Before there was Burger King, there was Mike’s
Home of the famous Nyamburger one of Ja’s first fast food joints
“Mike and his Nyamburgers sure get around,” stated the advertisement for Mike’s published in The Daily Gleaner on September 4, 1971. At this time, the restaurant, the brainchild of Lester Mike Henry, was one of Jamaica’s most popular burger establishments in the early 1970s.
Henry, who in most formal settings goes by his middle and surname, was born in Jamaica in 1935. Educated at the St Catherine Elementary School and Beckford & Smith (now St Jago High), Mike journeyed to England to complete his tertiary education at Ealing Technical College. Getting his professional footing in publishing, he returned to the island at the turn of the 1970s and set his sights on establishing a restaurant that caters to the general population. Thus, Mike’s, home of the famous Nyamburger, was born.
The breadwinner of the restaurant chain was its burger, the ‘ginnal’. Alongside the burger came a packet of French fries, a salad and a slice of watermelon. Their special menu was a burger and everything else it came with – a soup, a dessert, and a beverage option of either coffee, tea or a Coke. There was also the soda fountain that carried a variety of ice creams and the Mike’s fruit melba, which the company boasted nobody on the island could finish. Free newspapers were also offered on Sundays.
However, Henry did not just want a restaurant, he wanted a franchise. By August of 1971, Mike’s had two restaurants under its ever-expanding enterprise – the first was opened at Kingston Arcade and the second was at Spanish Court. The advertisement at the beginning of this article was an announcement of the third – this one located in The Village. The Village branch would be the largest of the three and to up its marketing, the company offered the following in honour of its grand opening:
– 25 lucky persons winning one week’s free lunches
– 50 lucky people winning dinners for 2
– 225 persons winning free Nyamburgers
– 300 lucky people winning free Cokes
During the height of operations, Mike’s Nyamburgers was popular with residents of Kingston and St Andrew. Its appeal was that each branch had a 24-hour opening policy and this was important. At the turn of the decade, the rise of reggae led to more street dances throughout the Corporate Area and the young populace would satisfy their late-night cravings coming from these parties, at the restaurants. The establishment not only got support from the public but was endorsed by notable businesses, including: Containers Co Ltd, Benson and Hedges, Grace Foods, Jo Banks Services, Corporate Services Limited, Diversey Jamaica and Fedders Air Conditioners.
Having spoken to Henry in 2021, he stated that the plan in 1972 was to further expand the business. This expansion was not only limited to Jamaica but the Caribbean and even European markets. However, 1972 was the year that Michael Manley came to power and soon after, a new government initiative to benefit the nation’s agricultural and manufacturing sector was announced. The highlight of this initiative was Operation Grow – Grow What You Eat and Eat What You Grow, a policy which in recent years has been brought back by the Jamaican government. Another highlight was the prohibition of certain foreign made goods into the island. Henry stated that this policy affected his businesses greatly and instead of his grand plans of expansion, he had to downscale.
Henry eventually closed the franchise, but he stated that due to the restaurant success, he was approached by Derrick Mahfood to enter politics. He joined the Jamaica Labour (JLP) Party soon after and in the 1976 election he campaigned for the Central Clarendon seat. However, a few weeks before the December election, he was shot with a double-barrelled shotgun while on tour in York Town with the JLP candidate for South West Clarendon. The incident made Henry the first Jamaican politician to be shot due to political violence.
He received over 250 pellets across his body, in mostly his chest and legs, and was hospitalised for two weeks. He has never recovered from the shooting, as he still walks with a limp and lead pellets are still in his body. His youth leader on the campaign, Tidley Watson, was shot in the eye and eventually lost his vision in that organ. As history would have it, Henry lost that election to the People’s National Party candidate, Orville Ramtallie, by 884 votes but contested the seat again in the 1980 election and won. He has been its member of parliament ever since. Today at 87 years old, he is the longest-serving member of parliament currently in government. Alongside this, he still works with his publishing house, LMH Publishing.
So, before the foreign sandwich juggernauts of Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC and others, there was Mike’s, Home of the Famous Nyamburgers.
J.T. Davy is a member of the historical and political content collective, Tenement Yaad Media, where she co-produces their popular historical podcast, Lest We Forget. She is also a writer at the regional collective, Our Caribbean Figures. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.