By Natasha Samuels
Craig Wright is beating the odds. His Vernon restaurant, Craig’s Kitchen, recently celebrated its third anniversary, and despite navigating a global crisis that has had an enormous effect on restaurants, his is on track for continued success.
Why? Wright believes that self-reliance is key to weathering storms like the pandemic.
“I am able to do most of the work myself,” he explained. “And not have to pay other people to do it.”
Like most businesses, Craig’s Kitchen was forced to pivot quickly to survive the pandemic and subsequent economic slowdown. The dine-in area is now closed, and a newly constructed takeout window allows patrons to place and pick up orders with no contact. Wright is also offering a paired down menu and has partnered with mobile food delivery services like Uber Eats and GrubHub.
Wright currently manages all aspects of the restaurant, including whipping up Craig’s Kitchen favorites like fried fish, barbecue ribs, mac n’ cheese and candied yams—recipes that he says he learned from his mom.
“My grandparents were from Alabama,” he shared. “They cooked Southern food and it was passed down from my grandparents to my mother and then passed down to me.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Wright plans to continue with his annual community-based programs. “Every [year] we throw a community Thanksgiving dinner [that] anyone can attend,” he said. This year his Thanksgiving feast will be on Thursday, November 26 from 12:00-3:00pm. All are welcome and COVID guidelines will be in place to keep patrons safe.
Wright sees the Thanksgiving program as his way of giving back, and it has helped him gain press in local print media as well as NBC, ABC and FOX Connecticut affiliate stations. He was also recently invited to appear as a guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. These features have provided publicity and public relations opportunities that are invaluable and aid the success of his business.
Things are looking up now for the 33-year-old former Detroit native, but he says that his life has been a roller coaster. “I have come from homelessness. I’ve been through all kinds of ups and downs,” he shared.
It’s hard to imagine, but he says that he did not have any long-term goals during his youth and never imagined that he would one day open a restaurant. He says he was in and out of trouble through his early twenties and it continued until he was sentenced to substantial time to a Connecticut prison.
“My grandparents were from Alabama. They cooked Southern food and it was passed down from my grandparents to my mother and then passed down to me.”
“They sentenced me to three and a half years, and I ended up doing three of those years,” he said. “I never thought about the future and that's one thing that changed in me when I went to prison. I stopped and I [decided] that I definitely have to change everything,” he said.
He spent his last 6 months of his sentence living in a halfway house.
“When I was in the halfway house, I ended up getting a job in a restaurant and I worked my way from dishwasher through the ranks, all the way to a sous chef,” he shared. “I worked at different restaurants and it all culminated to this,” he said.
At one point, Wright was even working four jobs at a time.
He learned about the availability of restaurant space in Vernon from an old high school friend. “I had the opportunity to buy the business [and] as soon as the opportunity came, I just took it,” he said proudly.
But he wasn't necessarily prepared for it. “I definitely wasn't financially prepared, and I wasn't mentally prepared for it,” he shared. “I felt that the opportunity was too good to let pass so I just did it and I've been here three years now.”
His advice for anyone who is looking to start a business is to simply go for it.
“There are a lot of naysayers, [but the] bottom line is you go into business to make money. You are going to have to take a shot to do that. You can help someone else make money—that’s the safe route—or you can take a shot and try to do it yourself,” he shared.
The ability to persevere and ingenuity can also take you far, and something that many business owners need. “Everyone [doesn’t] succeed. Owning a business is not easy. Everyone does not own a business. That's for a reason. It's hard work. No one cares about it but you. You have to treat it like a baby. You get out of it what you put into it,” he explained.
As for Wright, he’s putting his all into his business and hungry patrons keep coming back for more.
Craig’s Kitchen is located at 13 West Main Street in Vernon, Connecticut. They are open Monday through Friday 11:00am to 8:00pm and Saturday and Sunday from 8:00am to 9:00pm. Find Craig’s Kitchen online at www.craigssoulfood.com and on Instagram.
