October 22, 2007 6:35:00 PM EDT

This story was first published in 1997 in the Director of Caribbean American Restaurants, Cuisines & Fast Food Outlets

There has been a new and exciting phenomenon in Caribbean-American dining, where a significant number of trendy Caribbean-American Restaurants have been opening up and or expanding at their present locations and elsewhere, this phenomenon has taken hold in New York, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Miami, Los Angeles Virginia, North Carolina, in fact, even as far away as Toronto, Canada.

Years ago, the challenge to Caribbean-American Restaurant owners venturing into the Restaurant food business, was in establishing a successful Take-out Restaurant, usually these Restaurants seated no more than 6, much like a Mom and Pop store. Most of the business came on weekends, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, when traditionally West Indians did not cook heavily, instead, Mom took a break from the kitchen, and as a special treat, the family would dine out.

These take-out Restaurants slogans were, it taste “Just Like Home” or “Just like how Mom used to prepare it”. Indeed the food was very homey and affordable. The growing number of take-out dining establishments resulted in over saturation through out the city. In New York City, one would have to venture to Manhattan in order to dine at a trendy Caribbean-American Restaurant, and at that time, most were not Caribbean owned, and because it was fashionable to dine so called “upscale” in Manhattan, to the average West Indian diner who wanted “a change” – (change of scenery, style and culture), the fashionable thing to do at that time was to dine at a French, Italian or even Japanese restaurant, the upscale Caribbean-American Restaurant was practically non-existent.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, Caribbean-Americans seldom dined out, food would be purchased from the take-out restaurant and eaten at home with the family, and so the feeling was, there was no need for many dine in Caribbean-American Restaurants. This changed as the popularity of the cuisine grew and more and more Caribbean entrepreneurs invested their time and life savings in establishing restaurants that would attract diners of all ethnecities. Many new owners began seeking ways to increase this customer base, and for the Caribbean-American entrepreneur, this was an investment in really understanding the nuances of the business, realization was, in order to compete for 100 % of the market, and not just for the Caribbean diner, the restaurant would have to be savvy, sophisticated, and trendy and the food would have to satisfy a wide range of diners.

For the Mom and Pop establishments, most of which began in Caribbean neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, authenticity, meant, just like how Mom or Grandma prepared it at home. Taste was all that mattered, the food was prepared and served the way West Indians were accustomed to back home. However, for the international palate, adjustments were necessary, understanding formula/recipe preparation for uniformity in taste was instituted, measurements could not longer be approximated with a dash of this or a pinch of that. Measurement and portions had to be adhered to. The word “watered down”, a word that makes most Caribbean-American Restaurateurs cringe, was necessary to suit the palate of the vast majority of non-Caribbean diners the cuisine now appealed to. But less spicier, did not necessarily mean less authentic, the more successful restaurants were the ones that understood how to blend the two, or learned how to.

Along with the adjustment in the cuisine, (less spicy on taste, more concentrated on quality presentation and service), the styles of the dining establishments began to change as well- especially the new Caribbean-American Restaurants in Manhattan. Gone were the homey look and feel- replaced with either the clean, classical, sophisticated look, or the trendy, West side, lower Manhattan, Young Urban Professional (YUPPY) appeal, with seating capacities in excess of 200 in some cases.

Nakisaki Restaurant (Jamaican/Chinese), in Hempstead Long Island was at the forefront of this new charge, with a combination Jamaican/Chinese menu and seating capacity of over 200, and an elegant decor that featured teak, marble, polished wood, palm tree plants, uniformed waiters and waitresses, plus a full bar and a private room for special events. Several others followed through out the city, in Manhattan; Negril, Day O, The Bamboo, Cacique, Island Spice, Vernon’s Jerk Paradise, Omjavi to name a few; in Brooklyn, Secrets, Brawta Cafe, Mike’s International, Sally’s, Sybil’s, Sugar Cane, Sip & Chat and Bamboo Gardens were just a few; in Queens; Mango, The Parrot, Singh’s and others followed the trend, and while some have lasted and are still doing business and doing it well, others have long since closed and disappeared, for a multitude of reasons.

The Trend seems to be changing again, this time towards chain ownership with Restaurant Franchising as the logical next step. Not satisfied to own just one, Restaurateurs, seems to be moving in the direction of owning chains or several locations of a successful dining establishment, and this new direction of Caribbean-American dining experience has become more and more fashionable ever since Golden Krust Bakery successfully established well over 100 franchises in New York City, Atlanta and other cities in the North East, adding an array of foods to its list of patties and other baked goods served daily. Royal Caribbean Bakery has also franchised though not to the extent that Golden Krust has.

The new Caribbean owners who are often either 2nd or 3rd generation Americans of West Indian parentage, or working side by side in some capacity with immigrant family members have brought to the businesses the knowledge and understanding of the nuances of the American dining culture which enables them to aggressively market this new trend in Caribbean dining to a wider ethnic base of American diners. These new owners, while retaining the roots of their culture, are not only witnesses to the change in dining habits of Caribbean-Americans, but also realize, that in order to stay in business and compete on a grander scale, must appeal to these changes in habits.

Ten to fifteen year ago, there were only approximately 20 to 25 Caribbean-American Restaurants with a seating capacity of 50 or more. In 2007, that number has more than tripled, with more than 70 Restaurants having a seating capacity of 50 +, and these establishments are more widely dispersed through out the five boroughs and in Long Island. There are at least 30 Caribbean-American Restaurant with combination menus such as Caribbean/Chinese foods. Additionally, there is also a significant increase of African Restaurants (Senegalese, Ghanaian, Nigerian and others), the foods are quite similar to Caribbean cuisine, thus adding more variety to the foods of the region.

Would this trend continue? it appears that way, it certainly is growing, with more and more restaurant owners not stopping at owning just one establishment. The trend is chain ownership and one thing is for sure, Caribbean American cuisine is no longer a novelty, and Caribbean American dining is making sure it takes a back seat to no one.

Posted in News By Trevor Fraser

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