Sit with Tony Martin for more than a few minutes and he’ll tell you a story or two … or three or four. But be warned, the Guyanese immigrant and founder of longtime Charlotte staple Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe is so multi-faceted — doctor, engineer, businessman, inventor, restaurateur — it can be tricky to keep up as he seamlessly flows from one unbelievable tale to the next.
Like the tire caddy story, for example. Martin says that, around the late 1960s to early ’70s, he had an idea for a foldable, wheeled tire caddy that could be used to transport a flat tire to the gas station instead of rolling it there. He claims a fellow engineer whom he confided in about his idea ended up patenting it for himself and selling the patent for an unknown amount.
“Do you know what it is today? All the suitcases you see with wheels and all the things you see, people strap their luggage on and they pull it. I invented that,” Martin said.
As a young engineer, Martin says he worked with Dr. Charles Kelman, an ophthalmologist known for developing new devices and techniques to treat cataracts. He says he worked on the tip of the needle that goes into the eye during cataract surgery.
He even claims that Anntony’s served as the inspiration for Boston Market following a visit to the South by that chain’s founders, though the timeline on that claim remains murky.
Of all Martin’s many stories, however, his best is the one about how he turned his idea to sell rotisserie chicken bathed in the flavors of the Caribbean with his homemade spices and sauces into an empire.
Over nearly 40 years, Martin has expanded Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe to 10 locations, including two that he owned and operated on East 7th Street in Elizabeth and West Sugar Creek Road in north Charlotte. He also launched a line of spices and sauces that today grace the shelves of Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Lowes Foods and Publix.
Yet, as he prepares to retire at the end of August, the father of six admits that he’s still unsure how this story will end.
The only remaining Anntony’s location on West Sugar Creek Road location will stay open after Martin retires, albeit under new ownership. He’ll maintain all the rights to his sauce business and trademarks, but his true wish is to hand the brand off to someone who will expand on it further than he was able to.
“It seemed like everything just got to a certain point and never really materialized into anything because I didn’t know how,” he said. “I was more into nutrition. I’m just the brains behind this stuff. I come up with ideas, and I can start it and get it going, but to expand it, it takes a different person.”
Now he wants to see someone take it nationwide.
Tony’s secret sauce
Tony Martin arrived in the United States from Guyana — a coastal country on the northern mainland of South America that borders Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname and is part of the Caribbean region — in 1968. He was 21 years old on a scholarship to study mechanical engineering.
At first, he worked in ultrasonics for Cavitron, a company that manufactures dental cleaning equipment, which is how he got involved with Dr. Charles Kelman’s cataract surgery project. Then he pursued gynecology for a bit before changing fields to become a doctor of naturopathy, a form of alternative medicine that uses natural remedies to help the body heal itself.
His interest in nutrition eventually transitioned to Martin developing his first products — a Caribbean all-purpose sauce and seasoning and a Jamaican jerk sauce and seasoning — that would later become the foundation for many of the recipes at Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe.
“I developed the sauces, spices and marinades, all with proper balance, nutrition meaning balance, where you don’t get heartburn or indigestion. And it is excellent for the body,” he said.
“It’s a combination of a range of ethnic backgrounds — Indian, African, Portuguese, Chinese and all this. They got a blend of nationalities in Guyana. So the cuisine, I take what they have and blend the spices to match what they use individually,” he continued. “I put it all together and then to make it a little spicy, I use a different type of pepper, which is good for the body, like cayenne. But it’s a secret. Everything is.”
Martin said Tom Smith, former president of Food Lion, tasted his sauce at a food show in the early 1980s and liked it. He suggested Martin open a restaurant if he wanted to get his sauce on the supermarket’s shelves.
At that time, Martin had only been cooking and selling his rotisserie chicken, marinated and seasoned with Caribbean flavors, out of a pizza parlor in Statesville, where he also had a medical practice. He said he got the idea after seeing a rotisserie chicken cooking in a shop window in Paris.
“I went to Barbecue King in South Carolina and bought a rotisserie machine. And the guy said, ‘Why don’t you stick with your medicine or do what you’re doing? Why are you going to get into the food business?’ I said, ‘It’s an invention. I invented this,’” Martin recalled. “This is not going to be a regular restaurant with hamburgers and stuff. This is a concept that nobody else has.”
As the story goes, Martin’s chicken was so popular it was outselling the parlor’s pizza and spaghetti, so in 1984 he opened Anntony’s Caribbean Chicken (named by placing his mother Ann’s name with his own) in a space next door. He moved to Charlotte two years later to open Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe off East 7th Street in Elizabeth and, around that same time, struck a deal with Food Lion and went full-time into manufacturing his sauces and spices.
