Offering delectable and authentic Jamaican cuisine, Caribbean Grill has been a staple of Champaign-Urbana’s burgeoning food scene for years. And, to the joy of many, they are finally expanding outside of their original location at the Refinery. With a food truck debuting (and killing it) at the Taste of Champaign two weekends ago, Caribbean Grill is poised for enormous success this year. This week I sat down with owner and executive chef of Caribbean Grill Mike Harden to talk about the inception of Caribbean Grill, the new food truck and – of course – Caribbean food! Have a look.
buzz: Let’s start at the beginning: What’s Caribbean Grill’s story? How did it come about?
MH: My path into food service is far from traditional. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 2005 with a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. I worked full time in IT for several years before earning my MBA, also from Illinois, in 2009. That is when I began to consider the idea of entrepreneurship and food service specifically. I’ve always loved to entertain, hosting get-togethers with friends that usually involved food. Hospitality was just something that came naturally too me, but I always looked at it as more of a hobby than a career. I grew up around some really great family cooks, so I developed an appreciation early on for the togetherness that food creates. Other than time, food is the great equalizer — we all get the same 24 hours in a day, and we all have to eat to live. It’s a pretty powerful and humbling notion for people to consume fruits of your labor in order to survive. Officially, Caribbean Grill got its start in 2010 at the Taste of Champaign-Urbana Festival — five years ago — and we have grown very incrementally and organically since then. I quit my full time IT job in 2012 to devote 100% of my energy to the business, and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. We’ve gone from vending at a festival or two each summer, to operating a full service catering company (CG Signature Events Catering), our weekly carry-out lunch service, and have our food truck launch on the horizon.
buzz: Why did you decide Caribbean food was the way to go?
MH: I have distant Caribbean roots on my paternal side of the family, so I really embraced the culture, food and people of the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica. If you’ve ever visited Jamaica or other islands of the Caribbean, the people there are some of the warmest, most welcoming and joyful people that you will ever meet. Authentic Jamaican cuisine is definitely the main influence on Caribbean Grill’s menu. Not to mention, here in the Champaign area there is nothing else like what Caribbean Grill offers, so we’ve been able to carve out a unique niche for ourselves.
buzz: Everyone’s excited about the food truck! Any new developments?
MH: We are beyond excited too! It has been a long time coming, but our team has worked extremely hard to balance the many aspects of our business while still delivering a consistent, quality experience to our customers and catering clients. It’s been no easy feat. Our plans are to launch our new food truck in conjunction with the start of the U of I school year, so be on the look out! People can Like our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/CaribbeanGrillCU) and follow us on Twitter (@Caribbean_Grill) for the latest updates on when and where we’ll be located.
buzz: Any luck on securing a permanent location?
MH: Having our own brick-and-mortar location has always been the dream. Everything we have done and everything we are doing is laying the foundation for us to eventually take that next step. For us, we have a concept that has proven to be viable and that a strong local demand exists for the food and service we offer. The only thing that is holding us back from a Caribbean Grill restaurant is the access to start-up capital. Restaurants are expensive to open, and even more expensive to run properly. We’re willing to continue to build on our own to reach our goal but would love the opportunity to speed things up with a local bank or lender to believing enough in what we have already done, and have the potential to do.
buzz: Any upcoming appearances we should be looking out for?
MH: We can wait to bring Caribbean Grill to the people of C-U on a day to day basis with our food truck! Everyone should be sure to Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for real time updates on our location, hours and more.