"I'm a visionary, I love creating, so I am always looking for opportunities. That's what drives me," were the words repeated frequently by Christopher "Chad" Williams, CEO of Willcom Creatives and Gastronomic Concepts, the parent company for Oceano, a Marketplace, Constant Spring Road, St Andrew-based restaurant he is ready to take to the rest of the Caribbean as he pushes to realise a dream.
"Gastronomic Concepts is bringing a 360-degree experience through culinary skills and through hospitality. What we really want to do is expand what a patron's view of an evening out or a fun time is. I think there is a lot of opportunities in Jamaica to build out that experience and we want to be at the forefront of doing so," he said of the restaurant.
Williams said he decided to go into business for himself, because when he moved back to Jamaica from California in 2009, "I was trying to find a job, but the money I was making in college made me realise that trying to find a job in Jamaica wasn't maybe my best option, so I started an event called 'Inclusive Saturday's' at The Building Night Club with Vybz Kartel," the now incarcerated dancehall entertainer.
Williams said the event was conceptualised to allow middle and upper-class Jamaicans to go into a street dance and feel comfortable and at that time, Vybz Kartel was the main dancehall artist. He said that event continued until Vybz Kartel and business partner Corey Todd's partnership ended in 2011, it was then moved to the Quad nightclub in the heart of New Kingston, St Andrew.
"At that time I always wanted to find something more stable. Events [bring] good money, but [are] very unstable, especially since you are now going into someone else's club or lounge and doing something there. They always had the handle and I always had the blade," he said of his experience hosting events in his early days after college.
Driven by ambition,Williams said he wanted to find a lounge for himself. After a few years of searching, he said he found the right location at Phoenix Avenue in St Andrew called "The Porch" which, while not perfect, was made to work.
"I told myself then that I would use all the proceeds from my events to put into this business. I told myself that I am going to throw everything into it. If it doesn't work, then I can say 'I tried', and if it works, then I told myself that I will build seven businesses in five years."
The concept was proved successful and within six months, the young entrepreneur said he recouped his investment and started to make a profit. That success led him to spend "all my mornings looking for opportunities".
"Every morning I would spend one hour on real estate websites looking for locations and then COVID hit. It hit one year into my venture at The Porch, taking a toll on all facets of my business. My restaurant was affected and as events stopped, that aspect of my business was also affected."
But Williams said he was not daunted. He remained bold in his aspirations and while he called COVID "the perfect storm", opportunity was knocking.
"East Japanese restaurant in Marketplace [St Andrew] which was started 15 years ago, they left and the space became available." It was an opportunity Williams said he was not about to make pass him by especially given the appeal of being in the same space as some of more established restaurant brands where Kingston's middle- and upper-class residents dine daily.
He acknowledged taking the plunge brought risks, especially given that this opportunity was coming in the middle of restrictions to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But Williams said when he realised that most businesses at Marketplace were at the location for at least 15 years, he started to dream of being there for that period of time as well.
"I told myself that if I can hold on, I will be good for the next 15 years. So I made the leap and that's how Gastronomy Concepts came about."
Williams said he and his "very good friend", Shay Stewart, who is also a chef, learning about the opportunity, presented a proposal to the owner of the plaza, who decided to partner with the two young men. The partnership brought additional investments for the venture.
An agreement in hand, Williams set about transforming the space to make it "much more appealing" to customers.
"Kingston has never really seen live cooking, teppanyaki, before," he said of the post-World War II style of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food, as he indicated that was one of the concepts he brought to Oceano.
Oceano has three teppanyaki grills, a sushi bar and the main dining area.
But getting the restaurant up to the level he conceptualised took longer than planned, because of curfews associated with managing the spread of the pandemic. Paying the rent during that time, he admits, was a struggle, though he said, he got some leeway with the timing of the payments.
"Oceano has been open for one year now and has been exceeding expectations," he continued, while highlighting that coming out of COVID restrictions also affected staff recruitment.
But having realised the potential of the business, Williams has now set his eyes on the future.
"We are looking at opening another restaurant in Montego Bay [St James] next year and we also have a membership lounge which we plan to open at the Kingston location this year that is called Republic and we will tie that membership lounge with Oceano anywhere that we go," he expounded.
"The idea is come and have dinner and then walk over [to the Republic lounge] and have drinks."
Patrons of Republic will be able to apply for a yearly membership and with that, will have access to the area for various events. Membership will also be tiered, and members can rent a locker to hold their special drinks so that they will be available when needed.
"I told myself that if the Porch works, I will build seven businesses in a five-year span. That will include the wine bar, the Japanese restaurant, the Republic membership lounge and Fusion — a restaurant/lounge that will be opened in the Dominican Republic next month. The other concepts, he said, will be rolled out soon, while he also noted that he was looking at franchising opportunities.
"I'm always looking for opportunities and a friend of mine who recently bought a company in the Dominican Republic told me to look at the opportunities available in that country, given the size of the population and the spending power there."
The Dominican Republic has a population of 10 million people and a per capita income of US$10,000 — double the per capita income of Jamaica.
"I took a trip over there last year September and looked at the place and realised that they are similar to Jamaica in terms of the kind of hospitality that they desire and I am taking the opportunity to build that out."
He recounted how he was driving in the Dominican Republic on that trip when his friend pointed him to a place that was available for rent. "COVID had caused the old establishment to close down, we looked at it and decided to just go forward with it." Fusion will first open in Santiago, the second biggest city in the Dominican Republic. Another one is being planned for the capital, Santo Domingo.
"I also just came back from Trinidad and Tobago where I looked at a few locations. I also always have my eyes set on Miami to put my unique set of skills into the US."
Reflecting on his entrepreneurial start in high school, Williams recounted: "I remember when I used to go to St George's College [a high school in Kingston], I used to ask my grandmother to buy Jolly Ranchers in Miami for me, which I used to sell out of my school bag. Then I didn't realise that I had selling in me. I also remember when I went to school in the US on a football scholarship, and when I was there, I found out about Craigslist [a US classified advertisement website]. I checked out the site and saw a couch selling for US$20, it was kind of ragged, but I bought it, fixed it up by using a lighter to burn off the frills and cleaned it down, and in that same evening, I resold it for US$140."
Williams said he told his friends about his money-making venture, but they were more interested in "talking about girls and parties".
But now realising his dream, he looks back. "I like when patrons come in on opening day and say 'wow, this place looks like something in Miami'."
In the future, he said he wants to do events at the lounges he operates, while adding that there are other things in the pipeline while declining to say what they are until "the time is right".