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An interview with the owner of Trotters Restaurant, located in St. Clair, Trinidad.
Q. What year did you attend Fatima?
A. I entered in 1973 and left in 1978. I was in Group Three and had some real adventurous boys in my class. From Group Two I remember the names Stephen Joseph, Peter Gales, Eugene Lee, Richard Hyatali, Peter Knox, Noel Ho, Dexter Hosein, Ruthven Jack.
Q. What were your memories of Fatima?
A. Good memories – being able to go on the football and cricket field every afternoon after school. It was one of the greatest memories that I have. Just the other day I was talking to Harry (Ramdass) about the lunchtime cricket league.
Of course we would sometimes get into trouble – it wasn’t too bad, for example detention with Alloysius Joseph.
Q. Anything else?
A. Great memories. The school was great. Mr. Pantin, the Principal and the teachers. They left a mark on you and you look forward to seeing them whenever you do see them. They really helped the formative years in your life. They were the ones that made the impact. They taught you right from wrong.
Q. Have you been able to maintain friendships with your peers since school?
A. I still see a lot of boys especially at Trotters or out. I go every year to the FOBA Men Who Can Cook event every year so I see a lot of people there. Not just those who went during our years but some who went before and the years after me. I still see a few of them on the cricket field, the Oval tournament for football.
Q. Did you go to university after Fatima?
A. I went to the University of Florida and studied Building Construction, came back to Trinidad in 1983 and spent 4 years working in construction with Beaver Construction. Then I went to live in the US from 1987 for 11 years. I spent 10 of those years in Los Angeles and ended up in the restaurant business at a restaurant my father-in-law opened. That’s how I got involved in the restaurant business – it fell into my lap. My wife and I decided to go out there and she was going to be the eyes and ears in the restaurant and I was going to work in construction but one thing led to another and both of us ended up in the restaurant. I ran the business for 10 years until 1998 and we came home in 1999.
Q. Why did you come back?
A. We lost our lease and we decided ok that’s it, time was up. I called my father in law and he said ‘Things are better in Trinidad, come back’, so that’s when we returned home in 1999. I bought my brother-in-law’s Bagel Shop in town and I ran it for about a year and a half before I sold it. I worked at PriceSmart for a short time when they opened in Chaguanas.
Then my brother-in-law wanted to do a Sports Bar and he roped me into this process. He said he wanted me to be his partner to open a restaurant and a sports bar. He knew, of course, that it was up my alley and that I had the food background and that’s how we opened Trotters in 2001. I helped build it in the beginning and since then we have been managing it. We have over the years added other restaurants: Prime, Buzo and now Buzo Barbados. My wife also has 3 Panini Cafés at WestMall, Ellerslie and MovieTowne.
Q. What is your typical day like?
A. I start my day late because I finish late. I start my day about 10.00am and go till 1.00am. At 10.00am I go from one thing to another – in the office, in the restaurant, a sports event, champion’s league. Then I take home a box of work every night and sit in front of the TV and just do paperwork and catch up on stuff.
Q. With such a heavy workload how have you been able to mesh family life and work?
A. The restaurant business is tough. The first 10 years in LA was difficult because I had small kids at the time. Those days we offered both lunch and dinner and I worked a lot more hours than I do now. But Sundays was always an important family day for me. Even if I had to work on a Sunday it was very quick so that I could spend the rest of the day with my wife and children and do something. Even now, every Sunday we go over to visit family – I will come to Trotters in the morning, since it’s the English Premier League then NFL, then I will go to my mother in law for the rest of the day for family time.
Q. How big is your family?
A. I have a boy and a girl. A 26 year old son who lives in Trinidad and works with us and a 24 year old daughter who lives and works in Boston.
Q. Any hobbies?
A. Cricket and football. I still play cricket in the savannah. Up to a few years ago we played cricket against Fatima and Harry (Ramdass) was still playing. He played with FOBA every year and I played with Trisly – the Syrian Lebanese boys in Trinidad. We have a team that plays together. David Hadeed who is a Fatima boy plays with us and a few St Mary’s boys. I also play football in the Oval Tournament.
