Shakers mixing life and work
BUSINESS PARTNERS WESLEY GITTENS, 46, AND WIFE AMY, 43, are certainly mixing things up a bit in Barbados.
The duo, who operates the Shakers Bar & Grill, said they were constantly looking for new ways of doing business so they could stay relevant, attract new customers and grow their operations.
With more than 25 years of experience in the hospitality industry, the Barbadian-born decided to open a rum shop “with a twist” on the island after meeting his wife in the United States where he lived and worked for many years.
“From day one it was like a little niche; people wanted good food but didn’t want to have to pay the ridiculous prices they had out there before the recession. So we kind of fill that void,” said the chef.
Five years ago they opened the Brown’s Gap, Rockley, Christ Church establishment selling mostly rum and other alcoholic beverages and a little fish and shrimp on the side.
However, about two-and-a-half years later they managed to expand the operations, offering more dishes on the nightly menu, and quickly made a name for themselves. And although Shakers is thought of by many as a family-type restaurant, the owners said they still considered it “an upscale rum shop”.
They currently employ six people. Wesley, who is known by many as simply “Wes” said one of the areas they paid close attention to was employee development. In fact, they said they gave their employees “power”.
This, they said, was one way of ensuring that customers stayed satisfied while employees got the opportunity to develop their leadership skills.
“We tell our staff don’t ever tell a customer ‘no, we can’t do this or that’ or ‘we have to speak to management’. I don’t like that. One of the things we tell our staff is that they are empowered to do whatever, once it is reasonable. If they make a mistake or a bad decision, we work out what we can do the next time,” he explained.
“I used to work at a hotel here and I found that a lot of people there were so scared to do something because they were afraid that the boss won’t like it or the manager won’t like it and they will get in trouble for it. We found [the same] with our staff a little at first and we tell them ‘you go on and make your decision’,” added Amy.
The parents of two said when they visit other countries they would always look “for little things that could fit into our little environment”. Wine, they said, was becoming very popular.
“Rum, beer and then wine are probably the most of what we sell now. People come out now and they want to drink a glass-and-a-half of whatever it is. They don’t want to pay for a whole glass so we can give them a half-glass of wine; so they can basically drink what they want and pay for it,” added Wes.
They readily admitted that operating a business as a couple was not an easy task. “It is a divorce every day,” quipped Wes. “We make up and we move on, though.”
They would have experienced a number of changes over the years. Wes said they would have seen a spike in business following the start of the recession because people who would usually visit the bigger and more expensive restaurants were now frequenting smaller, more affordable establishment such as his.
Shakers serves “a good mix” of locals and tourists. And the busiest period runs from January to March.
However, getting to the stage where they say they are comfortable did not happen overnight and was not all smooth sailing. The biggest challenge, they agreed, was getting the business started.
“Our biggest challenge was getting the place built and then going through the bureaucracy and getting the permit. There was a lot of running around, it gets you discouraged. At the end of the day you don’t know who to talk to,” said Wes.
“It was more like a trial and error situation on us. You will build this way and then you hear ‘oh no, you can’t do that’. There was a lot of that!”
Another challenge they overcame was trying to get the support of big manufacturing companies. They were told their business was “not going to be busy enough”.
“We wanted them to give us their price list and tell us what they have. We didn’t know where to get things from. We had to ask around a lot and they didn’t want to drop a price list for us. But once that start to turn and a buzz got out there, their salespeople started knocking at our door,” said Amy.
Finding the desired staff was also one of the early challenges. They said they “went through hiring quite a few people” before getting the staff they truly needed.
The Gittenses said when they first started there was not a lot of competition “but as time went on, we saw a lot of other little places popping up with the same vibe on the coast”.
However, they said what differentiated them from the competition was that customer service and consistency in the quality and taste of the food remained paramount.
They boast a strong local base of customers, and tourists were “the icing on the cake”.
And they remained positive that the business environment in Barbados would improve. The couple said they would love to see more entrepreneurship being taught in schools.
The next thing on the menu for Shakers will be lunch.
“We might go down that avenue. It would be on a more to-go basis,” said Amy.
Small businesses are the ones pushing the economies in a lot of small islands now,” said Wes.