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By Arianna Velez
Mind, Body & Soul Food is a new restaurant located in Meriden, Connecticut. Owners Deja Durant and chef John Small are longtime family friends who share a love for soul food. Family-owned, together they follow recipes that have been passed down for generations. Offering a variety of dishes including seafood, chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens and more, their quality meals are made with the freshest ingredients. And, they will soon be offering daily specials and desserts, including delicious cheesecakes.
Durant is not new to owning a business. He recently closed his clothing store and wasn’t expecting to open a restaurant. When the store closed, he took some time off to reflect about what he really wanted to do, and this new opportunity just presented itself. After driving by the location daily and seeing the for-rent sign in the window of where Mind, Body & Soul Food now operates, he started thinking that he could do something. With many cooks in his family, he decided to give the number in the window a call. The result? What was once a Subway that sat empty for quite some time is now the new home of one of the best soul food restaurants in Meriden.
Durant is well known in his community, not just for his business endeavors but also for the role he plays in giving back. At his previous store, he held events for coat and back to school drives and more. Co-owner chef John Small was in business with Durant when he owned his clothing store, and he would regularly contribute 60 backpacks to the drives. Recently, Meriden held a Black Lives Matter rally where Durant and Small gave away free food. They made chicken and mac and cheese—which were a big hit.
“The line was like a mile long,” said Durant.
Both Durant and Small are just the type of people who naturally like to give back. For Durant, his daughters are what motivate him. Not only is he building a legacy for them but he’s also showing them what it means to uplift those in the community.
“For me, it’s my kids,” he shared. “I got all daughters. I have 4 of them. I’m trying to provide for them and also, like it’s legacy too. I want to leave them with a piece of something.”
Customer service won’t be the only thing to set Mind, Body & Soul Food apart. The cozy aesthetic filled with portraits of Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill and others create a warm vibe.
Aside from their amazing food, customer service plays a role in customers coming back to Mind, Body & Soul Food. Durant believes in always being polite and remembering everyone has their good days and bad. At the end of the day, he says, “we’re all human.” He believes in customer satisfaction and if the customer’s experience isn’t the best, he wants to know how he can make it better.
Customer service won’t be the only thing to set Mind, Body & Soul Food apart. The cozy aesthetic filled with portraits of Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill and others create a warm vibe. Chef Small, who learned to cook from his grandmother, relocated from New York to Connecticut when he was 17. He loves sharing his love of food with those around him and knows his food will make the difference when it comes to people coming back for more. Home cooking in a restaurant made with love and with the help of his wife is the perfect recipe for hungry guests to feel right at home.
Small and Durant believe that guests will be surprised, comfortable and satisfied after visiting their restaurant. Upon entering, the beautiful aesthetic will surprise guests and make them feel comfortable. The food will absolutely satisfy. And, Small and Durant make sure all meals are double checked even before leaving the kitchen, to ensure orders are correct and presentable.
Mind, Body & Soul Food held their grand opening on Saturday, July 18, 2020. Their first day open they sold out of food completely and even had to close two hours early—a complete success!
Owning a restaurant is a completely new experience for Durant, but it is clear he has a lot of support and his food already has received many amazing five-star reviews. With lines wrapped around the building, wait times may longer due to COVID restrictions, but guests are being understanding and staff is doing the best they can. The food and service are truly amazing, welcoming and satisfying.
One customer shared, “Mind, Body & Soul Food had great customer service from ordering to pick up! Food was amazing! Place is really nice inside! Kept it simple with fish, mac and cheese and corn bread. My very picky eaters devoured every crumb. We will back soon to try more stuff!”
While they’re closed on Mondays, guests can visit the restaurant Tuesday through Saturday, from 11:00am to 8:00pm and on Sunday from 12:00 to 6:00pm. They will soon be offering delivery.
Mind, Body & Soul Food is located at 511 West Main Street, Meriden, CT 06451. Learn more about Mind, Body & Soul Food on their website.
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Pictured: Owner of The Singing Sliders, James Hanton. (Photo: Corey Lynn Tucker Photography)
By Alexandra Frisbie
On most Wednesday evenings parked outside the Little Red Barn in Winsted, CT, or on other days around lunchtime on South Main Street in Torrington, or in an industrial area on the town line with Harwinton, you will find James Hanton in his silver food trailer, happily cooking sliders and sandwiches for a crowd that may include hungry and tired truck drivers, workers who just want to take a break and enjoy some delicious fresh food, or patrons of the nearby brewery who would like some tasty pulled pork to accompany the beer in their bellies. Depending on how busy he is, Hanton may be singing while he cooks, a nod to his business name and slogan.
