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Food & Drink

Kool Runnings Offers Taste of Jamaica

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Kool Running Jamaican Restaurant
E. Parry Hinds and sister Marcia Reid and her husband Tony “Granville” Reid, all owners of Kool Runnings. (Photos by George Hunter)

You won’t have to board a plane for authentic flavors of this island nation.

You may not be able to bring back the beautiful blue waters or sandy white beaches from a trip to the Caribbean, but thanks to a long-established local restaurant, you can enjoy the same food.

In July 1993 Tony “Granville” Reid and his wife Marcia left their home in Jamaica for the U.S. Six months later, Marcia’s brother E. Parry Hinds joined them. They soon found that their credentials from the island nation didn’t carry over in this new country.

“The jobs that we held at home were of an executive nature,” said Tony. “We spent a lot of time canvassing for employment, with the exception of my wife who was pregnant with our last child.”

Encouraged to take a leap of faith

After a year of striking out on the employment front, Hinds’ father-in-law, who was an entrepreneur and mentor to the young couple, suggested they open a restaurant.

“We don’t know anything about running a restaurant!” Tony countered. But the older man persisted. After all, the Reids had run a pharmacy in Jamaica, and yet neither were pharmacists.

“We weren’t chefs, but we did know how to run a business,” said Tony. So in 1994, Kool Runnings was born. It started in DeKalb County on Memorial Drive, but it has been at its Peachtree Parkway location for 14 years.

“It was all trial and error over the years,” said Hinds. “We made a whole lot of mistakes, made a lot of money and lost a lot of money.”

The fact that they weren’t chefs or trained in culinary arts forced them to take chances with people who claimed that there were professional chefs. “That messed this up a whole lot,” said Marcia. “We had to rely on people that weren’t honest.”

But the family could depend on their entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. “We had boots on the ground, literally,” said Hinds. “We were getting in the mix and learning as we went along, but we also relied heavily on the influences and the input of other people with experience.”

It took time, but they gradually gained enough knowledge to be able to identify the pitfalls. “…ad the shenanigans,” added Marcia.

It also took trial and error to get the right blend of spices to replicate the flavor they recalled from home. Once they found it, they regulated it so no matter who was in the kitchen, the food would be basically the same.

“One thing that people want is consistency,” said Tony. “If I come in here today, I want to be able to come in here a week from now, and if I ordered the same thing, I want it to taste the same.”

Customers learn to love it

The restaurant has gained a loyal following. “We’ve had customers who have been coming to us since day one,” said Hinds. “And we have their children coming and their grandchildren coming.”

But convincing Americans that curried goat and whole fish, with the head and eyes still intact, were delicious cuisine was an uphill climb. So in the early days, the food was on a steam table where customers could see the food as it was being dished up. “We’d offer samples,” said Marcia. “Once they tasted the good flavor, they were hooked.”

To date, about 80% of their customers are Americans. In fact, Air Jamaica recognizes Kool Runnings as a top spot for island cuisine. When they were at the Memorial Drive location, patrons and staff from the nearby Hooters restaurant would buy food at Kool Runnings to eat with pitchers of beer while they watched sports at Hooters.

“One evening at about six or seven o’clock, one of the Hooters executives came in through our door… he said, ‘We have 28 tables over there, and 23 of them have your food,” said Tony, laughing.

It’s that kind of proof that assures the family that they’ve done the right thing.

Challenges met and overcome

The family was doing so well that it had operations in the food courts at North Lake Mall in Tucker and Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth. Then the Great Recession hit, which meant less consumer spending and a sharp decline in patronage at malls.

They closed their mall locations and focused on improvements at the main location, like a Sunday brunch buffet with music. Just as they were getting their groove back, another tragedy struck — COVID-19.

Unlike a lot of restaurants, Kool Runnings was able to stay open through the pandemic. Even with staffing shortages, the family persevered. “We worked hard every day and made sure everything got done,” said Marcia.

Once again, the business model changed. “We were used to most customers coming in to dine and then we became almost all carryout or delivery,” said Hinds.

Recently, of course, the prices have skyrocketed. “Some things we’re just not able to get,” said Tony.

That means it takes more effort for this family-run establishment to keep going. When restaurant suppliers don’t have the right rice for the rice and peas, sometimes they’ll go to a regular grocery store with prices and quantities geared toward consumers and not cost-effective for other retailers.

“Even a simple ingredient like coconut cream — that’s a primary ingredient in many recipes — is sometimes impossible to find,” said Tony.

