arena, but personal happiness is more important,” says Howard of his $52,000-a-year job. “I’m willing to sacrifice some income for peace of mind. But you never know unless you take a chance.”
It was only natural that Wanda James would one day own a restaurant. An Army brat, the 33-year-old James grew up under the watchful eyes of her single-parent father, and spent countless days eating out. She followed her father’s military path. After graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1986 with a degree in computer science and communications, she served four-and-a-half years as a naval intelligence lieutenant.
Years of military food only heightened her appreciation for restaurants and fine dining. After her tour-of-duty, James moved to New York City and made plans to open a wine bar. But “on one of those cold November days in New York, the sun didn’t shine and I moved to Los Angeles,” recalls James. Still determined to open her wine bar, she continued to craft her business plan, take wine-tasting lessons and speak to a host of wine wholesalers about price points.
Aware that she had to eat before she could drink, she parlayed her experience as a minority recruitment officer in the Navy into a sales consultant position at Unum Insurance in Los Angeles. Two years later in 1992, she became a marketing consultant for Avery Denison, the office products company. But by 1994, she had grown restless. “I wasn’t growing any more and realized that I had gotten all I could get from corporate America,” says James. “I did well in my job, but there came a point when the lack of promotions and limited job responsibilities said ‘little black girl, you’re not going any further.’”
In November 1995, fiance and future business partner, Scott Durrah, prompted her to talk to Elizabeth Spencer, owner of the Jamaican Care in Santa Monica, California. What began as a discussion about the day-to- day operations of running a restaurant turned into an offering. During their conversation, Spencer mentioned that she wanted to sell the restaurant. Having always believed that “luck is when opportunity meets preparedness,” James’ wheels started turning.
The four-year-old Jamaican Cafe had established a solid word-of-mouth reputation for its fine Caribbean cuisine. But its diner-like decor was in need of a makeover, and a full-fledged marketing strategy had to be developed. For three months, James and Durrah, a Beverly Hills property manager, worked on a business plan. “We went through all the numbers to determine where to cut costs and increase profits. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life,” says James.
The plan was two-and-a-half-inches thick and the venture itself required $150,000 in start-up capital. By borrowing from credit cards and family and liquidating their savings, they raised the $50,000 needed for the closing. “Some of our friends and family members were against our decision,” say James. “They kept reminding me that 58% of all restaurants fail within the first year. All my father could see was his daughter, who