By Charlie Leonard
August 17, 2020
Owner of Lawrence Caribbean Restaurant, Gavin Lawrence is a soft-spoken yet effortlessly valiant man. He immigrated to the United States in the early ‘70s, managed grocery stores, ran restaurants, and raised two children in two different cities: New York City and Charlotte. Even with an impressive list of accomplishments, he undoubtedly shines brightest in an unexpected area: navigating a crisis.
One morning, Lawrence, who is originally from New York City, had a beer and wine license appointment for his restaurant. His appointment was at Park Place in Lower Manhattan, but before he could do that he needed to drop his daughter off for her first day of kindergarten. After dropping her off, Lawrence realized he was going to be an hour late for his appointment. On a normal day, that’s inconvenient, but September 11, 2001 was no normal day.
“As soon as I got out of the train and went around the corner, that was happening,” he explained, referring to the attacks. “It’s the worst feeling you could ever imagine.”
In the weeks following September 11, a new normal began to set in. Lawrence lived in Rosedale, a neighborhood in Queens about five minutes from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Flights resumed on September 14 but there was next to no plane traffic. He specifically remembers a sound that scared him more than anything else during that time: dead silence.
Nearly two decades years later, another airport is eerily silent.
Lawrence Caribbean sits in the shadow of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, a minute away at most. Usually one of the busier airports in the country, Charlotte Douglas’ airline traffic has slowed significantly due to Covid-19. Aside from an occasional airplane, cars whooshing by on West Boulevard provides most of the background noise now. It’s not an ideal time for any restaurant, but Lawrence is grateful, especially considering what he witnessed firsthand.
“Compared to 9/11, this is not as immediate,” he said. “It’s not as personally devastating.”
Lawrence’s resiliency goes all the way back to his childhood. Born in Jamaica as the oldest of four kids, he assumed responsibility at an early age, learning how to cook and teaching himself to read out of necessity. His maturity manifested itself through management, running grocery stores, and even his own Jamaican-Caribbean restaurant in Rosedale.
Experience paid off when Harris Teeter came calling in 2004, looking for managers. At the time, Lawrence was anxious to leave New York, sensing that the post-9/11 city environment was too stressful for his children. He flew down to Charlotte for an in-person interview, deciding that while he was here, he’d take a good look around. He liked what he saw, and told his wife that night that they were moving south.
It’s a humid day outside of Lawrence’s restaurant, an old, white building adorned with three stripes: the unmistakable, red, yellow, and green of the Rastafarians. The sun is shining overhead in the cloudless sky and, for a minute, it feels like the Caribbean. It’s down in an embankment only feet from West Boulevard and, admittedly, it’s a bit difficult to see from the road. Look for a bright yellow sign portraying the setting sun flanked by palms and the restaurant’s name.
Making up for the restaurant’s hidden location is the vibrant island-style cuisine inside. The stew beef, oxtails, and the curry goat are a few of the more popular items. These meats are common staples of Jamaican cuisine, typically served at lunch or dinner and come with a side of plantains, steamed cabbage, and brown rice. Jamaican food is known for a unique blend of spices; curry and jerk style sauces are the more well known examples with medium and hot flavors respectively. Stewed dishes are an exception, coating the beef and oxtails in a deliciously mild brown sauce, rich, flavorful with every bite. Stewed beef is effortlessly tender from slowly simmering in the stew. The bone-in oxtail stands out a bit more with a fattier consistency, adding an extra level of flavor. Curry goat, a dish saved for special occasions in many cultures, is cooked in a rich green sauce over bite-sized pieces of goat; the slight heat pairs nicely with the more mild flavored selection of meat. Last was the beef patty, typically a lunchtime staple in Jamaica and effectively acting as the national hamburger. It’s served with just the patty, but to make a sandwich you can ask for coco bread— a soft, biscuit-like bun— to accompany it.
Lawrence says that his menu is “constantly changing” to meet the demands of different customer groups. Some of the menu items initially included wings, fish, and fries, foods that catered more to the local population.
At the same time, Lawrence serves a small, but growing Jamaican-American population, many of whom work at the airport nearby. That can put added pressure on the restaurant to maintain a healthy stock of the popular staples. Oxtails, he estimates, make up about 65% of his business. Neglect either of the groups, and there’s a price to pay. “You’d be better off closing for the day. Because you’re gonna piss some people off,” said Lawrence.
The business has been doing well despite the circumstances, but there are still restrictions that limit the customer experience. After closing for three weeks, Lawrence decided to stop indoor seating. The reasoning behind his decision was the difficulty of “sell by sight,” as he puts it. It’s a strategy that relies heavily on alcohol sales, but with inside seating not allowed, he decided to pause all indoor dining for the time being. No “sell by sight” also means no clarification on exactly what a customer is ordering. Call-in orders are usually peppered with multiple questions, something that Lawrence says can be difficult to answer.
He believes we’ll be dealing with the pandemic for a while and has switched his operations accordingly. Right now, the restaurant takes orders through a small takeout window, which is how the previous restaurant operated before his purchase in 2015.
Through all the challenges Lawrence has faced, he’s persisted despite them. The rapid growth and increasing diversity of Charlotte reminds him of New York City, both financial hubs that attract different people. To him, that’s a promising direction for Lawrence Caribbean and the city as a whole. “There’s gonna be some changes; there’s gonna be some difficulties, I’m sure. But in general, I’d say yes, I like the direction.”
Check out the menu at LawrenceCaribbean.com.
3011 West Blvd
Charlotte, NC 28208