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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