Q. What sport did you play at Fatima
A. The same, cricket and football.
Q. What team do you follow now?
A. Cricket – obviously West Indies. Football – Aston Villa, who are bottom of the league unfortunately. I follow Aston Villa because of Dwight Yorke. When I was younger, I supported Liverpool. In 1989 when Dwight went to Aston Villa I started supported them and stayed with them ever since.
Q. At Fatima any teachers really stood out for you?
A. Harry (Mr. Ramdass), Mr. Pantin and Ms. Jeannette Zakour. Mr. De Silva, who taught me Spanish, and Mr. Francis John, who taught me sciences.
Q. What about the priests?
A. Fr. Brett, with his bushy eyebrows. Fr. Girod for Form 1 & 2. Fr. Brett for an old priest, commanded respect and was very knowledgeable. He didn’t teach many classes but for the classes he did with us we needed to watch our “P’s & Q’s” around him. He was very sharp.
Q. Did Fatima contribute to making you where you are today? What were the lessons if so?
A. Pride, integrity and always doing the right things in life.
Q. I am a long-time patron of your restaurant and I think Trotters has a reputation of being one of the longest running restaurants that has been able to maintain a high standard, not only in food but much more importantly in service. I want to commend you on that, but how have you achieved this?
A. When you hire you try to teach and to instill your ideals and your goals. The key in hiring our staff is that I don’t want you to just come and work here. When you work here I want you to get a better quality of life. The harder and better you work, the better your quality of life will be. To attest to that, when we opened Trotters in 2001 we had 5 people who had cars, including me and my partner Peter. Now, we have a parking problem as so many of our staff can now afford cars.
Q. Actually it’s so funny that you say that. About 2 weeks after my last visit to Trotters I was driving behind the waiter who served me, an employee here for a very long time, and I remember thinking ‘wow, it’s not often you see a waiter driving a brand new car’. So I guess I can testify to your statement.
A. You know the key is I tell them ‘you are a business within a business’. You are selling food and service and if you sell your food and service good, your customers will like you and give you a good tip and you make money out of that. And most of them have done well and we can track who does what. You can see the ones that do exceptionally well and the ones that do marginal and we know it from their work ethic. The parameters are broad – there are fellas who are accustomed – we can see from their tips how well they do. And there are ones who go along, get by and are comfortable – they are contented for lack of a better word. So we’ll see that they won’t make as much as the others. The hustlers – they push, they go the extra mile and this business is all about, as my wife would say, ‘speed’.
Q. You have been able to retain staff longer than any other business in that way?
A. We have people here from the beginning. What has happened over the years is that we have promoted from within. My GM started off as a bartender, two of my dining room managers – one was a cashier and one was a waitress. One of our senior supervisors started as a dishwasher and he ended up in the dining room. Once they have that drive we give them the opportunity.
We always believe in having the best product. In the restaurant business we can take great ingredients and make a great product but we cannot take bad ingredients to make great product but you can take great ingredients and make a bad product. You understand, so that great ingredients can go both ways whereas if you start with bad ingredients you can only go one way. And that’s what we learnt in LA, from the 10 years we lived in LA we were exposed to a lot of good products from a lot of good restaurants.
My wife and I are ‘foodies’, we like to go out and eat. When we go to the US, England and wherever we go out to restaurants, we learn and see products and we see many dishes – we say I like that dish, let’s create it. So a lot of the dishes that we have at Trotters are dishes we have seen through our course of eating at restaurants worldwide. Taking some of the local things and foreign things, we create our own thing.
Q. Did the lessons at Fatima help in any way with that philosophy?
A. Absolutely, if you work hard you will succeed. It comes back again to ‘doing the right thing’, and that’s what I learnt a lot from Mr. Pantin as a Principal. He had the morals and the values to teach people right from wrong – do the right thing you’ll be fine, do the wrong thing will get you into trouble.
