PALMETTO -- A new restaurant in downtown Palmetto is looking to give the city a Caribbean kick with a healthy twist.
Friends John Baumgarten Jr. and Doug Graf have opened Caribbean Chicken, 814 Eighth Ave. W., with an island flair here on the mainland.
Of all things to cause Baumgarten to yearn for Caribbean food in Palmetto, it was his old stomping grounds in northeast Ohio.
"Up there all the pizza places have what's called chicken and jojos. They're breaded chicken and breaded potatoes and they're pressure-fried together so you get the flavor of both," he explained. "I couldn't get jojos anywhere down here."
So Baumgarten called up his uncle Robert Baumgarten, who he says trained chefs on cruise lines, and handed him his recipes. He also visited his uncle during a stay in Puerto Rico to experience the natural flavors.
"He sent me his recipes and we started working on them and we just perfected it," he said.
The mofongo and black bean soup are the most popular items, joining other dishes including chuletas de Puerco and, of course, Caribbean chicken. But one thing you won't find
in most of the food is wheat flour. Baumgarten battles Celiac's disease, which calls for a gluten free diet.
It was difficult for him to dine out, so he finally opened his own restaurant so he can eat on the town.
"We came up with a concoction where 90 percent of our food is gluten free, and you can't tell," Baumgarten said. "It's delicious."
The desserts are made in-house, too -- though the graham cracker crust isn't gluten-free -- and the food is never frozen. If something special is needed, just ask because Baumgarten understands.
"Anybody that has dietary issues, we'll gladly make something special just for them," he said. "I know what it's like to not go out and eat good food."
And if the spice is a bit too much, the restaurant also offers beer on draft, including Bud Light and Stella Artois.
The restaurant opened earlier this month and continues to tweak its recipes and operations. It has all new equipment inside after the previous restaurant in that space moved. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. The restaurant also offers carry-out service and free delivery to downtown Palmetto businesses.
More restaurants like Caribbean Chicken are finding their way to downtown Palmetto since It Works Global, Manatee Rural Health and the 600 Center brought a bevy of employees there, said Jeff Burton, director of Palmetto's Community Redevelopment Agency.
"We've had an increase in the number of employees, which means an increased number of lunches," Burton said. "Restaurants are starting to be taxed a little heavier (with more customers) and provide good opportunities for a number of places to succeed."
Baumgarten has put a lot into making the restaurant work. His expertise in furniture repair can be seen in the restaurant, hoping that his personal touch will bring customers in. He refinished the wood-grained tables, reupholstered chairs along with some other handy work.
"I just like doing new things," he said.
The tropical mural, however, is the work of Matt McAllister. It features the turquoise Caribbean waters and happy clouds and palm trees to give a relaxing island vibe. While relaxing for the diners, he hopes to look up to his uncle and strive for his following.
"His restaurant used to serve 1,600 people in a day. He would make 55 gallons of this black bean soup in a day and sell out," Baumgarten said. "We're not trying to do that. I'll be happy if we get 300 customers a day."
To contact Caribbean Chicken, call 941-417-7960.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.