Smile Politely

Chef Mike Harden dishes what’s next after closing Caribbean Grill restaurant

Chef Mike Harden stands inside his restaurant Caribbean Grill in Champaign, Illinois. The chef is smiling with arms folded in front of his blue t-shirt. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Closed since last summer, Caribbean Grill restaurant sadly won’t be re-opening. Champaign-Urbana’s only Caribbean cuisine restaurant certainly made its mark on our food scene serving island favorites like jerk chicken, lunch specials, and soul food. Starting at 2010’s Taste of C-U, Caribbean Grill went on to win Best Food Vendor in 2014, launched one of the BEST food trucks in C-U, and opened a brick-and-mortar quick service restaurant in Champaign that survived the hardships of the pandemic.

But the Neil Street restaurant’s temporary closure is permanent. The kitchen equipment and remainder of the location’s lease are up for sale. Here’s a link to the listing in case you’re looking to open a Champaign restaurant.

Chef Mike Harden is closing the chapter on Caribbean Grill restaurant — for now — in pursuit of different culinary adventures, like writing a cookbook, becoming a viral IG-chef, and spending much more time cooking at home with his wife and young kids. What does this mean for fans of Caribbean Grill? Will we ever taste that jerk sauce again in Champaign-Urbana? Chef Harden dishes all the details in this exclusive interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: So I heard that Caribbean Grill was for sale. What’s happening?

Mike Harden: We closed in May of last year for a summer break, thinking we’ll pick it back up when the students come back. I had employees either moving to careers or graduating, so I was going to have to rebuild the entire team basically from scratch. I was interviewing, and it was not panning out; I had open interviews, and 20 people signed up — and like two showed up. Hiring and finding good people that are a good fit, good workers that we could trust, and provide the level of service that our guests are used to — that was like the most difficult thing.

The entire time that we were open, the whole five years, from 2017 until May of 2022, I never had a fully staffed week. From the customer-facing side, you didn’t know that, but being the owner and operator, it was 16 or 17 hour days regularly for me. That was enormous. Having two small kids, having a wife, having my own health and personal wellbeing to consider, I kept bumping my head against the wall with this hiring. I was really trying, and after three months, August turned to, “Okay, I’ll push it to December.” When December came around, it was like, “Okay, maybe March. Spring is a good time to open!” Then March rolled around — and still haven’t quite done it. Maybe the summer.

During this time, as you know, I was on social media.

SP: Yes, I love your Instagram!

Harden: That was actually something the pandemic positioned me for. When everything was up and down, and we didn’t know what was next, I was like, “If we get shut down tomorrow, for whatever reason, I still got bills to pay, I still have a family to feed, a roof to keep overhead. I’ve got to do something.”

I started seeing all these personal brands, all these IG-chefs (as we’re called), and they’re killing it. If I’m doing all this cooking at home, why not get into that game? This was the peak time where everything was virtual, and Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, pretty much all these platforms were cutting checks to get people to create content. I eased into it and figured out my voice; it was organic, which is really my philosophy of business. That’s how we grew from festival to catering to a food truck to restaurant: grow as slow as we can, as opposed to diving right in.

In 2010, Mike Harden holds a health permit to serve food at Taste of C-U. Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill.
Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill

When we first started out back in 2010, it was like, we got to get a restaurant! But I’m so glad we did not open a restaurant in 2010 because it would have closed in 2011. 

Talking to veteran restaurant owners, they always say, “I missed so many birthdays, weddings, this, and that.” That really stuck with me; it shifted my priorities to say, “What’s really going to matter on my deathbed?” Yes, the business is important; that’s a legacy, but the business is getting the best of me, and it’s leaving the rest of me for family, friends, for myself — and I need to step back from that.

I need to really step into the things that I’m seeing that are a higher priority for me. That’s what the break really came about from, and it just kind of kept extending. Then social media started picking up — getting paid for it and these different opportunities where it’s much less overhead, less labor, and much less time. It’s more aligned with my current values and priorities, which are: being with family, travel, to actually live and be present enjoying life. Whereas with the restaurant, I’m tethered. If someone doesn’t show up, someone quits, I have to be here; I have to cover. I have to make sure we’re good because this is my baby. It takes a lot, and I put everything I could into it.

