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Jearlean John, CEO of the Pizza Boys group of 65 food stores.

Photo: Dilip Singh

BY SANDRA CHOUTHI

Pizza. Chicken. Chinese. Coffee. Cheesecake. Throw into that mix, Captain D’s Seafood. That’s the latest addition to the Pizza Boys group of companies of 65 restaurants.

The American fast-casual seafood restaurant will open at Pointe-a-Pierre on January 9, 2006. The Pizza Boys group has options for 17 Captain D’s restaurants in T&T.

Pizza Boys group’s CEO, Jearlean John, said it wanted to be the first seafood franchise restaurant to open in Trinidad, but a competitor got the better of its plans.

“There’s one who got in a little ahead of us, but we think we are better,” said John, in an interview at Pizza Boys’ head office at Boundary Road, San Juan, on Tuesday.

Though not identifying the restaurant by name, John was referring to Long John Silver’s opening at Gulf City, La Romaine, earlier this month. Long John Silver is a franchise of Prestige Holdings Ltd.

Marketing manager Maria Manmohan sat in on the interview. Sitting in one of the 22 black leather high-back chairs in the glass-enclosed boardroom on the third floor, John said, “We’re always strategising, always trying to see what else the market needs, and that was an obvious adjunct to what we now have.”

Asked why the group has not chosen to develop local cuisine, John said Rituals and Donut Boys are both local concepts, and Captain D’s was chosen to add to that “overall family experience” the group wants to promote.

Why choose Pointe-a-Pierre to open Captain D’s?

“In the north stores, you have a concentrated market, you’re locked into one or two areas, whereas in Pointe-a-Pierre, it gives you a spread that you don’t enjoy in Port-of-Spain,” John said. “And our location kind of gives us a competitive advantage because we’re the only restaurant in that location.”

John said the time had come to refurbish Pizza Boys in Tropical Plaza at Pointe-Pierre, but then management thought of promoting its food mall concept where a family can have as many as eight choices when dining out.

“We felt that with the whole development of the country, you’re seeing now balanced development, you want to ensure you’re a part of that, even in terms of how people socialise and are entertained,” John said.

“We are trying to satisfy that family experience. We don’t want to be arrogant and think they only want one thing, either chicken or pizza.”

Let’s see, what do I feel like eating this evening: a vegetarian pizza or blackened chicken salad?

She calls it multi-branding: several food stores owned by the same company in one floor space.

They have done it in Chaguanas, Sangre Grande, Maraval, Glencoe, Tobago, Grand Bazaar and Pt Fortin. Four more are planned in 2006.

Regarding Rituals Coffee House in particular, John said, “Sometimes Trinidadians are a little too raucous and loud and Rituals creates that ambiance, and tones it down.”

The group is growing, but John said she does not believe in spending a great deal of money on marketing. She prefers to spend money on training, cleanliness and improving workers’ salaries and benefits.

Entry-level employees at Rituals Coffee House are paid 50 per cent above minimum wage, putting them in the $15 an hour category, while those at Vie de France earn about 20 per cent above minimum wage, putting them in the $11 an hour category, she said.

Explaining the disparity, John said the group wants its Rituals’ customers, in particular, to be treated more like friends and offers a more attractive renumeration package to encourage its employees to go that extra mile.

John is wary of customers’ bad experiences spreading by word-of-mouth like wild fire—which she called a very effective communication system in T&T.

“I’m always focusing on what the customer sees, what the customer wants to see. People must believe in what they are eating. We must never break that contract with the customer. So, I’m always on their backs in terms of raising that bar,” John said.

Cleanliness of all the food stores accounts for about ten per cent of the group’s expenses, she said.

She led her guests to a huge training room—pale gray desks, black, high-back chairs, a writing board—big enough for about 60 people.

“We have an effective appraisal system where every three months, we appraise 1,000 employees,” said John, checking her cellphone as it rang without missing a beat. For the rest of the interview, she put the phone on vibrate.

“Workers are appraised on attitude, aptitude, the possibility for fast-tracking. We have a spot-the-star programme.”

John said Pizza Boys’ policy regarding customers is that everyone who walks into a food store is managed. The Pizza Boys group calls it, “Did we get you at hello programme: “Hello, how can I help you? Are you being served?”

John evaded all talk of figures, preferring to say only that the group makes plenty money, that the group’s flagship is Pizza Boys, and that she prefers “the chairman,” as she calls owner Mario Sabga-Aboud, be the one to say how much the group paid for the Captain D’s franchise.

Speaking on Tuesday from the the Pointe-a-Pierre outlet, Sabga-Aboud said he’s signed a three-store agreement with Captain D’s management: the next two stores will open at Grand Bazaar in May and at Glencoe in June.

It costs the group about $3 million to open each store.

As far as John is concerned, the group is growing as are its profits.

“Year-on-year sales have been improving. It is really exciting for me to see a sort of maturing brand,” John said.

“Glencoe food mall opened in November 2004. We opened in Store Bay, Tobago. That was a multi-branding, Church’s and Pizza Boys. We opened a number of Rituals, lots of Rituals, maybe ten, of which West Mall does the best, followed by Piarco and Trincity.”

She declined to say how much the group spent on expansion in 2005, citing kidnappers and the competitive business she’s in.

“We are a significant company in T&T. We can always make more money, but I must say our stores are performing well,” John said.

She said the group has managed to shave about ten per cent off its food costs through “controls,” having an audit team daily account for their stock.

“Based on our system of check out, we can track anything to do with food and sales. So we look at these things like a hawk. We look at cash management. We are very involved in cash management,” she said.

Through its 24-hour, state-of-the-art monitoring system at all its food outlets, John said Pizza Boys’ management can tell which outlet has long lines, if a cashier is stealing from the till or if a customer loses a purse. They can tell, too, if an employee has taken a donut or a piece of chicken and hid it in the washroom or in the garbage can.

Employees are allowed discounted meals, she said, but a manager must use his or her swipe card and the transaction must be done over the counter.

John did mention, though, the War Room, in which she and Sabga-Aboud trash out their differences, sometimes very loudly, on Tuesdays.

Asked why Pizza Boys was expanding now having gone through a similar experience in the 1980s and then being forced to contract when the economy declined, John said, “Mario Sabga-Aboud is an entrepreneur, who, without being sacriligous, I’d say if he was born in America, would have been as celebrated as Jack Welch (management guru). He is extraordinary.

“Norman, his brother, is the financial whiz and IT person. Mario is the visionary. He goes out there. He sees. And he builds. We make a great team. What I do is finesse it. What I bring is the discipline.”

 

 

 

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