Cooking up profits

Jamaican Jerk Hut thrives in selling West Indian fare

Growing up in Jamaica, Nicola Shirley, 31, obtained first-hand experience in cooking and running a business by working at her parents’ side in their family-run restaurant. When she came to the U.S. in 1983, however, she says she never set out to be a restaurateur. Upon her arrival, she got a job washing dishes at a restaurant in Philadelphia. She gradually worked her way up to a cooking position. In the late 1980s, she sought the management track and went to school to study hotel management.

At the same time, her love of cooking and the growing popularity of West Indian cuisine drew her back to the food of her homeland. In 1989, she started a small business, Araby Catering, that occupied her off-hours. In 1991, she began working for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts. A student of sign language, Shirley established a working relationship with the Theatre for the Deaf, and that connection landed her catering jobs with such high-profile clients as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The successes of those made it clear that there was potential for a business.

In 1994, at age 25, Shirley opened Jamaican Jerk Hut for business. It was no easy task. She borrowed money from loved ones and enlisted their help to clean and decorate the modest establishment. She admits, “I didn’t realize how much money it takes to get started. Capital was definitely my biggest challenge in the beginning. It really takes about $50,000.” A family friend gave her about $15,000, and several other friends and relatives lent money.

Shirley diligently put all the restaurant’s money back into the business to avoid cash flow shortages. After the first year, revenues were approximately $100,000. Growth has been steady. Today revenues are about $500,000, and she has seven full-time employees.

Bigger than the issue of money, says Shirley, is the matter of image. She explains that “although West Indian food is very popular now, we’re still struggling to get people to respect it as a quality cuisine option along with Italian food or anything else.” That perception makes hiring seasoned professionals challenging. “I don’t want to stay small. I want to be a quality restaurant, around for the long haul. That means I have to have good people and good cooks who understand the business.”

Shirley has appeared on the Discovery Channel’s Home Matters show, does demonstrations at food expos and is writing a book and commentary on the history of West Indian cuisine.

The restaurant also has a small line of jerk products called JaHut, which are under limited distribution, but Shirley is working to get her products in regional supermarkets and may provide access via a Website. Like its spicy culinary fare, Jamaican Jerk Hut is just heating up.

The Jamaican Jerk Hut, 1436 South St., Philadelphia, PA 19146; 215-848-1083

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