In Caribbean culture, food creates distinct connections between people and other cultures.
For Carleen and Garfield Hartman, the Hartman Jerk Center created a space to share their love for their home countries and their native food.
The couple opened the Caribbean restaurant in April with hopes of bringing the flavors of both Jamaica and Guyana to Wilkes-Barre.
“We migrated from New York about five years ago, and we noticed there was not much of a variety of our culture around here,” Carleen Hartman said.
After serving Caribbean fusion-styled food out of a parking lot in downtown Wilkes-Barre for some time, the couple jumped on the opportunity to open up shop where a sushi restaurant previously stood.
And the restaurant itself embodies the culture of the Caribbean.
Upon walking into the 35-seat restaurant on South Main Street, customers are greeted by a bright yellow welcome mat. Strains of reggae music flow through the eatery and 25 small flags that represent each of the Caribbean nations hang above the countertop. Larger flags from Guyana, Jamaica and the United States are posted on the walls as a nod to the owners’ countries of origin as well as their current home.
Garfield Hartman cooks each dish for the restaurant, blending his experience cooking in the Army, hints from his grandmother and the influence of flavors he grew up surrounded by.
“(Garfield) is Guyanese and I’m Jamaican,” Carleen Hartman said. “The food is a sort of fusion between both. It’s authentic Jamaican and Guyanese … We all (in the Caribbean) eat the same foods. We might call it something different, or cook it in a different way, but it’s the same food.”
Some customer favorites include oxtail and butterbeans and variations of jerk fish, chicken and pork.
“We can’t have enough oxtail,” Carleen Hartman said. “We’re here working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and we constantly have oxtail cooking. People love it because of the flavor and the way it’s cooked.”
Other specialties include a featured soup every Friday, ranging from cow foot and chicken foot to goat head soup. Each Friday, the restaurant also serves national dishes such as ackee and salt fish or callaloo with salt fish, which are served with festival dumplings.
When asked about future goals for the restaurant, Carleen Hartman quickly said she wanted to open two more restaurants — one in the Poconos and one in Hazleton. Though, she said they would also like to expand into Scranton as well, due to requests from residents in those regions.
“I love meeting different people from the different cultures,” she said. “When they come in, they first check to see if their flag is up there. And every single flag from inside here, I’ve seen someone come in from that place.”
The restaurant gained a widespread fanbase through radio ads and word of mouth, she added. One customer, originally from St. Lucia, drove more than two hours to get to the restaurant, tacking on additional time on for getting lost along the way. But when she arrived, the restaurant had every bit of food she was hoping for.
“She sat down, ate her food and said it was well worth the drive, that she’d definitely be back,” Carleen Hartman said with a smile. “Those are the things I’m happy for. Representing the Caribbean, the language, the culture. People start talking the way they would in their home countries, and they get a taste of home away from home.”
— charlotte l. jacobson
Hartman Jerk Center
Address: 72 S. Main St., Wilkes-Barre
Established: April 1
Cusine: Jamaican and Guyanese fusion
Owners: Carleen and Garfield Hartman
Hours: Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Online: Visit Hartman Jerk Center on Facebook.