University alumnus planning food truck for Caribbean Grill

In the middle of an economic recession and planning a wedding, Mike Harden, 2005 University MBA alumnus, gave up a financially sound job and took the biggest gamble of his life.

“Everybody was all like, ‘Are you crazy, why would you do that?’” he said. “But I literally quit my job and I put all of my savings towards this, but you know what? There has not been one regret ever since.”

The gamble that Harden took was investing all of his time and effort into Caribbean Grill, a catering and carry out lunch service that serves authentic island style cuisine. The business currently runs out of Refinery, located at 2302 W. John St. in Champaign, on Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. 

Now, Harden, executive chef and owner, said the return on his investment has been so successful that he is in the midst of bringing a food truck to the Champaign-Urbana area in the spring of 2015. 

Caribbean Grill started a Kickstarter campaign, a funding platform for creative projects, in July to help fund the efforts to purchase a food truck, hire additional staff and obtain permits. The campaign met and exceeded its goal of $10,000 for the food truck, reaching a total of $10,890.

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“We had a pretty ambitious goal but we were able to exceed it, and that’s because people believe,” Harden said. “People believe in Caribbean Grill as much as we do; people believe in us as much as we do.”

Despite how rapidly his business is growing, five years ago, Harden did not even plan to be in the food industry. 

“I got my degree from the College of Business. I’m an IT guy and that’s how I always thought I would make my big success,” he said. “I worked in IT for several years, but towards the end of it is when I started to take food seriously. I’ve always liked to entertain and host dinner parties, and I always got really good feedback, so that’s when I started to think about food and the business side and what it can do for me.”

Caribbean Grill made its debut at the Taste of Champaign in 2010 and what was supposed to be a one-time thing turned into a career for Harden.

“We set it up just for getting the experience of what it would be like to run a food service operation,” he said. “Really, it was just market research at that point, but the response was overwhelming for the food. We kept getting asked, ‘Where’s your guys’ restaurant?’ ‘Where are you located?’ And it was like OK, this food works here. There’s no other Caribbean restaurant in Champaign-Urbana.” 

After realizing that the demand for Caribbean food existed in the area, Harden slowly began to build and develop Caribbean Grill.

“I think the turning point really was that festival and we said, ‘OK this really has some legs under it,’” Harden said. “Back then, I was still working my IT job and it got to the point where my day job was getting in the way of my passion, which was Caribbean Grill, and I had to make a decision.”

So Harden decided to foster the company into what it currently is. 

Another side of the company includes CG Signature Events, a full-service catering menu for wedding receptions, banquets of all sizes and box lunches. 

CG Signature Events offers a variety of menu options to suit customer needs, but the Caribbean Grill menu boasts fresh and authentic Caribbean food from variations of Harden’s family recipes.

“I have family roots and family from the Caribbean,” Harden said. “Growing up, I was always around really good cooks and really good food and so I really got to appreciate the cultural aspects of food and the togetherness that it creates.”

Signature items from the menu include spicy, smoky and flavorful Jerk Chicken, moist, flaky, seasoned Jerk Fish and scratch-made side dishes such as traditional Rice ‘n Peas or Baked Macaroni ‘n Cheese.

The ultimate goal of Caribbean Grill is to be able to establish a brick and mortar restaurant, according to Harden; however, currently, Harden said they are focusing on launching their food truck and building an on-campus presence.

“We definitely want to reach the campus because students love Caribbean Grill,” Harden said. “They know about it, and they want it, and I feel like if we can just bring it to them it’ll be really successful.”

Regardless of his changing career and expanding business, one thing has remained constant for Harden: He loves food and he loves what he does.

“Not once have I lamented over the fact that I quit my job back then,” Harden said. “It’s very fulfilling work, and I think that food is one of the great equalizers. When it comes to food, I think it’s very powerful that people choose us to be the thing that sustains their life. You can eat anywhere in the world, you can eat anywhere in Champaign-Urbana, but for you to choose Caribbean Grill, that’s just everything.”

Julianne can be reached at [email protected].