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Jamaican restaurateurs strike gold in Berlin

RosaCaleta - Jamaican fusion food in Germany

Business reporter

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Kirk Henry is a man of the world. He has big dreams and the drive to make it a more open and artistic place. Travelling and living in other countries since he was a teenager, he was a tour guide for JOYST at 17, and even went on exchange to Brussels with the now defunct AFS programme (a top student exchange programme of the 90s).

His journey to becoming a restaurateur was not straightforward. Kirk has had careers managing a Dolce & Gabbana store in Saks Fifth Avenue, taught French in Paris, and was a flight attendant at United Airlines.

His journey finally led him to Berlin, Germany, where he is now the owner of the restaurant RosaCaleta, situated in the hip metropolitan area of Kreuzberg, a cultural melting pot of people from different communities. “There is a very big Turkish community, lots of people from the film industry, and artists. It's somewhat gentrified. So, it's not uptown, not downtown. It's a mix of everything. Of movers and shakers and artists - struggling and successful.”

And so he left his job in New York and made the move.

“Though I had a good job in New York, I wanted to do something for myself, I wanted to make sure that I left my stamp on the world. So I thought, come to Berlin, set up a place where if you were in Cape Town, Timbuktu, Buenos Aires, or Sydney, and you're packing your bags to come to Berlin, then my place would be on the list of places to come to.”

For him RosaCaleta isn't just a restaurant, it is a meeting place and refuge.

“RosaCaleta is a restaurant that is more than a restaurant. It is a meeting place. Food drinks, art, performance are a part of the concept. It is also the place where expats and foreigners can feel comfortable no matter who they are. They can arrive and get informed about the city – in particular people of colour who move to Berlin. It's a refuge.



For him what makes RosaCaleta special is it's community aspect.

“Berlin was chosen because it is a place where you can be yourself, do what you want to do and be who you want to be without any social pressure to conform so much.”

“What I wanted to do was to create an atmosphere of meet and greet – hanging out. Where the host, being me, would introduce people. Networking in an informal way. Not just networking in terms of business, but really just a meeting place, and this was my objective and this is what we've accomplished.

“So we have a restaurant, but what happens is that people come, and then they either run into someone they know, or … friendships are created. I can't tell you how many couples met at RosaCaleta or had their first date there, or were introduced by me or Troy. These kinds of things are regular occurrences at RosaCaleta.”

At RosaCaleta, the food is as colourful as the Jamaican culture and is an exciting mix of everything that the Caribbean brings, merged with a German touch. It's a “…Jamaican-European fusion restaurant, “ shares Kirk. “What we offer is a combination of classic Jamaican and fusion dishes e.g (spicy guava perl chicken, Jamaican Spätzle which uses sweet potatoes instead of what they normally use in Germany, which is pasta. They also serve a filet of salmon smothered in escovietch sauce and served on a homemade coco bread.

“Everything is mixed in with Jamaican ingredients and European techniques or vice versa. It's really a mish-mash of techniques, ingredients and ways of doing things.”



RosaCaleta is named after both owners' grandmothers. “When I got the restaurant and the keys, I insisted that I have a name when I push the key in the door.”

“ Troy, my business partner, cooked dinner for me and my lawyer and we were all brainstorming for the name. I considered Basil, my grandfather's name, and my grandmother's name Caleta.”

But then he considered using the name of the grandmother of his business partner, Rose. “I put them together and RosaCaleta was born. It really just sounded from the get-go like a name that would be interesting and near and dear to both myself and Troy who are the principals in the business.”

Troy Lopez is the creative mind behind each recipe, while Kirk manages the location and everyday operations. He is also Jamaican, hails from St.Ann, and moved to New York at 14, then Paris, then Berlin.



Kirk admits that there were challenges along his entrepreneurial journey. “There were challenges but I was just determined to make it happen. The language was more difficult. At that time, 10 years ago, a lot of people didn't speak English. I had taken a course in German and I went through the best way I knew how, by gesticulation. I had to do the licences, register the business, etc. A lot of people warned me that it would be difficult. However, I foundthat I got kindness from all of the functionaries.”

There were also difficulties in dealing with neighbours, with regards to the noise when they were renovating, and even after the opening. But through flexibility, kindness and a listening ear, he received their understanding and patience. “We learnt to work with those around us. Now every single neighbour has come to RosaCaleta for dinner or at least drinks.”

His biggest challenge at the start, however, was the location. His initial capital didn't permit him to invest in a location in the centre on a main street, but instead on a side street. So he had to find ways to get people to come out. However, thanks to a marketplace opening there a few years later, he benefited from their marketing. “…Suddenly everyone was talking about the neighbourhood. Now it became 'We are in the area, let's drop by RosaCaleta.” So that was a challenge that we overcame by chance, by luck or by divine intervention.”



Now business is going well for the RosaCaleta restaurant and they have accomplished quite a lot. “It's known in Berlin and has now become a brand.”

They catered for the world athletics championships in 2009. “We did PUMA's welcome event for Usain Bolt and the Jamaican team. PUMA was so impressed with us that they used us to cater all 10 events held, including the VIP celebrations. This set us on our way and gave us some press.”

One of their most exciting highlights has been their recent feature in the Deutsche Welle, the Geman equivalent of the BBC. “We were a part of their TV series called '50 kitchens and One Homeland'. There are over 6,000 restaurants in Berlin and we were chosen as one of the 50. Then, of the 50, they asked us to host the book launch, as well as the airing of the first episode (and they paid us). It was amazing, as it showed us where we've reached.”

They have also been featured in Elle Magazine Deutchland (Germany) on their list of trendy places in Berlin.


Though a small restaurant, they have also catered large events of 300 to 450 people and regularly cater for ambassadors and embassies. “We cater when people want something special – the Nigerian Embassy, the consulate of Curacao, the Mozambique ambassador. They often call on us to do their events.”

For the future, Kirk hopes to expand into products and more locations. “Our fire sauce (sauce made of Jamaican peppers and other spices) is also well known in the city. We are now in the process of converting it into a supermarket shelf product and are now looking at expanding and opening branches in other cities.”.

Kirk Henry and Troy Lopez of RosaCaleta Berlin have placed a bit of Jamaican warmth and spice in that European city. It has become what he had initially envisioned… “A place in Berlin that was an entertainment space. A lounge for relaxation, for where people could meet and create a platform for art and performance.”

It is a refuge — a delicious home away from home.