Originally created 03/27/04

Owner reaches out to share island cuisine



For Antonio Mentis, relocating to Augusta 11 years ago was a decision that happened on a whim.

The electronics salesman from Queens, N.Y., decided moving south could provide more opportunity for a young family man with entrepreneurial aspirations.

Four years after opening his Jamaican restaurant on Windsor Spring Road, Caribbean Experience, Mr. Mentis is watching the business' new location gradually become a hot commodity in one of Augusta's premier business districts - Washington Road.

Caribbean Experience II, in the Washington Square shopping center, is one of the few black-owned restaurants on the busy thoroughfare.

Relocating the business from south Augusta took more than a notion, said Mr. Mentis, who has worked simultaneously as a nursing assistant and sales clerk for an office supply retailer.

"There's been lots of thinking and spending wisely," he said.

Small-business consultant Helen Blocker-Adams said Mr. Mentis' foray into an area populated by chain restaurants such as Hooters and Carrabba's Italian Grill sets an "awesome precedent."

"The idea of having a black-owned business there is phenomenal," said Ms. Adams, the CEO of the HBA Group. "It shows a minority-owned business can exist in a non-African-American environment and prayerfully, they'll succeed."

A native of the South American country of Guyana, Mr. Mentis said his restaurant is steadily gaining customers by serving authentic Jamaican menu items such as jerk chicken, curried chicken and goat, ox tail stew, and fish and beef patties.

"The market was open, and I've met lots of Caribbean people here," he said.

But the largest portion of his clientele is white, he said.

"It's about educating people to something new. I've always been adventuresome and ready for a challenge," said Mr. Mentis, whose wife, Sabrina, is also from Guyana.

In addition to the Caribbean fare, Mr. Mentis serves macaroni and cheese, greens and traditional soul food dishes.

Calvin Green, the owner of Hot Foods By Calvin in the 2800 block of Broad Street, said he supports Mr. Mentis' relocation to Washington Road.

"It's a good thing because it's a heavy traffic area," said Mr. Green, whose soul food restaurant has earned critical acclaim since opening in 1995. "I'd love to be there too, but the rent is fairly expensive. If I were 20 years younger, maybe."

Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce President Ed Presnell said he plans to visit Mr. Mentis' restaurant to show his support.

"It fits in with the population shifts we're going through," he said, noting that Augusta-Richmond County's 2000 Census figures show a nearly 50-50 black to white racial balance.

Mr. Mentis said the new location has better parking and will allow him to have outside seating.

When the restaurant closes, Mr. Mentis takes his show on the road and provides late-night snacks for nightclubbers at the Surrey Tavern and Coconuts on Tuesdays and weekends.

He urges others who might be interested in starting a business to simply try.

"I tell people just throw your belly out," he said. "It takes guts. Just do it."

Reach Timothy Cox at (706) 823-3217 or tim.cox@augustachronicle.com.