A few years ago, after working some jobs that didn’t pan out, Hanton began to dream about launching his own business venture. The idea of being his own boss and having job security was appealing. He thought about cooking, which he enjoys. Having been raised in South Carolina on Southern cooking, Hanton noticed that while there were plenty of Italian and Chinese food options, there were not many places serving fresh BBQ pork and Southern food locally in Connecticut. He and his wife also realized that at the time, there were no food trucks in their area. So they bought books and learned about the food truck business. They visited locations with food trucks, including the Long Wharf in New Haven, to see how they were run. Hanton took the CT Food Safety Management Course and got certified. In October 2018, Hanton and his wife, who co-owns the business, opened The Singing Sliders Food Trailer in Torrington.
According to Hanton, who has worked in restaurants, the big difference with food preparation in a food truck is understanding the difference between what you would like to serve and what you can serve. Despite the limitations, Hanton says he will only cook and serve food that is fresh, not previously frozen. When asked how quality translates in what he offers, Hanton replied “I like to serve food that tastes good, is good quality—fresh, not frozen. I make it with love.”
“I like to serve food that tastes good, is good quality—fresh, not frozen. I make it with love.”
Customer favorites are the BBQ bowl and pork sandwiches and sliders. Hanton explained that the sandwiches are larger than sliders; they are served on larger rolls that are sometimes lightly toasted. These days, he is constantly tweaking and adjusting the menu, entertaining customers’ suggestions and trying out healthy options. Some have requested the return of the orzo bowl with sautéed vegetables. Hanton offers a choice of sauces in which he will sauté the vegetables. If an item becomes popular, he may add it to the menu, at least temporarily. Recently, Hanton’s grandson took a cheeseburger and topped it with the mac and cheese Hanton gave him on the side. An aspiring rapper whose nickname is “OK Nitro,” his grandson topped that with BBQ sauce and raved about it. Hanton dubbed it the “OK Nitro Mac and Cheeseburger” and put it as a special on the menu.
The success in launching his food truck business did not come easy. Hanton recalled a time when he was getting started that things weren’t going well and he almost gave up. He was not confident that he would be able to make his dream a reality. Then it occurred to him that as bad as he felt, many others were much worse off. He felt compelled to help others instead of feeling down on his luck, and began to give away food once a month, no questions asked, from his food truck. He said that when he began to look at things differently, he began to see success—yet he continued to regularly provide free food. Due to COVID-19, he had to suspend this community effort, but he hopes to be able to resume soon.
I had to ask about the name of the business. Did the sliders themselves “sing” somehow, or does Hanton sing? He said that on some days he may be singing while cooking in the truck, but it was really his wife who thought up the name. He says it refers to the food—the sliders are so good they will make you sing! As for the singing sliders on the trailer, Hanton’s daughter drew the art freehand, which was transformed into an image that could be placed on the trailer.
Today, Hanton says what keeps him going is the independence of running his own business and having a job that allows him to interact with people. He says he has many repeat customers and is starting to build a fan base on social media. He likes to use Instagram and Facebook to let his followers know where he is going to be during the week. The three words he said best describe his business are “happy, satisfying and local.”
Hanton has catered for small groups (up to 150 people), including at the Little Red Barn brewery in Winsted, where he parks on Wednesday evenings. He has traveled to Waterbury and New Milford and is willing to bring the trailer to other locations in Connecticut.
One thing is for sure—if you see the silver trailer with Singing Sliders on the side, be sure to stop right away and get a bite. You won’t regret it.
South Main Street, Torrington (at the Harwinton line)
Monday and Thursday: 11:30am-3:00pm
Industrial Park/Altra Industrial Motion, Inc, New Hartford, CT
Tuesday and Friday: 9:00am-1:00pm
At the Little Red Barn, 32 Lake Street, Winsted, CT (www.lrbbrewers.com)
View the WSFB story on The Singing Sliders
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