It definitely was a success. It’s not a situation financially where we’re not able to do it, but having the choice to say, I think that this is a good stopping point. We probably didn’t even reach our potential. Everybody knows Caribbean Grill as they know it, but my vision of it was way beyond what Champaign actually got to see.

SP: I wish we could see it! Do you see a future where Caribbean Grill opens again in Champaign?

Harden: I definitely do. That’s the thing. We’re not selling Caribbean Grill. I still will own that and all my recipes, all of our processes and intellectual property. It’s more so the space, the furniture, the equipment, and all those sorts of things. It’s a sale for our lease and the improvements that we made. It’s a turn-key restaurant space where someone who has the right concept and right experience could come in here (with permits and all that stuff), and they could be ready to start day one. This is really a rare opportunity.

The thing is: if I would have found this starting out, it would have been a game-changer. I had to invest the better part of half a million dollars into this. This was four walls and a concrete floor; we did everything in here, from design to picking the layout.

A white room with four walls and work zone in disarray. Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill.
Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill

For someone that’s ready to start a restaurant, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. A great location and never had any issues with the landlord. 

Planks of wood are being prepared by an individual in a gray and black hoodie outside. Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill.
Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill

This space was built with love. It was built with blood, sweat, and tears. This wall behind us — those were the shipping pallets that our equipment came on, and we broke them down, sanded, stained them, and this accent wall was the representation of the work. 

The interior renovations of the Champaign location of Caribbean Grill restaurant. Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill.
Photo courtesy of Caribbean Grill

The things that matter to me, that’s really what showed through for fans of Caribbean Grill. Not just because it’s good food, but it’s good service, good people. For me, that’s part of the recipe, too. It’s not just about good food because you can get good food anywhere. You could get good food, but you get horrible service, or you get good food, but the place is kind of shifty.

I want to reposition people’s thinking, especially when it comes to a Black-owned business. Because there are certain stigmas, and it’s like they’re not professional or they’re not this and all of these things. It’s not even just that we’re a Black-owned business; we’re business first, right? And we just happen to be Black-owned. We do good business. That was really important for me.

SP: Why did you want to start Caribbean Grill in the first place?

Harden: One, there was a lack of Caribbean food, and two, it was just the idea I had. It could have been pizza or any number of things; I would have still executed it in my own way. But it just so happened that there was nothing else like Caribbean food here. I have a strong passion for it, and so it worked. I grew up around really good family cooks. Everybody cooks, that’s our thing.

SP: I read that you have always wanted to be a chef, and now you are. What’s that like? 

Harden: I went to school for technology, so I did IT professionally for about seven years. That was my idea of success because I grew up around good food, so I didn’t look it like a business opportunity.

I didn’t want to look back in 20 years and say, “I had a really good idea,” so I set out to officially start my business in 2010, and I quit my job in 2012. I took over the kitchen at The Refinery, and I didn’t have the business to justify it just yet, but it was like well, if I’m going to get it, then I’ve got to do what I need to do to make it happen. It pushed me to say: you don’t have a choice: the business has to grow because you’re growing the business. And I haven’t looked back.

I’m ready for a new chapter, and Caribbean Grill will always be a part of my being and what I do. The next chapter is still to be determined.

Anna Longworth-Singer

SP: Have people asked when you’re going to re-open?

Harden: Yes, they’ll ask, “When is it going to open? What is going on?”

SP: And the answer is CG is not opening back up?

Harden: I know a lot of people will be disappointed. 

SP: What do you have to say to those who are sad?

Harden: I thank them for their support. There is much gratitude. We had people that would come every single day, literally every single day. All the intention, thoughtfulness, and the details, it really worked, you know? To get the response from the community, it was an amazing feeling. I’m very grateful for that, and I know some folks will be disappointed, but this isn’t the end of the story; it’s just a new chapter.

SP: How many Instagram followers do you have for the @chefmikehard account?

Harden: Listen, just over 136K followers.

SP: Wow! Have any videos ever hit a million views?

Harden: Yes, I’ve hit a million a couple of times. One of them is about baked mac and cheese. It was one of my first ones that hit that million mark, and it kept going. Now I think it’s at four million.