He added that they can’t just pass on the additional costs to the customers because soon they’d have no customers. Still, they all are optimistic that things have leveled off somewhat and will soon get better.

Through it all, they don’t regret a thing. For a group of folks without culinary backgrounds, they’ve made quite an impact in the food world.

Although their children grew up working in the restaurant, they don’t believe the legacy will live on. “When we close, we will be done. But we’ll know that we’ve done well,” said Hinds.

Kool Runnings Jamaican Restaurant

5450 Peachtree Pkwy., Peachtree Corners

KoolRunningsRestaurant.com, 770-652-7104

Arlinda Smith Broady is part of the Boomerang Generation of Blacks that moved back to the South after their ancestors moved North. With approximately three decades of journalism experience (she doesn't look it), she's worked in tiny, minority-based newsrooms to major metropolitans. At every endeavor she brings professionalism, passion, pluck, and the desire to spread the news to the people.

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Chopt Creative Salad Company Opens in Peachtree Corners

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On Oct. 26, the fast-casual salad brand Chopt Creative Salad Company opened its fifth Georgia location at The Forum Peachtree Corners. The new restaurant features an interior dining room that seats 45, a spacious patio that seats 40 and a pick-up shelf for take-out and delivery orders.

Founded in New York City in 2001 by best friends Tony Shure and Colin McCabe, Chopt has expanded to over 80 restaurants in New York, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina.

“We love to create,” said Chopt co-founder McCabe. “Mexican Goddess, Sweet & Smoky Chipotle Vinaigrette, Chimichurri Ranch, Sesame Ginger — these are just a few of the dressing flavors that will turn your salad into something special. We encourage people to come up with their own creations, topped off with one-of-a-kind dressings.”

With each opening, Chopt celebrates “Chopt Gives Day,” the day before the restaurant opens, by giving that day’s proceeds to benefit a local nonprofit partner. On Oct. 25, Chopt partnered with HOPE Atlanta to support their mission to help Georgians struggling with housing and food insecurity.

HOPE Atlanta has served Georgians in need for more than 120 years. Last year, they served nearly 10,000 individuals with housing assistance and distributed over 500,000 pounds of food through their hunger programs, including the Smart Lunch Smart Kid initiative.

“Donations raised by the community through Chopt Gives Day will further our fight to combat hunger, and we are so thankful to be partnering with them for their Peachtree Corners opening, as well as their Marietta opening in November,” said HOPE Atlanta’s Chief Development Officer, Liz Liston.

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More than a Taco – The Tortugas Cuban Grill

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Photos by George Hunter.
Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by seeking out cuisine from a diverse mix of Latin countries – you won’t be disappointed.
Photos by George Hunter.

Many Americans aren’t aware of the complexities of many cultures across the globe. For example, not all Latin food is spicy or comes in a tortilla. As Hispanic Heritage Month approaches, please don’t think of Taco Bell as the place to sample the cuisine of more than 60 million people on the planet.

With Spanish being the second most spoken language in the world, the Pew Center estimates that there are more than 500 million Hispanophones across the globe. That is, people who speak Spanish — whether natives or those for whom it is their second language.

To honor the diversity within the Latinx culture, Peachtree Corners Magazine met up with Victor Melendrez at his restaurant Tortugas Cuban Grill in Peachtree Corners. He was working on a big catering order for a client who was looking for authentic Cuban fare.

“That’s what you get here,” he said, adding that during the holiday season he’s overrun with orders for lechon asado (roast pork), arroz congri (Cuban rice and black beans) and yuca con mojo (cassava with garlic sauce).

Melendrez has been in the food service industry for more than 25 of his 53 years. He and his family emigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico when he was young. The family settled in California, like many Latinos looking for a better future.

Authenticity and commitment keep the business strong.

In 2005, Melendrez visited family in Georgia and realized that the cost of living was a lot lower than in the Golden State. “At one point, the economy was getting really bad, especially real estate,” he said. “When I found out that you can buy a house for $130,000 here, I was ready to move.”

His first Georgia restaurant was in Buford where he had a partner in a different Cuban restaurant. He chose that cuisine because it was in the Caribbean style that he enjoyed. Besides, there are so many Mexican restaurants everywhere, he wanted to stand out.
The business relationship didn’t go well, and he decided to venture out on his own.

“Partnerships are tough,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s something that I’d do again.”

Researching potential areas, Peachtree Corners appeared to have the demographics he was looking for: high disposable income and not overrun with restaurants. But before he could find success, Melendrez had to educate his customers.

