Caribbean Grill has a rapidly growing fan base in and around Champaign-Urbana. This entity of CG Signature Events Catering serves Caribbean cuisine each Wednesday from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at Refinery in Champaign. There are virtually no other places in the area to regularly get high quality, Caribbean-inspired food, and if you’ve read my review from last spring, you know that I think this stuff is more than good. If you haven't yet tried it, you must. Quite frankly, once a week availability is not enough. Lucky for us, Team CG has Soul Food Sundays this month (12-4 p.m. each Sunday in February), which means opportunities to eat CG twice a week. And a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year means that Team CG is literally gearing up a food truck to bring Caribbean Grill into C-U on a more regular basis.
I recently spoke with Mike Harden, owner of and executive chef at Caribbean Grill, to find out more about the restaurant, Soul Food Sundays, and the food truck. Check out our conversation.
Smile Politely: Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Tell us a little about yourself and Caribbean Grill. What’s your story? How did Caribbean Grill come about?
Mike Harden: It's my pleasure, Jess. I'd like to thank you and Smile Politely for being supporters of Caribbean Grill, and giving us the opportunity to share more about our local business with your readers. Our story is a pretty unique one and is definitely still being written. Originally from the south suburbs of Chicago (born in Harvey, grew up in University Park), I came to Champaign in 2001 for school at U of I, and have been here ever since. I've spent all of my adult life here in the Champaign area, and it really became official when I got a 217 area code phone number, just a short couple of years ago. I graduated from the UIUC College of Business in 2005, and then completed my MBA in 2009, also from Illinois. During that time, I worked in Information Technology for the University first and then for the Champaign Unit 4 School District, before brainstorming what would become Caribbean Grill from my apartment kitchen table. Officially, Caribbean Grill started in the summer of 2010, debuting at the Taste of C-U that year. This is when I really began to take the idea of going into food service seriously, so the Taste was supposed to be a one-time thing, just for the experience and also to test the market for Caribbean food as a concept in Champaign-Urbana. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I knew after that weekend that something special had been created. It wasn't long after that that I quit my full-time IT job — in the middle of an economic recession, and planning a wedding with my now wife, no less — to fully dedicate my energies toward growing the business.
SP: The space you occupy in Refinery is unique. How did you end up there?
Harden: Refinery is definitely a unique space; you've got a gym downstairs, apartments upstairs, and a ballroom space in between! For our Wednesday CG Lunch to Go service, and just in general, a lot of people wonder where we cook our food or where our base of operations is. We've operated out of the commercial kitchen space at Refinery since day one. I was able to establish a relationship with Refinery early on, and that has seen Caribbean Grill grow from renting the kitchen for just a few hours a week, to sharing the kitchen with other caterers, to now exclusively occupying the kitchen space. We offer full-service catering through our CG Signature Events Catering brand, so that keeps us busy every day of the week, and is part of the reason why we offer CG Lunch to Go only on Wednesdays. We do it all from box lunches to wedding receptions, and everything in between.
SP: Where does your interest in Caribbean food come from?
Harden: I have distant relatives from the Caribbean islands, and have embraced the culture, the food, and just really appreciate the Caribbean way of life. If you've ever visited, locals of the Caribbean islands are some of the most hospitable and enjoyable people that you will ever come across. The turning point for me was a visit with some friends to Toronto actually, for Caribana — the largest Caribbean festival in North America. Experiencing so many Caribbean cultures in one place, and seeing the pride that was taken in their respective homelands was so inspiring for me. Not to mention, Toronto has one of the largest Caribbean populations outside of the islands, so you will find some of the best Caribbean food there anywhere. After returning to Champaign from that trip, and knowing that Caribbean food was not an option here, I began to develop my own recipes just for personal use. Some might describe me as a bit of a perfectionist, so I tweaked the recipe for what has become Caribbean Grill's Signature Jerk Sauce, until I felt it was just right.
SP: What makes Caribbean food a unique experience for customers?
Harden: I think Caribbean food, like any comfort food, is full of nostalgia. Whether a person is from the Caribbean, has vacationed there, or frequented a jerk chicken spot in their neighborhood, it can re-ignite the memories from a certain time and place, even with just a whiff of the aroma from the kitchen. Caribbean food just speaks to so many different people in a way that is personal to them, so I think that is what makes it unique. For Caribbean Grill specifically, we put a lot of love and care into our recipes. We don't cut corners or take shortcuts when it comes to using quality ingredients, authentic methods, et cetera, and I believe that translates into the customer experience also.