I’ve got another one where I made herb-infused butter and that one reached over a million because it was, you know, the fun herbs, the adult herbs. There’s certain rules, like you can’t show cannabis on Instagram — or you’re not supposed to anyway — unless it’s educational. So I did it like, “We’re going to make herb butter,” and saying, “Take your oregano” with a wink and a nudge. You can make legitimate oregano butter, but if you wanted to make the other kind, you could do that, too. It was actually for 4/20. At Caribbean Grill actually on 4/20, we would do a flavor box, and it was $4.20. I’m a recreational cannabis enthusiast, if you will. I think it incites creativity and relaxation. 

SP: What now?

Harden: So much of me was infused into this business, I just got lost. I had to rediscover what I like. Who am I? What are my interests beyond just Caribbean Grill? Because I’m here 75% of my day, and I’m sleeping or at home with family the other 25%, and so I just had to flip that a little bit.

SP: How much time are you spending with family now? 

Harden: All of it! [laughs] All of it.

SP: You’re an IG-chef, but you also have a cookbook.

Harden: Coming from a family of really good cooks, that was the angle that I took with my first cookbook. It’s the soul food holiday cookbook, and each of the recipes are named after a certain family member, along with the story. I’m making my version of their specialty — so they’re my recipes. They tell the origin story, if you will, of like why I love them.

Don’t be surprised if a Caribbean cookbook comes out with some of the favorites that people love. The other part of that too is the sauces and seasonings. People that move from our transient town are like, “Oh, I miss Caribbean Grill. There’s no Caribbean food where I’m at!” or “It’s not as good. I wish you guys could send me some sauce!” That’s another thing that’s loading, and we’re working on. 

Being able to still put Caribbean Grill out there, but doing it in a way that allows more balance for me personally, professionally, and have more connection to it — because I don’t want to be one of those disgruntled restaurant vets wondering how I put everything into this, and what do I have to show for it? That can’t be me, that can’t be.

SP: What’s your favorite thing to cook? 

Harden: Pasta. I like to try different flavors, like right now, my love affair is with truffle anything. There may be some recipes that are coming down the line for that. Cooking for the family, our taco nights are epic. I’m going to say this on the record, my taco Tuesday — whether it’s carne asada or tinga or whatever — it’s the best that you will taste anywhere. I’m a purist when it comes to this type of food, and so I’m going to Tienda Y Carniceria; I’m going to get the ingredients and take hours to prepare it.

SP: Do you have any tips for someone who wants to learn to cook? 

Harden: The first thing to do is follow @ChefMikeHard on Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook because my angle is easy, everyday recipes. I want to get people cooking in the kitchen. It can be really intimidating. My approach is to make it no big deal, even if you’re not super experienced. Trial and error — and not being afraid to mess up — is probably the best advice I would give.

If you want to get it right every single time out-the-gate, that’s not really how chefs work. We have to develop recipes, and the ones that you see are the ones that have been trialed and errored with notes and scribbles and scratches of change this, tweak that. The same way, go in the kitchen and get to work. Mess up a little bit, figure out what you like, what you don’t like.

SP: Where do you go in Champaign-Urbana if you want to dine out or have a drink? 

Harden: Seven Saints, I’m a whiskey guy, and they have their whiskey Wednesday. So me and a couple of my buddies, we tend to get together and go out for that. My guilty pleasure is burgers. I love a good cheeseburger and fries, and I’m going to try different places. I like actually like thatburgerjoint; their burgers are good. I love the Weird Meat Boyz. They just opened up The Space, and their burgers are pretty good. There’s actually Dewey’s out in Farmer City, good smashburger for sure. I’m not a big coffee drinker, but I do like a good cafe to go and get work done, and there’s a lot in town. The Espresso Royales are good.

SP: Is there anything else that you want readers to know?

Harden: My biggest priority now is getting the business sold and getting someone in here that’s going to bring their own flavor to the community, bring their own experience and impact in the way that we were able to impact.

We want somebody to come in here and take over the space. It’s ready to go. We want somebody that will continue that legacy of love in the community, offering a piece of their heart, a piece of themselves, to the community through food.

The exterior of Caribbean Grill restaurant in Champaign, Illinois. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Caribbean Grill
2135 S Neil St

Food + Drink Editor / / instagram

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