BY GABE LICHT
LORETTO, MN Growing up working in his mom’s restaurant in Jamaica, Ken Montague admits he didn’t think he’d want to be in the restaurant business.
In fact, when he had the chance to attend the University of Minnesota on an academic scholarship, and run track, he thought, “the further away I’d go, I wouldn’t be able to work in a restaurant.”
But, he felt a connection to Caribbean food that kept pulling him into the culinary world.
First, he was a part of West Indies Soul from 2004 to 2007, and now he is proprietor of the “Ameri-Caribbean” restaurant, Montague’s Kitchen & Bar at 115 Railway St. in Loretto.
“In 2007, I quit everything to spend more time with my kids,” Montague said of his five children, now ages 14 to 21.
He worked as a hedge fund analyst through 2015, and while doing so met Jon Gorder, who is now an investor in Montague’s.
“He really supports me through this to make sure everything’s done top class,” Montague said.
Why bring Caribbean cuisine to Loretto? At first, a persistent real estate agent played a role.
“At first, I was going to go traditional, like downtown on Hennepin Avenue. We looked into Excelsior and Minnetonka. My real estate agent mentioned a place in Loretto. I said, ‘Where?’” Montague said.
After a month and a half, Montague decided to see what Loretto had to offer.
“I fell in love with the building,” Montague said. “I thought, ‘Wow, it’s everything I wanted. I wanted space. I wanted a patio. I wanted a place to do reggae music with steel drums. Loretto does offer everything I needed to make it a tropical feel.”
Project manager Victor Jones helped incorporate the tropical feel he desired.
“We had a strong designer and builder on board,” Jones said. “We wanted it to look different and brighter. We took out the black-and-white checker floor and put in light-colored wood. We added beams to the ceiling. We wanted to create a separation between the bar, the front room, and the rest of the restaurant.”
An artist known as RasTerms painted a mural to be displayed in the dining room, which also includes two palm trees.
As Montague and Jones worked on the Caribbean feel of the restaurant, they also worked on the Caribbean portion of the menu.
“We flew down to Florida. Ken’s family has a home in Miami Gardens. I spent time with Ken and his mom. We all cooked together and brought recipes back,” Jones said. “This is genuine Jamaican home cooking.”
A couple examples are the jerk chicken wings and the Caribbean coleslaw.
Montague brought Marcus Phillips in as an executive chef to perfect the American portion of the menu.
“Ken and I have worked hand-in-hand on this menu,” Phillips said. “I’m learning the Caribbean side of it, and throwing my twists into it.”
Those twists include menu items such as pizza cooked in a firebrick oven and key lime pie.
Everything is made fresh, including Montague’s homemade ginger beer, a non-alcoholic libation that can also go into the Jamaican Mule mixed drink. Another mixed drink on the menu is the Jamaican mojito, made to look like a Jamaican flag.
Those drinks join Red Stripe and a bevy of Minnesota tap beers on the drink menu.
Whether customers are stopping for a bite to eat, something cold to drink, or both, Montague wants his guests to feel welcome.
“I want to interact with the guests,” Montague said. “I don’t want them to feel like they have to rush out of this place. I want it to be a family place. They can hang out and feel a little tropical while they’re in Loretto.”
Part of that tropical feel is reggae music, which Montague wants to share with his guests. Montague grew up with some of Bob Marley’s children, and stays in contact with a mutual friend who would like to bring them to his restaurant.
He also talks regularly to his mom, who is proud to see him following in her footsteps.
“My mom calls almost every night,” Montague said. “She’s very excited and thankful that I decided to do this. It’s part of me. I didn’t always realize that.”
Feedback from local residents has also confirmed to Montague that he’s in the right line of work in the right place.
“The people of Loretto have been extremely supportive,” Montague said. “They genuinely want to see us succeed, which is a blessing.”