“People lined up around the block at my restaurant and then the food would run out midday and everybody would get mad because we had to close up and re-cook everything and it takes two hours to cook the chicken,” he recalled.
According to Martin, actor Liam Neeson ate his chicken while in Charlotte filming the 1994 drama Nell with Jodie Foster, and Whitney Houston came when she was passing through for a concert in Raleigh.
“She stopped by but she didn’t come out of the car. The guys came in and got the chicken and they said she’s in the car. By the time we got out there, they were gone. She was in a limousine,” he said.
Martin capitalized on the restaurant’s soaring popularity by expanding the Anntony’s brand through franchising to include three more restaurants in Charlotte, as well as locations in Lake Norman, Hickory, Asheville, Wrightsville Beach and Lake Wylie.
Kurt Levine took over the Elizabeth location in 2008 as part of a licensing agreement, but within the last year it has changed to Fit Kitchen Meal Prep. Martin currently runs Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe off West Sugar Creek Road, which is the last remaining location.
A taste of the Caribbean
Martin initially grew a following for Anntony’s by serving rotisserie chicken and simple sides, but as time went on, the menu evolved and now offers a wide variety of Caribbean cuisine with a Southern twist — think greens, mac and cheese, coleslaw, black-eyed peas and cornbread.
General manager Linda Moss does most of the cooking. She and Martin have been working together since the 1980s and she knows all of Martin’s recipes, including for his sauces.
Standout items at Anntony’s include ribs, shrimp, and wings doused in his famous sauces and seasoning; as well as seafood platters, sandwiches and Cuban roast pork.
The most popular order is the rotisserie chicken dinner, which comes with either white or dark meat and two sides, including Callaloo (a staple Caribbean leafy green vegetable dish), calypso rice, black beans or plantains, among other options.
It’s best to wash it all down with “Swank,” the house lemonade made with brown sugar, lemons and limes.
Anntony’s also serves roti (Indian flatbread) and a few curry dishes that are Martin’s favorite, an homage to his late wife who was from India. He also likes the oxtails in brown gravy, a typical Jamaican and African dish, and says the Chinese-inspired noodles with vegetables called “Rasta Pasta” are popular, too.
“There’s a lot of things that we do that connect to the nationalities in the Caribbean,” Martin said. “It’s a melting pot.”
“Caribbean has never been brought to this kind of level anywhere,” he continued. “You have a Jamaican restaurant, a Barbadian restaurant, Trinidad or Guyanese, but no one has taken the whole of the Caribbean and combined it into one. And that’s what I did. I took all those dishes from all the islands and put it in my sauce and spices. So it’s a taste of every Caribbean island.”
Fueled by flavor
The concept of Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe intrigued a handful of potential investors over the years, including the team who launched Bojangles, who were interested in franchising his restaurant. However, a deal never came to fruition because they were unable to come to a consensus on how to divide ownership, Martin said.
George Shinn, former owner of the Charlotte Hornets, was also interested in Martin’s sauce business and expanding the restaurant concept, he says. Shinn offered to buy 51% of the company, but Martin turned it down, saying now that he was young and uneasy at the time about not being the majority owner.
At one point, Martin even flirted with the possibility of partnering with Tyson Foods to incorporate his sauces and spices into a new Caribbean chicken product. He said he was in talks with a company in Wilmington who was working out the logistics necessary to ramp up production for Tyson, but it took too long and Tyson’s interest fizzled out.
“There were a lot of opportunities, but I was doing it by myself. I didn’t have a team of people doing a lot,” Martin said. “And I was computer illiterate and couldn’t really keep up with the times and how to get it marketed.”
A couple from Cameroon, a country in west-central Africa, plan to take over Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe on West Sugar Creek Road when Martin retires at the end of August. They’ll keep the restaurant’s name, concept and recipes the same while adding in a few of their own.
Now he’s looking for someone to purchase the rights to franchise the restaurant and take over his line of sauces and spices — someone who’s willing to expand the company in the way he alway hoped to do himself.
Martin said he would like to remain the face of Anntony’s, similar to how one of his friends and inspirations, George Couchell, continues to represent Showmars.
In 1982, first-generation Greek immigrant Couchell opened the first Showmars in Monroe. Couchell would later visit Anntony’s regularly for ribs and the two became close friends over the years. For a while, they appeared to be expanding their respective empires at similar paces, but then Showmars took off. Today there are over 30 locations across the Carolinas.
“He took the concept that he started and then farmed it out to his nephew or whoever it is that took it over,” Martin said. “Then they branched off, but I didn’t have that.”
Despite not being able to take Anntony’s to the level of Showmars, Bojangles or Boston Market, Martin said he looks back on his life with no complaints.
Whenever this story eventually does end — the story of how he brought the flavors of the Caribbean to the Carolinas — it will be his best one yet.