Sometimes you need a friend to invite you into a new space. I’d driven past Island Grocery and Grill hundreds of times — heading to and from Aldi, Sherman Branch Nature Preserve and the Simmons YMCA — without ever considering stopping. It wasn’t until a friend raved about its $5.99 lunch special that I made a special trip to the Caribbean restaurant and grocery store on Albemarle Road.

Island Grocery and Grill owner Caroline Coke was born in Jamaica and raised in New Jersey before relocating to Charlotte with her husband. “We wanted a place to raise our family — Charlotte has warmer weather and more space — and it’s only a 2 hour and 50 minute flight to Jamaica,” Coke told CharlotteFive.

Before the Coke family opened the grocery in 2002, they were traveling to New Jersey for Caribbean food and ingredients. But her husband dreamed of opening a grocery. The store is now home to more jerk seasonings, oxtail marinades and scotch bonnet pepper sauces than anyone could ever need.

“Originally, we were just a grocery store,” Coke said. “But we found that people wanted prepared food too, so we’ve been finding the marriage between groceries and takeout since.”

More than just food

Sometimes you need a friend to invite you into a familiar space. Every customer who enters Island Grocery and Grill receives a warm greeting. “‘How are you doing darling?’ ‘How are the children?’ and ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’” filled the air on a recent visit.

“Jamaica — it’s a feeling. The warmth, the people,” Coke said. “We’re trying to create a home away from home — to make you feel like you’re in your parents’ kitchen.”

It’s evident when Coke is interacting with a regular. “You want the pepper pepper?” she asked a customer requesting salt and pepper. “Please tell your mom I said hi,” she told another customer heading out the door. Every entrance and exit comes with hospitality.

Abigail Coke checks out a customer at Island Grocery. Alex Cason CharlotteFive

Mecklenburg County is home to more than 162,000 immigrants. Coke wants to create a comfortable, familiar place for those from the Caribbean. While the grill menu is primarily Jamaican cuisine, she’s added dishes such as roti, a dish common in Trinidad.

“During the pandemic, people were looking for comfort food. We provided something stable, something they could relate to. It really helped people weather the storm, emotionally and mentally,” Coke said.

Sharing Caribbean culture

“We originally opened the grocery store to serve the Caribbean community,” Coke said. “However, Charlotte has three direct flights to Jamaica every day, and with more people traveling there and finding the culture, more people find us here in Charlotte.”

Coke loves sharing tips with customers — which spices are best for jerk chicken, which herbal teas aid digestion and those Angostura Bitters — they can help prevent a hangover. She also shares recipes with home chefs getting into Caribbean cuisine. Her sister, Velma Baker, loves serving Caribbean cuisine.

Baker is head chef of the grill — which offers entrees, sides and baked goods. All of the baked goods are family recipes made from scratch, including Jamaican patties. You’ll find classics like beef and chicken alongside more unique patties like jerk chicken and spinach and cheese. The vegetarian patty has cabbage, corn and carrots; another veggie patty in development includes curry jackfruit and chickpeas. Additional vegetarian options include veggie roti and veggie stew.

Jerk chicken, red beans and rice and plantains at Island Grocery. Philip Freeman CharlotteFive

Top-selling dishes include oxtail, jerk chicken and curry; the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish, is available every Saturday morning. Coke’s background in chemistry sparked her interest in health-conscience drinks, and the grocery offers natural juices and herbal teas, including homemade sorrel juice and Irish moss. Sorrel juice is filled with antioxidants and Vitamin C, while Irish moss has loads of protein.

Not everything at the grocery is health-focused, however — just like the fruitcake that is soaked in rum for at least one year before being baked.

Growth ahead

Sometimes a place grows right in front of your eyes. Island Grocery and Grill is positioned to grow in upcoming years as Coke’s daughter Abigail takes over the family business. “We’re looking to pass the torch to those younger than us with new insights and ideas.”

Abigail envisions relocating to a larger space where customers can socialize. She wants to increase the business’ online presence and has already created an online store for the grocery. Amid change, though, the soul of the grocery is well established. Customer service, warm greetings and tasty food — it’s all here to stay.

Beef pies and jerk chicken pies can be served as a sandwich, too. Alex Cason CharlotteFive

As for Coke? She’s wrapping up a doctoral degree in counseling — a job that one might say she’s been doing behind the counter for years. “How are you doing darling? How are the children? And Happy Mother’s Day!”

Sometimes a new space becomes a familiar space. A friend told me about Island Grocery and Grill last week — and I’ve already been twice.

Island Grocery and Grill

Location: 5861 Albemarle Rd, Charlotte, NC 28212

Neighborhood: Eastland


Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-8 p.m.

Instagram: @islandgroceryonline

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Philip’s job with the city connects him with neighborhoods all over Charlotte. Off the clock, he’s often exploring public art, playing outside or trying new food. Follow him on Twitter @philipfreeman