattner
  • From left: Mandy Kiczek, JT Haynes, Shelley Underwood
While combining foods from Mexico, the Caribbean and even the Far East on a single menu might sound ill-advised, nobody can argue with the results. Next month, Johnny Mango will celebrate its 22nd birthday, a milestone for any concern, but a downright outlier in the cutthroat restaurant business.

Since this quirky pie-shaped eatery opened in Ohio City, everything around it has changed, especially the neighborhood just outside its doors. In that time, restaurants too numerous to name have come and gone, but Johnny Mango keeps chugging along with nearly the identical menu of “healthy world food” that it introduced more than two decades ago.

“When we opened, we found out really quickly that the neighborhood was looking for a comfortable gathering place like spot with real food that was a break from all the mundane franchise offerings that most places were serving,” explains owner Shelley Underwood. “And that’s what we gave them.”

In 1996, Underwood and former chef-partner Gary Richmond introduced people to Johnny Mango, a fictional epicurean who was way ahead of the curve when it came to global, and often meatless, cuisine. That flavorful food was dished up in a sunny, tropical dining room that borrowed design cues from an island beach bar. If the festive chow and atmosphere didn’t brighten your day, the fruity margaritas made with top-shelf tequilas surely would.

Johnny Mango has lasted this long thanks to consistency in staff, service and food, yes, but also an adoring local following that treats the place like a home away from home.

“We have the most loyal customers,” says Underwood. “It’s not unusual to see the same faces in here three to seven times a week.”

Almost without exception, those customers order the same dish during every visit, whether it’s the black bean quesadilla, shrimp fried rice, pad Thai, Bangkok BBQ chicken or fiery Jamaican jerk chicken.

Over the years, Johnny Mango has served as an unofficial proving ground for chefs just setting out on their culinary journey. Momocho’s Eric Williams, Melt’s Matt Fish and Salt’s Jill Vedaa all have made their way through this bustling kitchen.

JT Haynes started here as a dishwasher, working alongside some of those chefs. Today – and for the last decade and a half – he’s been the chef. It might seem monotonous to crank out a menu that was set in stone long before you ever picked up a spatula, but Haynes relishes the task.

“This is the kind of menu I thought never needed to change,” he explains. “It’s unique and it’s all I know. It feels good to be able to keep this going; staying consistent without getting complacent is hard work.”

Another longtime staffer is Mandy Kiczek, who happens to be Underwood’s sister. She’s been a part of this business since day one, when she was just 17 years old. Come Monday, October 1, she and Haynes will become the proprietors of Johnny Mango, as Underwood cedes ownership of the operation.

“I’m simply ready for a change,” states Underwood. “I’m looking forward to new adventures, new challenges. And when you have these two fabulous people here willing and capable to take over, it makes the transition kind of meant to be.”

Not that she needs to, but Underwood assures customers that little will change going forward in terms of the day-to-day operation of her “baby.” And more importantly, she promises not to be a stranger.

“Ohio City is my favorite neighborhood,” she says, surprising nobody. 

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