Island culture meets Kansas charm in The Little Grill’s food, music
It’s nearly impossible to accidentally end up at The Little Grill. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking the legendary Jamaican spot was only a myth as you wind your way through back roads. Located off Dyer Road directly east of Tuttle Creek’s River Pond, getting there requires either driving across the dam or the Big Blue River.
From the outside, the yellow building is fairly nondescript, which makes sense, as it used to be a bait shop, apart from a tall, fake palm tree with the words “Little Grill” emblazoned at its top. However, your first hint that this lakeside joint is something special will most likely be the packed parking lot. If you’re there on a weekend, cars line both sides of the driveway and snake around to the back of the building. You’ll know for sure you’re in the right spot when you walk in the door. If your mouth doesn’t water when the smell of jerk seasoning and seafood hits your nose, you should check your pulse. Your ears will be equally delighted when they hear pleasant Jamaican and American melodies coming from a man playing the guitar in the restaurant’s corner.
That man is most likely Kenrick Waite; owner, chef and occasional entertainer at The Little Grill. Kenrick and his wife, Cathy Waite, have owned the restaurant for nearly 18 years after meeting in Cancun, Mexico, more than two decades ago. Cathy, a Manhattan native, was vacationing there when she took notice of one of the resort’s entertainers. Kenrick was equally smitten. They kept in touch, and she soon visited him in his Jamaican hometown. The rest is history.
“We decided we wanted to be together, no matter where we were,” says Cathy. “I had girls in high school, so it didn’t make sense to uproot them and move to Mexico or Jamaica, so we decided to come back to Kansas.” Kenrick has been in the food and beverage industry for nearly all of his life, cutting his teeth working alongside the owners of Sandals Resorts International, which is headquartered in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He credits them for the theory portion of his hospitality-industry education.
“They sent me to seminars and classes — it was a great experience,” Kenrick says. “I also had the opportunity to work
The couple shared a dream of someday opening a restaurant of their own. Cathy had run the local hospital’s gift shop for 20 years, so she felt comfortable operating the management side. Little did they know that an opportunity would arise within a
“It was a small bar, about half the size it is now, with about six tables and chairs and a pool table,” says Cathy. “She asked us if we wanted to take it over, so we rented the building and turned it into The Little Grill.” The couple now
The Little Grill has grown a lot in its 18 years in both size and reputation. Cautious of becoming “too” big, Kenrick and Cathy initially added on a substantial expansion for additional seating, and in recent years, an indoor/outdoor covered seating area for large parties or small events.
Of course, being “little” is part of the restaurant’s roots. Kenrick and Cathy named the restaurant as such because it literally had a small grill, a gentle nod to patrons that they may wait a bit for their food, but it would be worth it. “In the beginning, we worked full-time jobs and ran the restaurant at night,” says Cathy. “Kenrick cooked and sang, and I waited tables and bartended. We figured even if we got just a few people, it was our passion and what we wanted to do, so it was worth it if we only made a little money.”
But it did far better than that and just kept growing, often requiring a short wait before being seated on busy weekends. Kenrick says the reason for The Little Grill’s success is two-fold — delicious, consistent food and a large side of empathy. First,
His goal is flavor; both with seasoning (plenty of salt, pepper and garlic, Kenrick says) and freshness. Very few items in the restaurant are delivered by truck. Instead, Kenrick shops for produce himself at local grocery stores, picking each piece by hand. The Little Grill’s most popular dishes include jerk chicken and jerk pork chops (a style of Jamaican cooking using a hot spice mixture), but the restaurant is also famous for its ribs, jerk buffalo burgers and other daily specials.
“Everything I cook here, I eat,” he says. “If I come into the kitchen and see gumbo that has been there for two days and I just don’t like it, I dump it. Our food is always fresh and cooked to order with a simple, yet beautiful presentation. I focus on consistency — if you order the chicken today, you can come back tomorrow and get the same chicken.” That emphasis on consistency also bleeds over to the other reason the Waites have been so successful — empathy. Both Cathy and Kenrick say they pride themselves on creating a welcoming atmosphere for people from all backgrounds, regardless of race, religion or political beliefs. Kenrick is quick to note the Jamaican cultural importance of “one love” and brotherhood. A large piece of that is remembering we’re all humans going through some type of struggle.
“My mom used to say, ‘put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you make a decision,’” says Kenrick. “I didn’t learn until much later that she meant ‘empathy.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat — we want this to be a place where everyone can relax, have a cold drink and enjoy themselves.” Kenrick tends to glide over it, but there’s no denying that he is a major part of that enjoyment. He’s a humble celebrity walking amongst the tables, checking on his customers’ experience and food. He stops frequently to shake hands, smile at babies and thank patrons, often calling them “brother” or “sister.”
On many nights, he quietly assumes a position on a stool in a corner of the restaurant with his guitar and a microphone. The atmosphere in the already relaxed room seems to audibly shift toward Kenrick as he sings classics like, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “One Love” and other songs from both countries he holds dear. “The music is the icing on the cake,” says Kenrick. “Lots of places have music, but for
When Kenrick isn’t performing, local talent often takes the stage in a variety of musical genres. These days, the crowd tends to be age 30 and up, but Cathy says they still cook plenty of jerk chicken and pork chops for college students and the younger crowd, especially for dates and visiting parents.
The Little Grill is the kind of place that keeps drawing you back. Joel Campbell, former Manhattan resident and Kansas State University graduate, currently lives in Topeka but says he often finds reasons to return and enjoy a meal at The Little Grill.
“I love the ‘off the beaten path’ feel of the place,” says Campbell. “The crowd is diverse, and the overall atmosphere is unmatched. Plus, it’s always such a treat when Kenrick plays. If you go there on purpose, you get a chill atmosphere, music
One thing that remains a secret, though, is Kenrick’s recipe for The Little Grill’s incredible, perfectly balanced rum punch that is worth the trip in itself. “I don’t like to tell,” he says with a small smile. “It’s a Jamaican secret.”
Megan Saunders recently moved to Riley, Kansas, but still calls Manhattan home. Along with her husband, she lives with her 4-year-old and 6-month old human babies, two dog babies and a really old cat. She loves K-State, freelancing, all the food and most of the beer.”
This is fascinating! It is a love story, a success story, a food and entertainment story, a travel story…
…all the elements are there.
I had to read to the end. If I ever end up in that part of the world, I’ll be sure to visit.
Kendrick is from my neck of the woods. I’m a proud Jamaican!