At 40, Jay’s Restaurant preserves tradition while staying relevant

Jay’s Restaurant has survived and thrived for four decades by finding ways to remain relevant while simultaneously preserving its rich tradition.

The restaurant is owned and operated by Amy Haverstick, daughter of founder Jay Haverstick. Under her guidance, Jay’s will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a special six-course wine luncheon at 12:30 p.m. Feb. 20.

Keeping an independent, family-owned restaurant’s doors open for 40 years in the tumultuous and treacherous retail food-service industry is an extraordinary accomplishment. Amy Haverstick has helped guide the restaurant since joining Jay’s staff in 2002. Jay died in 2009, and his wife Idy passed away in 2011.

But the trajectory of the transition from father to daughter didn’t come in a smooth, straight line. Amy started working in food service when she was only 14 at St. Leonard retirement community in Centerville. Later in high school, she worked at Old Country Buffet. She obtained a degree at Ohio State University, but even then, she did not immediately join her father at Jay’s.

And that was by her father’s design.

“My dad told me, ‘If you want to work for me, you have to work someplace else first,’ so that’s what I did,” Amy Haverstick said. She landed a job with Cameron Mitchell Restaurants in the Columbus area and helped the highly regarded Columbus-area restaurant group open its first two Columbus Fish Market seafood restaurants there. She also worked at restaurants in the Chicago area. She spent a year traveling as a staff-placement professional, and spent time in Florida working in a pair of restaurants.

All of that experience “really opened my eyes to the business,” Haverstick said.

In 2002, she felt she was ready, and she called her father and asked for a job. Jay initially put her to work in the kitchen, where her first job was cleaning soft-shell crabs.

That didn’t last long. She proved her worthiness to her father quickly, and the two settled into running the restaurant side by side. Amy said she learned a lot from her father, but added, “I also taught my father some of the things I had learned.

“He made me a part of the restaurant, and that helped give me the confidence that I could run it,” she said.

Her father died tragically in 2009, while on a trip to Death Valley, California. An avid photographer who had previously taken images of the photogenic sand dunes in the region, Jay Haverstick died of heat exposure after an early-morning solo trip into the desert.

Amy relishes the time she had working side-by-side with her father, and she felt compelled to carry on her family’s ownership of Jay’s after her father died.

“We struggled for a few years,” she said. “My dad had discussed the possibility of selling the restaurant in the time before he passed away. But after he died, I felt I had to continue it. And I’m glad I did.”

Among the keys to Jay’s Restaurant’s success: “A lot of my employees have been here a long time, they believe in the concept, and they execute it well,” Haverstick said.

Her executive chef, J.D. Robinson, has been with Jay’s for 37 years, most of those working alongside other executive chefs. “I feel as if I’ve got the strongest kitchen I’ve had in the 14 years since I came back,” Haverstick said.

The staff maintains a high level and quality and consistency that have been Jay’s hallmark for decades, the restaurant’s owner said.

“We make sure the food we get is fresh,” Haverstick said. “We check every delivery, and if something comes in that we feel is not at its freshest, we send it back.”

Jay’s values its purveyors, and obtains its seafood from sources in Hawaii; Portland, Oregon; from food-service distributor Sysco; and from Kettering seafood distributor Foremost Seafood.

In the kitchen, if a dish is cooked to slightly overdone, “We’ll re-cook it,” she said.

All those measures don’t guarantee success, however. Jay’s first has to get customers through the front door. And Haverstick has introduced some new wrinkles and tweaked some others to keep things fresh and vibrant.

A recently revamped happy hour brings special, casual menu items and 25 percent off shrimp and oysters. “Some customers come in for an hour, some come in and stay all evening,” Haverstick said.

The restaurant hosts a live-music event on the first Friday of every month, which has “been very successful and has brought in a whole new clientele,” she said. Already boasting an extensive wine list, Jay’s has added 15 to 20 bottled craft beers, and keeps two locally brewed craft beers on tap.

And the restaurant has maintained its popular monthly wine luncheons and wine dinners, tossing in a beer dinner on occasion, and also opens for lunch for holiday gatherings during the month of December. A Thursday night crab and lobster special menu also has proved a durable favorite.

The formula is working, as evidenced by the 40-year milestone Jay’s is poised to cross. And Haverstick is optimistic about the restaurant’s future, and of Dayton’s future as well.

“I can see Dayton turning around, spreading its wings a bit,” Haverstick said. “I see a lot of people moving downtown to live. The Oregon District is thriving, it’s independent, it’s unique, and it’s matured.”

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