It's noon on a Wednesday afternoon, and six customers are dining at Anntony's Caribbean Café in the Elizabeth neighborhood.
One woman is at the counter placing a to-go order, while two women sit on the revamped patio area and four men, dressed in construction gear with hardhats on their knees, sit at a table in the dining room.
While it would be easy to write off the light lunch crowd to the poor economy, the 20-year-old restaurant has had some issues of late, including poor customer service and inconsistent food quality.
Owner Kurt Levine said he's working to change all of that. He knows that people are familiar with the restaurant -- because when he talks to people in the Queen City, they've all heard of Anntony's but haven't visited in a while, he said.
"I came in here and made a conscious effort to concentrate on what was wrong," said Levine. The main complaint -- and the first thing he had to fix -- was how long the lunch crowd waited for entrées. Levine said much of Anntony's business comes from professionals on their lunch break, meaning his staff can't keep them waiting on their food. That's why the service had to be addressed first.
"We needed to make sure that customers were getting top-shelf service," he stated.
Levine has owned the restaurant for a year, and at first he was operating it from afar -- New York City, specifically. But once he started getting negative feedback from employees and customers, Levine moved to Charlotte to become hands-on in the eatery's daily operations.
"I had put someone in place and made [that person] the general manager," he explained. "It was someone who had restaurant experience, and I thought it would be a good thing at the time. Things started happening, things weren't right in the store and the economy was changing. The place wasn't run the way I expected it to be run."
Anntony's sits in an area where there are plenty of choices for dining, like a Chinese restaurant in the same shopping complex and a sandwich shop right next door to the café; that's why Levine knows he has to reboot the image of his restaurant if he plans to compete for the few people who are still eating out.
"We have to vie for position in the food market over here. We have to make sure that when people choose us to eat with, that we have everything in place. Make sure we're not running out of things and they're getting the best quality of food." That's why he's in the restaurant's kitchen, alongside his staff, cooking and setting the standards of dining.
So what, besides customer service, has changed at Anntony's? The menu, for starters.
"I've added dishes to the menu that weren't there before," said Levine. "We now have curry chicken on a daily basis. Before, it was a special. On the weekend, I offer ox tails ... We now have salads that we add our chicken or our roast pork to."
Unlike other Caribbean restaurants in Charlotte, you get more than just Jamaican food at Anntony's. Levine said the restaurant has dishes from all over the Caribbean, and you can't get their original sauces at any other island-themed eatery (however, they're sold in Harris Teeter grocery stores). Levine credited previous owner Anthony Martin, with whom he works closely, with making the special sauces popular. (Martin currently runs the second Anntony's location in the Cheshire Commons off West Sugar Creek Road.)
"We're not just one Caribbean island," Levine said. "We encompass all of the Caribbean foods. Me, myself, I'm Jamaican, and the original owner is Guyanese. We have more to offer than just a typical Jamaican restaurant or a West Indian restaurant."
There's also a full bar in Anntony's now, and it's stocked with island rums -- including rum punch, a key Caribbean drink that's sweet and potent.
The bar is new, so Levine said diners aren't coming in looking for it, but he's working with an event planner to start hosting happy hour events at Anntony's and introducing diners to the bar and the restaurant's other signature drink, "The Bahama Mama."
"We're officially christening the bar next month, and that's going to lead into our monthly event, the Caribbean Cool Down. This will take place the first and third Wednesday of each month, a place where you can relax and unwind after work," Levine said. "We'll have music and drink specials from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m."
In the down economy, Levine said he knows that it's going to take creative energy and community service to keep Anntony's going.
"This new event planner that I'm working with wants to get involved in the community and host fundraisers and donate to charitable organizations. We're looking to coordinate that. We would love to partner with alumni associations and other organizations in Charlotte so they can come to us and host their annual events and things like that."
(Anntony's Caribbean Café is located at 2001 E. 7th St. 704-342-0749.)
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