Business ownership is really worth the trouble

score Each year while I vacation in Florida, I try to visit a new restaurant for the food and to see how it operates. This year was no different.

I stopped at the Jerk Machine for lunch, which specializes in Jamaican-style food. For around $6, Jerk Machine offers hot lunches of jerked or curried chicken, pork, ox or goat, served with white rice and a salad. The restaurant offers these distinctive dishes in a simple, family-style setting, decorated with colorful maps of Jamaica.

It's a family business started by Desmond and Catherine Malcolm shortly after they left jamaica in 1979 because of deteriorating economic and social conditions. They entered the States with $50. From 1979 to 1989, they worked at odd jobs and saved as much money as they could; by then, they had $45,000. Desmond learned his culinary skills while working in his brother's restaurant in Jamaica and by experimenting. Plus, he and Catherine worked in a number of restaurants while saving the $45,000.

In 1989, they decided to open a restaurant and went to a bank for a $25,000 loan. They met with a Jamaican loan officer who told them "Jamaicans don't eat fast food" and there was "no market" for their concept. They went to the Small Business Administration for help getting guarantee on their loan to better their chances. But the SBA couldn't help without a local bank's approval.

Swimming pools were popular in Florida at that time; they went back to the bank to get a home loan to build a swimming pool and received $25,000. With their savings of $45,000, plus the $25,000, they opened their first Jerk Machine in a neighborhood with a large population of Jamaican immigrants.

I asked Catherine if racial discrimination had any role in the business problems. "I don't think we've ever felt that," she said, "Whether it was there or not, it wasn't my problem. My problem was getting the loan. You know, we're Jamaicans, and to us, character is more important than race."

When the first Jerk Machine opened, the Malcoms had to use the receipts of the first day's sales [they had sold out after a few hours] to buy food for the next day and put a down payment of a freezer they needed.

They had no working capital, and "this happened for weeks. We'd run out of food after four or more hours and then need to use our receipts to buy more food and supplies for the next day," Desmond said. In those first few years, they did catering to earn more money to keep going.

They went back for another pool loan, plus a second mortgage to open another shop in the next community.

This scenario continued through four more pool loans; six Jerk Machines in South Florida employ 85. Malcolm says they still don't have a swimming pool.

The chain has enhanced its reputation. The Malcolms hope to spur further growth through selling sauces and spiced juices called "Jammy Juice." They are working to launch these labels in supermarket chain stores.

In 1998, they finally obtained the first SBA-guaranteed bank loan through the help of Nancy Young, director of Small Business Development Center at Florida Atlantic University. "We've worked ourselves into the ground, but our vision kept us going," Malcolm said.

Not bad for couple who immigrated with $50 and the clothes in a suitcase. It's always great to hear the stories of how people put their lives on the line to build a business. It means long hours and lots of risk, but it's a fulfilling job.

Bill Bryan is a counselor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives. SCORE offers counseling, workshops and seminars on small business operations. You can reach Bryan through SCORE, 515 N Court St. 815-962-0122, for information and appointments.

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