Pier One Restaurant and Bar
A four-decade journey of evolution
The Pier One Restaurant and Bar with its marina at Howard Cooke Boulevard in Montego Bay, St James.

The longevity and enduring prominence of the Pier One Restaurant and Bar in Montego Bay makes it unique among food and beverage establishments in Jamaica. Founded in 1986, Pier One has been serving the city for almost 40 years as a restaurant and entertainment venue.

"To be open that long is one thing but to be relevant right through is difficult," commented Jason Russell, Pier One's general manager and son of founder, Robert Russell. "We have always maintained a status, a top 10 at least."

The restaurant has featured a strong entertainment component throughout its lifespan that has been enjoyed by generations. It is just as popular for its mix of food and beverage services and its Friday night party these days as it was in the early years of its existence.

"It is now in its full third generation of people, so I now have my friends' kids coming to Pier One," Russell revealed. "My father had the business in his 40s, I now have it in my 40s and these kids are coming out, 18, 20s, and their parents are my age, so it is literally a third generation."

Diners enjoy the Pier One Restaurant and Bar on the waterfront at Howard Cooke Boulevard in Montego Bay, St James.

The business has not remained static over time however, and is constantly evolving.

From a staff of 30 in 2004 when Russell took over management, the company now employs 130 people spanning two locations which include the original venue on the waterfront at Howard Cooke Boulevard and a new operation at Doctor's Cave Beach on Jimmy Cliff Boulevard.

Additionally, the physical expansion of Pier One has been substantial, growing from about 2,000 square feet of decks at its inception to approximately 6,000 square feet across both locations.

Currently Pier One's services include the two restaurants and bars, catering, event planning and entertainment. Marina services at the original venue include rentals of parasail and personal watercraft as well as fishing and party boats. The marina activities are facilitated through a lease arrangement with a separate business that operates within the Pier One location, contributing to the overall range of marina offerings.

Jason Russell, general manager of Pier One, with mother Beverly Russell. Russell credits the women in the family including his mother, Beverly, and sisters Anna-Kaye, Shari and Peta-Gaye for contributing to the running of the organisation through strong roles in its development since the beginning.

According to Russell, the driving force behind Pier One's success is a strong focus on customer satisfaction and a willingness to pay attention to and adapt to customer feedback.

"It is about doing more listening than talking," the general manager said. "We have never been about the awards and trying to puff out our chest. The essence of the business is to please the customer. A lot of times I don't even feel like I own the business. I think MoBay owns the business."

"That has been consistent with our model right through," he continued. "People being able to approach an owner and say, 'Look, I don't like this and why don't you do that' and for us to listen and tailor the business to what people want. It is a lot easier than people think but the first thing you have to do is leave your ego at the door."

This philosophy of interaction with customers also extends to the wider community and the family's close ties and intimate connections within the city have played a significant role in its success.

Pier One's Friday night party is just as popular today as when it started in the 1980s.

They actively support other local businesses and events, making their brand more appealing and staying current in the area while getting involved in community initiatives over the past three decades and charity work. Support for frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has also strengthened their reputation.

Their presence as a business in larger events such as Sumfest and Jazz Fest demonstrated their commitment to the city's economy and welfare.

Working closely with customers and community, Russel believes, helps to show people who they are.

"We grew up believing that hard work is important and people respond to that," he said. "A business doesn't revolve around you. It revolves around the customers and people respond to that well."

Pier One provides event planning services and their location offers venues for parties, weddings and other events.

Russell's father initially ran Pier One and then Russell's brother Robin took over in the 1990s. After the restaurant was destroyed by storm surge from a nearby hurricane in 2002, the two brothers rebuilt the restaurant and Russell took over management in 2004.

The tenure of all three men has witnessed the restaurant's market evolve over 37 years. In its early years, European plan hotels were common and tourists walked the streets of Montego Bay in their hundreds looking for dining and entertainment venues, making it easy to attract them to the restaurant.

However, the landscape changed with the introduction of all-inclusive resorts, making it harder to pull tourists. Nevertheless, strong marketing has helped to maintain the successful mix of local patronage and tourists over the decades.

Pier One has a well-structured management team that includes roles in food and beverage, security, maintenance, and other areas of the operation. Russell credits the women in the family including his mother, Beverly, and sisters Anna-Kaye, Shari and Peta-Gaye for contributing to the running of the organisation through strong roles in its development since the beginning.

Anna-Kaye currently serves as the general manager for the Doctor's Cave Beach location and she and Russell both share in managing entertainment and promotions.

The new location came about as a part of the business's expansion plans. When the opportunity to lease the beachfront area arose, Pier One applied for it and presented a model that aligned with the needs of the space, including offering a beach bar with seafood, good service, a strong reputation, and an effective management structure. After being awarded the location, they have been operating there for nearly three years.

Despite some differences in menu and setting from the original location, Russell emphasised that the essence of Pier One remains the same at the new location. The same approachability, home-grown feel, and local brand with international service are maintained.

Pier One is actively looking for new locations, and their approach is opportunistic rather than tied to a specific geographic area. They are open to opportunities wherever they arise and are focused on assessing the feasibility of each potential location based on the numbers and what would work best for their business.

"It could be Montego Bay or Ocho Rios, or it could be New York, Mexico or Puerto Rico," Russell said. "We are actively searching for the next step."

Looking towards another decade of service and beyond, Pier One's vision is global with Russel comparing the company's aspirations to renowned international brands like TGIF, McDonald's, and Burger King.

But while they have ambitious goals, they also emphasise the need for careful navigation to avoid any significant missteps.

"You don't want to take two good steps and then all of a sudden you make one very bad one and you have to back-pedal," he explained. "It is about being very methodical."

Russell draws his inspiration from other successful brands like Sandals and Margaritaville, which have grown from their roots in Montego Bay to become global names. And the positive response his family receives when mentioning Pier One to people who have visited Jamaica or heard about it fuels their optimism.

"I have never gone in a room and mentioned Pier One and gotten a mediocre response," he commented. "It has always been good. That means that anywhere we go, we should be able to make a mark and be welcomed with open arms. When we tell people we have been here for almost 40 years, it does change the mood. So I have high hopes for the future and I think we have the team to bring it there."

BY ALEXIS MONTEITH Observer business writer

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