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From cartman to food entrepreneur - Donna’s owner Karl Gordon eyes franchise for growth

Published:Thursday | August 16, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Karl Gordon, CEO of Donna's Restaurant chain in South Florida.

Karl Gordon's introduction to business was at Coronation Market in downtown Kingston, where he once transported goods for vendors and shoppers for a fee.

Now the Trelawny-born businessman, 52, with operations in Jamaica and the United States, has opened an 11th restaurant in the Donna's Caribbean Restaurant chain in South Florida.

His next move is to sell franchises to grow the chain beyond Florida in a planned expansion in the United States and into other countries.

It might sound like the classical rags to riches story, but it is anything but a fairy tale.

With each store averaging gross monthly sales of more than US$150,000, Gordon told the Financial Gleaner that it takes careful, hands-on management every day to shave costs and avoid expensive mistakes to keep the growing enterprise profitable.

"Management has to be very tight. You only make a profit on pennies, so it is the volume of business you do which counts," he said, regarding the small profit margins in the food business.

Gordon has his eyes set on the bigger profits that can come from franchising and says he is already in talks with persons who have expressed an interest to set up Donna's Restaurants in New York and Atlanta, as well as in Canada and parts of Europe.

As for the South Florida build-out, Gordon would not disclose the cost of the expansion, but said a mixture of profits and loans were utilised to finance it. He has plans to open three more locations in the state with stores planned for Miami Beach, Deerfield Beach and Orlando by the end of next year, capping the number of Florida locations at 14.

Quiet start

The US business is in addition to a restaurant Gordon operates in his hometown of Falmouth in Jamaica. Once called Nazz, it, too, is now a Donna's eatery following its rebranding in 2016. Donna's in South Florida has operated for 22 years. The chain is named for Gordon's ex-wife and business partner.

The start-up of the business was inauspicious, as it often is with first-time entrepreneurs seeking to live a dream or build a business to make ends meet.

After two north coast hotel waitering jobs in Jamaica and some years on cruise liners, the then 22-year-old Gordon set his sights on Miami, Florida, in 1989, and did odd jobs for a while. He was a delivery man, then sales assistant, tried acting, and washed pots and dishes before utilising the culinary skills he picked up working as a waiter to land jobs as a prep cook, cook and then head cook in Miami restaurants.

In 1996, Gordon teamed up with his then wife, Donna, pitched in their savings and loans from friends and relatives to start the business that began with cooking and delivering to friends and family from home. Two decades later, he is now owner, founder and CEO of a business with 150 employees and room to grow.

In June, Donna's Caribbean Restaurant opened its first drive-thru location in Miami Gardens, having already dotted especially the Broward County landscape with several branches of the eatery that is well-known among Jamaican and other Caribbean communities in South Florida.

Utilising the niche market

Such is its popularity that Donna's does little advertising but is sought out by Caribbean people and their friends yearning for a taste of home.

"Jamaican food is a niche market becoming an exotic market, so there are always Caribbean people who will seek out and be loyal to authentic Jamaican cuisine. What we have to do is ensure that we maintain that real taste of home. The people will find you," Gordon said.

Gordon says he recruits and promotes staff with an eye on customer service, professionalism and loyalty to the business.

But standardisation, one of the keys to benefiting from economies of scale and maintaining high standards across the stores as the business expands, remains a challenge. This is especially so, given what the restaurateur describes as the individual cooking styles and talents among Jamaican chefs who all have their own variations for cooking the same meals.

"We have managed to develop a distinctive Donna's taste based on the type and portioning of our natural seasoning, herbs and spices. We also train our cooks," Gordon added. He pointed out that much of the meal inputs, such as seasoning, ground provision and vegetables, are sourced from Jamaica through distributors, including Lasco and GraceKennedy.

Apart from growing the number of stores into new substantial pockets of Caribbean communities, Donna's is said to do good events-driven business. Here Gordon points out that he has to be careful, as there is a high level of wastage if the events are poorly promoted and have low attendance.

"So careful planning, and tight management of stock, and data analysis are important to constantly advise you," he said.

The business initially built on delivery is selective about that particular revenue stream. In addition to what is said to be a thriving catering operation, deliveries are channelled through services such as Uber Eats and Door Dash.

Individual deliveries and phone-in orders for pickup are problematic in this particular niche market, Gordon noted.