Jamaican inspiration at Hard Rock in Montego Bay

Jamaican inspiration at Hard Rock in Montego Bay

Observer writer

Sunday, July 14, 2019

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Montego Bay's Hard Rock Cafe opened its doors to the public in December 2016 and Shaniin Morales Lewin, the Jamaican franchise's first employee, was there as part of the pioneering management team.

The group sales and marketing manager was hired before construction even started and is well positioned to tell the story of Hard Rock Cafe's journey in the nation's tourism capital.

Morales Lewin will tell you it has been a positive and rewarding trip but also a very challenging one that has taught her, and indeed the entire organisation, the importance of adaptability and innovation in meeting the unique needs of a new market.

The local franchise of the world-renowned brand opened its restaurant, beach club and retail store to heavy anticipation in Montego Bay, particularly in the Freeport zone where it is located — an area of luxury and waterfront gated communities neighbouring the Secrets and Sunscape resorts.

Here, the affluent members of the community relished the idea of a Hard Rock Cafe only a short walk from their front doors. When it actually opened, however, the restaurant quickly learned that among the citizens of Montego Bay and the Hard Rock's neighbours in Freeport there were different expectations of what the restaurant should be.

“A section of the market demanded more Jamaican items on the menu, even as other people looked forward to the traditional Hard Rock Cafe menu,” Morales Lewin explained.

It was also a period of adjustment for the entire staff right across all departments of the company because in addition to the demands of customers, new staff were being trained to carry out their functions in line with the high standards of the Hard Rock Cafe's culture while opening the restaurant in the winter season — the most hectic time of the year for tourism-related businesses in Jamaica.

In practical terms there was no adjustment time, as Hard Rock Cafe's trainers taught new staff on the job in that frenetic environment of the Christmas and winter tourism season. In the meantime, changes were made to meet the unique demands and expectations of those local restaurant customers while remaining true to the Hard Rock Cafe traditions.

“We expanded our core menu to include more local options, which all had to be corporate- approved,” Morales Lewin revealed. “It became a classic Hard Rock Cafe core menu with a Jamaican flavour. Six or seven popular local items were added.”

For the 36-year-old manager, adaptation was also a very personal experience because a lot of what she found herself doing was completely new to her.

“I had never worked in the restaurant business before,” she disclosed. “I've had to teach myself a lot of things. Most of what I know now about the restaurant business has been learnt on the job.”

Morales Lewin's department consists of herself and an assistant. They handle business with cruise ships and hotels as well as local and international groups. All weekly, monthly and annual promotions and activations come from her.

Looking at the skills and experience that she brings to the table makes it apparent why she was selected for this job at the critical initial period of the company's development.

She may have been lacking in experience when it came to restaurants but this was not the first time that Morales Lewin was involved in the opening of an organisation in Jamaica.

“This is my third new opening,” she revealed with pride, going on to explain that after her first job as a reservation agent at Air Jamaica she moved on to Grand Palladium Jamaica Resort and Spa where she was involved in the opening of the hotel as a sales coordinator in her first year with the company.

She spent another two years there as a weddings and conventions manager, managing over 300 weddings and many corporate meetings. She then took on a new job as a sales manager with the destination service Amstar DMC, as they opened in Montego Bay, before being promoted to senior group and incentives manager, a position she occupied for the next two years.

These jobs prepared her for her current position which followed her time at Amstar.

The past two years have been a period of positive growth for Hard Rock Cafe in Montego Bay. The composition of the restaurant's patrons is about 50 per cent local and 50 per cent tourists, according to Morales Lewin.

The second year of operations saw a significant increase in awareness of the product by cruise ship passengers, with the cruise lines also being very supportive of the brand. Business from that market is now growing steadily.

Catering to walk-in customers has required a lot of innovation to distinguish the restaurant from its competitors, but that has been made easier through Hard Rock Cafe's international culture.

“Our brand is an international brand, which gives us the freedom to partake in established food and drink holidays such as National Rum Day and National Burger Day,” the manager indicated. “People have loved it. We did a National Food and Drink Day which was a big hit and we have seen other companies pick up on that and move in that direction.”

On the corporate side, the company opened to tremendous interest from the Jamaican business community, which has not waned since the early days. Hard Rock Cafe caters to events for local and corporate groups. In addition to the restaurant, bar and beach club with its pool area, the venue has a small intimate conference room that can host up to 40 people for cocktails and presentations.

Clients have included companies such as Scotia Bank, Digicel, Vistaprint, Jamaica Money Market Brokers, Jamaica Tourist Board, Jamaica Public Service Company, Alliance One, Kiwanis Club and many others.

“Our incentive business from international groups has grown,” Morales Lewin added. “If we're looking at the numbers between last year and this year our numbers have probably doubled; but there is still room for improvement.

“We are always a primary option for overseas companies coming to Montego Bay,” she continued. “And among local corporate clients about 40 per cent of local business is from Kingston.”

Since the advent of the Hard Rock Cafe in Montego Bay, Morales Lewin has been challenged by the company, her bosses, and her clients to learn, adapt and work hard to deliver service of a high standard, and successfully.

Responding positively to challenges has been a constant theme of her role at Hard Rock Cafe and indeed her whole career, as Morales Lewin has progressed through diverse new roles. This theme did not start with her first job, however. She revealed that for her it started in childhood.

Her first major challenge occurred when her mother passed away. Morales Lewin was only seven years old at the time and she and her sister relocated to Little London in Westmoreland to live with their grandparents. There, the siblings attended Savanna-la-Mar Primary School and Manning's High School. Morales Lewin then went on to study mass communications at the Northern Caribbean University in Mandeville.

This early start to life's challenges led to where she is today guided by her aspirations. The group sales and marketing manager wants to continue growing and learning with the Hard Rock Cafe in Montego Bay, and is proud of what her fellow managers and staff have accomplished thus far.

“We are one of Hard Rock Cafe's top performers in the franchise,” she informed. “We continuously remain in the top three for retail food and beverage sales.”

According to Morales Lewin, the near future will see upgrades to the beach club amenities and the interior and exterior of the cafe. The aim is to create more audio-visual entertainment, nightly events and parties.

“We are looking to find new ways to provide entertainment, and the sky is the limit for those ambitions,” she insisted.

But beneath this vision is another very real challenge which motivates the entire team of the franchise's owners, managers and staff.

“Our venue really is the only Hard Rock Cafe in the world which has a beach club, and so the success of that will determine whether or not Hard Rock International will look at investing in a similar property type at other locations,” she disclosed.

Based on the current successful performance of Montego Bay's Hard Rock Cafe it would come as no surprise if it does inspire similar models around the world.












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