On Tuesday, March 23, Tourism Linkages Network (TLN), in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism, the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), and Taste Jamaica, hosted a webinar “Standing Out from the Crowd: Developing a Destination Restaurant Experience.”
Food is not just a biological need but an integral part of tourism. Compared to 20 years ago, modern travellers are savvier, more informed, and crave more cultural experiences, including food. Food tourism has had an indelible effect on countries like France, Italy, Mexico, US states like California, and cities like Toronto, London, Bilbao, and New York City. Exceptional dining experiences are entrenched in travel memories. Food is so powerful that a single meal can make or break a vacation. It's this understanding that led TLN to engage the principals of Stush in the Bush, Summerhouse, Miss T's Kitchen, and Doctor Bird Services to steer the conversation and share the best practices that have put their respective businesses on the map.
Kicking things off was Lisa Binns, who, with her husband, Christopher, has conceptualised the island's finest plant-based dining experience — Stush in the Bush. To say that the Binnses' mission of getting us to eat our vegetables has been successful would be prosaic. They have transformed so many minds and inspired many chefs about the versatility of local produce, and have expanded what is considered Jamaican cuisine. The Stush in the Bush experience is seven courses over four hours. It starts with an “earth walk” where Christopher allows guests to connect with the land and show where some of the products they will eat that day came from. This is literal farm to table.
Stush in the Bush's impact is far-reaching. The dining experience has been praised in numerous publications and blogs, including Condé Nast Traveler, Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, Lonely Planet, The Telegraph, and Modern Farmer. And lauded many times at the stellar Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards.
The Binnses have built a destination (if you're local, you're trekking to get there) dining experience based on their personalities and a simple philosophy — respect the land.
Next was the woman behind Miss T's Kitchen, Anna-Kay Tomlinson, whose brand has been built on providing guests with an “authentic Jamaican experience”. At Miss T's, guests are served oxtail in mini Dutch pots atop individual coal stoves and can have their curried got in an old-timey “shet pan”. Tomlinson leans heavily into the parts of our culture that are often seen as gritty or given no second thought. Think: Sheets of zinc, a carnival of colours, repurposed wood, calabash gourds, and hand-painted tables. You get the drift. Tomlinson's family calls her the “road trip queen”. She has explored every corner of our beautiful country to get inspiration for her menu, décor, and experience. Customer service is at the core. Fun fact: A former diner at Miss T's noted in the live stream comments section that Tomlinson dropped him back to his hotel after his meal. Memorable, indeed.
Adrien and Danielle Lemaire have quickly turned their Doctor Bird Services business into one of the most sought-after on the island. From offering luxury accommodations to bespoke experiences, the Lemaires will become the region's answer to global luxury powerhouse Quintessentially. Adrien spoke passionately about the brand's understanding of their clients' needs and dedication to exceeding them.
For example, a couple's wedding anniversary trip to Santorini was postponed by the pandemic. So, Doctor Bord Services brought Greece to Jamaica. The event wasn't just a placeholder until the couple could travel again. It was a stand-alone experience that will forever be etched in their minds. Today, many travellers want turnkey services, unique accommodations with a focus on sustainability, the ability to interact with the community, gourmet food, and thoughtful, personalised touches. Doctor Bird Services has all those in spades.
From their first café Ciao Bella opened in 1996, the Rousseau sisters have built a personal brand that is highly respected and beloved. Whatever they do, you know it will be executed to the highest standard, and you'll walk away dreaming of the subsequent encounter with them. Now the sisters, Michelle and Suzanne, operate Summerhouse in Harmony Hall. During the webinar, Michelle shared some of their core beliefs and the tools that made them not only successful but have had staying power for close to three decades. It was a master class in branding.
Every point was worthy of jotting down. However, when Michelle mentioned storytelling, Thursday Food almost ran out of ink. The world's best brands have a strong narrative. At Summerhouse, every touchpoint — whether it's the ceramic plates, the font on the menu, or cocktail programme — has a story. You can see the Rousseau sisters' personalities in everything. Michelle, too, spoke about the importance of reinvention, evolving Jamaican cuisine, and the importance of product development.
Post-presentations, there was a Q&A session. Those watching the live stream had the opportunity to ask the panellists their thoughts, advice, and inspiration tips. Altogether, it was a great way to spend over two hours learning and seeing just how multi-faceted the tourism industry is.
In his opening greeting, Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett noted that the webinar was part of an enormous undertaking to “inform and refresh the minds” of the people involved in the industry. The pandemic has walloped us. But our Jamaican resolve won't allow the tourism industry to be decimated. According to the IMF, tourism-dependent economies “are not expected to recover to 2019 levels until 2023”. However, there's hope. Recently published data from a Canadian consumer panel revealed that “lockdowns have made people want to travel more”, with 78% of those surveyed ready to book an international getaway. According to the IMF, leisure, not business, travel will “lead the comeback in the tourism and travel sector”. And at the centre of leisure travel is food. So as we embrace our new reality and woo more conscious travellers, the island's restaurants must stand out from the crowd.