An introduction to Cuban cuisine

“I noticed right away that not a lot of people are familiar with Cuban food,” he said. “At the beginning, especially at this location, a lot of our customers said the food was excellent, but ‘we never got our chips and salsa.’”

Melendrez smiled at this. He tried to explain the difference between different Latin American cuisines, but many patrons wrongly assumed that they were all similar to Mexican food.

He explained that it was like expecting chips and salsa at an Italian restaurant. It still didn’t always sink in, but he didn’t let that frustrate him. He decided to let the food do the talking.

If you asked people what they know about Cuban cuisine, they’ll mention the Cubano — a variation of a ham and cheese sandwich that usually includes pickles and roast pork. It more likely originated in cafés catering to Cuban workers in Tampa or Key West than on the island nation itself.

“I like to talk to customers. And with some regulars, I try to get them to order something besides the sandwiches,” he said. “I’ll describe the ingredients and how it’s prepared, and most will try something they’ve never had before. I’ve never had anyone who said they didn’t like the new dish.”

Now, after a few years, he doesn’t have to try so hard with most dishes, but on occasion he brings out samples of something like oxtails or empanadas filled with guava and cream cheese. Those have become such a hit that he sells more than 60 pounds of oxtails a week and the sweet empanadas are outselling the savory ones.

Melendrez is convinced that sticking to authentic ingredients, authentic methods and refusing to cut corners has kept him doing well in spite of the COVID pandemic.

“We had to close for a few months, like everyone else,” he said. “But we are doing well now.”
Food, supplies and staff are costing much more, but Melendrez said he’d rather bring in a lower profit than sacrifice service or quality. It would cost less in food and manpower to purchase pre-made empanadas, or frozen or canned ingredients, but he insists on using fresh.

“I can tell,” he said. “It doesn’t taste like Mama or Grandma made it.”

And he has the same philosophy with people. He’s gone up in pay for his loyal employees rather than turn the restaurant into a revolving door. “I don’t want a customer to say the same dish they had last week tastes different today,” he said.

Melendrez takes his cooking seriously. In addition to hiring a Cuban chef who stressed the training he had already, he has traveled to Cuba and learned from restauranteurs and home cooks alike. “I spent days with people cooking and getting more involved with the culture and the ingredients, and that’s why a lot of the people come here,” he said. “When they compare us to other Cuban restaurants — even though I’m not Cuban — they always go, ‘Oh my god, this reminds me of grandma’s cooking’ or ‘…mama’s cooking.’ It’s because, basically, I’ve been learning from mamas and grandmas from Cuba.”

He added, “I don’t want a native Cuban to come in and say that this doesn’t taste like home.”

Right where he belongs

The restaurant’s décor is subtly Cuban. Pictures of the streets of Havana, as well as popular beaches and famous nationals, adorn the walls. He even has a photo of a former chef with President Jimmy Carter at the entrance. “When President Carter went to Cuba, he was one of the main chefs who served their meals,” said Melendrez.

On weekends, he brings in live music to help with the island vibe.

These days, Melendrez spends almost all his time at Tortuga Cuban Grill. “It’s good I just live two miles away,” he said. And, he added, it’s a labor of love.

Before the pandemic hit, he may have thought of expansion, but Melendrez said he’s content feeding the people of Peachtree Corners the most authentic Cuban cuisine this side of Havana.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he said.

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Food & Drink

Happy Tails & Ales Event at Anderby Brewing

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Happy Tails Pet Therapy and Anderby Brewing in Peachtree Corners are teaming up to for a pet therapy social event called “Happy Tails & Ales.” Come out and meet the pet therapists from Happy Tails, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Learn about animal-assisted therapy, how to volunteer, and the qualifications for an animal to become a therapy pet. Anderby is discounting all pints by a dollar to benefit Happy Tails. The event takes place Saturday, July 23, from 1- 5 p.m. outside on the patio.

Anderby is pet-friendly, so bring your pet! Happy Tails will rotate four teams of therapy
animals (primarily dogs) each hour for snuggles and meet and greets. So, join the fun and experience how a therapy pet can soothe your soul.

Happy Tails Pet Therapy began 31 years ago in Roswell, Ga. Since its inception, the
organization has brought animal-assisted therapy to hospitals, hospices, schools, assisted living facilities, learning centers, libraries, and other places within the greater Atlanta metro area. Happy Tails Pet Therapy volunteer teams provide physical, social, emotional, and cognitive therapy to people.

All Happy Tails pets are trained in obedience and pass a multi-stage assessment by
experienced Happy Tails Pet Therapy Evaluators before they and their handlers can join the
organization and do the job of pet therapists.

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