SP: Tell us a little about Soul Food Sundays.
Harden: Well soul food is a genre of cuisine that is very near and dear to my heart. Both of my late grandmothers were excellent cooks, so I grew up around amazing food, and gained an appreciation early on for the togetherness it creates. It was my maternal grandmother, though, who taught me a lot of what I know in the kitchen. Really my family is full of great cooks; my parents, sisters, cousins, uncles, and aunts...everyone has their specialty. Caribbean Grill Soul Food Sundays is really just a culmination of that. We wanted to offer C-U something different, since unlike pizza or sandwiches, there aren't a ton of soul food options available locally. That, in addition to celebrating Black History Month, we thought this would be the perfect time to introduce the Champaign area to another side of Caribbean Grill. Soul Food Sundays will run on Sundays only for the rest of February, from 12-4 p.m. The setup is similar to our Wednesday lunch service, but we offer a different menu each week.
SP: As we move into February, a month in which we nationally celebrate contributions of the people of the African Diaspora, how do you see Soul Food Sundays contributing to that celebration?
Harden: I'm glad you asked this question. Soul food is just that: a contribution of the African Diaspora. So it is something to be celebrated. Granted, the circumstances from which it arose are dark and inconceivable, but that speaks to the very name itself: soul food. We live in a very health conscious society today, so unfortunately, soul food gets a bad wrap for contributing to bad health. Just like anything else, moderation is key, along with an active lifestyle. A home cooked meal using fresh produce and quality ingredients can be both good to you and good for you. We don't use a ton of salt, fat, or even pork products to prepare our dishes. That's not what soul food is about. Soul food is love and care being put into a meal that you are proud to put on the table. The same table that family, friends, and neighbors alike will readily gather around to partake and enjoy each other’s company. Being satisfied and even if only for a moment, forgetting any troubles of the world, just like our ancestors of the Diaspora did. Like they had to, in order to survive. That is the power of soul food. That is why we wanted to celebrate it during Black History Month.
SP: I know a lot of people in the area are excited about the forthcoming food truck. How are things going with that?
Harden: Yes, the food truck! We are excited about this next step for us. The number one question we get all the time is, "where is your restaurant?" or "why don't you guys have a restaurant?" Of course we would love to be able to offer Caribbean Grill to C-U as a restaurant concept, but that requires a great deal of planning, organization, and financial resources. As much as we believe in Caribbean Grill, and as much as the demand has continued to increase for it, independent, local businesses like ours have a difficult time, unfortunately, when it comes to securing the capital we need from banks and other resources. So for us, our growth has been incremental and self-sustaining. With the planned introduction of a Caribbean Grill food truck this spring, we're hoping that will take us one step closer to establishing our own brick and mortar location someday. Our mobile unit is in production now, so we'll still need to equip it, have graphics applied, and pass a final inspection from the health department. Ideally we would like a spring launch, but these things have a way of working on their own timeline, so people should follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to keep an eye out for any updates.
SP: What cuisine or restaurant concept (besides CG’s food truck!) would you like to see in C-U?
Harden: C-U has such a rich culinary landscape, if you know where to look. We are really looking forward to further contributing to that as Caribbean Grill continues to grow. If I had to pick one concept though, I would love to see a churrascaria (Brazilian steak house) here in C-U.
SP: Anything else you’d like to share with SP readers?
Harden: On behalf of Team CG, I'd just like to thank everyone who has supported us, from festivals, to Lunch to Go, to contributing to our Kickstarter campaign for the food truck, or even just by hitting like on our Facebook page. These are the indicators that let us know we are on the right track, and to continue persevering even through the moments that challenge us most. Other than time, food is really one of the great equalizers for the existence of any living creature. It truly is humbling that people seek out and choose Caribbean Grill or CG Signature Events Catering for the very thing we need to sustain life — food. To me, that is extremely powerful, and it is not something that we take for granted.
Lunch to Go is available every Wednesday from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. inside Refinery, 2302 West John Street, Champaign. Soul Food Sundays will run on Sundays only for the rest of February, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., also inside Refinery. Photos courtesy of CG Signature Events and Catering.