Carl Romain’s lifelong passion for food is something that drove him to quit a job he had as a trucker a few years back. He traded his tractor-trailer for a food trailer to pursue that passion full time.
Most recently, he set up shop along the intersection of Old Winter Garden Road and Hempel Avenue next to a shuttered gas station. From this outdoor eatery — called Soupa Plates — Romain serves up traditional barbecue and Southern cuisine — but with a bit of twist influenced by his Haitian roots. He has been at that spot for about three years, but his career in the culinary arts dates back much further. Today, his brand of barbecue and other eats attracts customers from throughout Central Florida.
“We’ve been doing this for about three years, but we used to do a little catering that was just a little (side) hustle,” Romain said. “The response (to the catering) was awesome. Everybody kept referring us to different parties, so I decided I’d invest in a food truck and start participating in the food truck scene and see how far it goes.”
Romain, 41, grew up in Pine Hills and he currently lives in MetroWest. His passion for food began in the same place where many other chefs are first exposed to the world of cooking: his mom’s kitchen. As a child, he helped his mom around the kitchen as she prepared meals for family, friends and neighbors. The meals they prepared were so popular among those in their community that their home became a gathering point in their neighborhood. His mother, father, son and other family members still assist him with the business from time to time today, he said.
“When we grew up in Pine Hills, my momma was like a cook for everybody,” Romain said. “She would kind of coach me how to do stuff (in the kitchen).”
When he was 14, Romain got his first job in the food business working at a McDonald’s that sponsored his football team at the time.
“They were sponsoring (us) — buying us cleats and stuff like that,” Romain said. “They asked me to come and work part time. That’s where I got the hang of (working in restaurants).”
After finishing high school, he studied culinary in college and went on to open a Ponderosa Steakhouse on International Drive. The Ponderosa Romain helped open is now closed, but that’s just one chapter in Romain’s culinary career. After Ponderosa, he worked at the Hard Rock Cafe at Universal Studios City Walk and even spent about four years cooking at Bethune-Cookman University.
After cooking at Bethune-Cookman, Romain decided on a career change that lasted about three years. He purchased a semitrailer and worked as a contractor for CSX transporting cargo containers. At first, he still was able to balance catering private events with his trucking job, because the cargo pick-up location was in downtown Orlando, which was close to his home. But after a change in his contract regarding the pick-up location, balancing the two jobs became difficult.
It’s no secret that running a restaurant is one of the toughest businesses an individual can enter, and running Soupa Plates hasn’t come without its challenges. Because Soupa Plates is an outdoor eatery, weather can play a significant role in customer turnout. On top of that, Romain has had his business broken into on several occasions.
But despite those challenges, Romain keeps on cooking.
“The challenges have been thieves,” Romain said. “It never stopped anything. We always improvise and keep it going. … It’s just a little setback. I don’t have anything valuable for them (to steal). It just might mess up part of a day.”
In addition to running Soupa Plates, Romain still offers catering services for private events. Aside from his passion for food, he said one of the biggest reasons behind what he does is to be a positive influence for his son.
“My son (is) grown, and I’m always explaining to him the need for independence,” he said. “I had a lawn-care service, too, that I used to do. My whole life, I worked for people, but I wasn’t always happy working for other people. … I like to be independent and working for myself.”
To Romain, Soupa Plates is not only a place for him to show off his culinary ability; it’s also a place where he serves smiles. In fact, one of his favorite aspects of his job is seeing his customers’ reactions when they eat his food, and he loves it more when he sees his customers coming back.
“My favorite thing is seeing people smiling (when) they come hungry … and get something to eat, and then after they eat it, they feel like they ate something (satisfying),” Romain said. “The satisfaction I see in (customers) — to me – that’s the best. … When you cook out of love, that’s what makes a big difference in your food.”