Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Set Up a Restaurant in Three Weeks (and Five Easy Steps)

Question: What would you do if you were a foreigner living in Belize and you were working as the Food and Beverage Manager at a resort in a touristy place that is not doing very well, because - you know –, economic crisis and all that. Imagine you haven’t received your wages for months, the resort manager turns out to be a crook, and Christmas season is around the corner. You have a family and you really DO NOT want to leave the country. Well, what would you do?

It is the first of December 2009 and my Dutch friends Rob and Corrie, based in Hopkins, are checking their bank balance. With one quick mutual look they decide that if they want to survive, they will have to start their own place. But it has to be open by Christmas, because that is the peak of the high season. Is it possible to start a restaurant from scratch, in three weeks, in Belize?

It is.
Here's how they did it

Step 1: Find a suitable building.
Now there happens to be a huge sports bar building in Hopkins which has been empty since a few years. It is owned by some rich American fellow who apparently does not need any more money. The sales price he asks is no less than 1.2 million American dollars. Ha ha. Quickly my friends understood that the best way to find suitable venue in Hopkins is to obtain it themselves. They check out prefab wooden buildings from the Mennonites in Spanish Lookout, but they’re above their budget. Then they hear about two empty wooden cabins in Hopkins which were used as canteens for construction workers. They purchase them, cut them in two parts to fit on a trailer, plant them in front of their house, and glue them back together.

Step 2. Hire an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter...
and fire them almost immediately thereafter because there’s no way they’ll able to complete the work on time. My friends understand that they will have to get their hands dirty. With a little help from good friends and neighbors, and working non-stop from 6 am to 10 pm for fifteen straight days, they’re totally refurbishing the place. At the same time, they have to get their licenses in order. They’re submitting applications for the trade and liquor license at the village council and jump in their car to pick up a guy from the fire inspection office and a lady health inspector. Normally these inspection visits can take up to twenty days or more so you just have to help the system a little by providing transport. On the way, in the car, you can then dazzle them with your charm and talk about your good reputation.

Step 3. Traverse the country and hunt for restaurant furniture and equipment
My friends went to surplus stores, yard sales in San Ignacio, bought outdated stuff from US Import in Belize city, raided store rooms of friends and neighbors, and found curtains at the hardly-ever looked at bottom shelves at the Chinese stores. For decorations, it helps if you are a ‘hamster’ type who likes to keep old stuff. Sea glass bottles, rusty mugs and the side of a vintage vehicle can make great decorations.

Step 4. Involve your kid in the project
Rob and Corrie have an adopted son, TJ. They gave him the exclusive right to run a small gift shop at the restaurant. They drove to Guatemala to buy some arts and crafts, talked to local artists to display some of their work, printed TJ's business cards, and baptized the store Jeremia’s Giftshop.

Step 5. Buy ingredients
Arrange with Bowen and Bowen for delivery of beer and soft drinks, with Western Dairy to deliver fresh products, get wine from Premium Wines, talk to local fishermen for delivery of their fresh catch, and last but not least, develop a menu. Change the menu daily, based on what’s in the market and put together a 4-course menu for 49 Bz$. Serve meals like chicken sate with peanut sauce, Wiener schnitzel, coconut soup and freshly baked bread.

It is the 23rd of December, Rob’s birthday and the planned opening night. The restaurant is still closed. With a one-day delay Chef Rob’s Gourmet CafĂ© proudly opens on Christmas eve. The thirty or so places are immediately booked, and this goes on every night until now. Already the restaurant is number one on Tripadvisor, with reviews such as: “This little building contains some of the most wonderful food in Belize”, “Superb Dining at Reasonable Price”, “Wonderful Staff and Owners…”

I couldn’t agree more.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Your Tax Dollars at Work

It's official now. Our street can no longer be called Mount Mossey. It has to re-baptized to Mount Messy. Or Mt Muddy. It is worse than ever. This morning, the garbage truck - the only one in Belmopan - got stuck in the mud right in front of our house. It sat down like a moody, fat elephant with its arse in the mud, not showing the slightest intention to get up. Sure enough, after 10 minutes a bowser truck came to its rescue, and got stuck too. Then a tractor arrives on scene. The tractor is now pulling out the bowser truck which is pulling out the garbage truck. Guess what. Yep, tractor stuck too. Another car from the city council arrives. I doubt whether there has even been so much entertainment in our street, but it fails to get a grip on the tractor.

Finally, a bulldozer arrives, lifts the rear of the garbage truck and pushes it out of the sticky mud. It also manages to pull out the tractor, which now pulls out the bowser truck. Can you still follow me? It does not matter, only that the entire operation took six hours, left a garbage stench in our house, damaged the neighbors driveway, and turned the end of our street into an inaccessible, slippery mud pool.

All this because the roads are not maintained here in Belmopan. I'd vote for some of those EU millions for the construction of roads in Belize to be relocated to our street. But the EU money, as we personally know very well, does not come with strings attached, but with ROPES - as one clever Belize politician once remarked. That's why we have to rely on the city council. Ha! At least 'your tax dollars' have entertained us for six hours...