Q. Is Trotters modeled after any business local or foreign? How did you come across the concept?
A. The concept for Trotters Sports Bar originated in the US. My brother in law and I liked sports, in particular American Football, so we used to move around to different sports bars to watch games. When he first pitched the idea to me for us to do our own bar I recalled being in England in 1996 and going to a Sports bar in London called Football-Football to watch England play Scotland in the Euro UEFA. There was memorabilia on the walls, and huge screens, and I said to my brother and friends who were there that ‘I would love to open a place like this one day where I could come and watch all the premier league games at the same time’.
For the last few years, especially on the last day of the season, I have been able to transmit 8 or 9 of the 10 games that’s were being played at the same time through my satellites and cable channels. That’s some of the work I do every year as upgrades – I look for ways of getting feeds for new channels. When you come and watch Champion’s League Football here I will typically have 4 or 5 games running at the same time. For NFL football I have all the games on at the same time. I come on a Sunday and I set up the EPL games on the screens, lime for a while and watch some games, run around to do my thing and come back to set up the NFL Football for another group. I make sure I have all the games, even if I’m away, so I’ll call the restaurant and I’ll guide them through the setup. Fourteen years later and it has become my love and a passion, I enjoy it.
Q. Famous persons passing through the restaurant? Any stand outs, fondest memories or strangest memories?
A. I always have Brian and Dwight over whenever they are in town. I’ve had the West Indian cricketers – Vivian Richards, Michael Holding and Colin Croft come all the time. I am also very friendly with Philo Wallace who comes in all the time and plays cricket with me as well.
All the footballers, the 2006 boys such as Stern John, Brent Sancho, Shaka, etc.
I have had some internationals. I have had the 2003 Aussies cricket team for a dinner upstairs led by Steve Waugh. I got friendly with Lehman and McGill at the time. The South Africans are a nice bunch of guys – they have came through a few times.
In California when I had the restaurant I met a lot of personalities, a lot of famous people. Vince Vaughn from the movie ‘Wedding Crashers’, used to come by all the time as he was friends with a waiter who used to work for me. We had a dish on our menu called Baba Ghanoush – an Arabic dish (we were an Arabic restaurant) – that is made with eggplant and sesame sauce. If you remember the movie, Owen Wilson called Vince Vaughan ‘Baba Ghanoush’ in it. Kasey Casem, Steven Seagal – he was very friendly. I actually even cooked Steven Seagal’s Thanksgiving turkey for him one year. Selma Hayek also came in.
Q. What was the name of your restaurant?
A. Al Amir. A Lebanese restaurant my father-in-law had financed with two Lebanese guys from London. In the movie ‘Demolition Man’ you can see a green triangular pyramid in the courtyard – a movie scene was actually filmed in the courtyard. I even closed the restaurant one time for a shoot for Melrose Place. There were actually two buildings side-by-side with a million square feet of office space. Each building was 500 thousand square feet of office space with over five floors each with 100 thousand square feet – a huge office building. We used to get a lot of business from the entertainment and movie people who used to work there. There were a lot of people in the buildings.
Anytime the San Francisco Giants were playing the Dodgers in LA, Barry Bonds was in my restaurant having lunch with a friend who used to work in the building. I sometimes reminisce and say I should have gotten him to sign a baseball, but I gave the celebrities their space. I wanted them to be comfortable as I still do now.
Q. What advice would you give to a young student at Fatima thinking about their career or future?
A. Follow your dreams. Go on, work hard. I got by in Fatima, I could have done better especially at O’ Levels. I played the fool. Now I think about it years later, I should have worked harder. So work harder, get your grades and follow your dreams.
Q. What do you feel about Fatima, how it’s progressed?
A. I still have a high regard for Fatima. When I talk to parents today who have their sons there they talk about how Father Gregory has transformed the school over the last few years; he has done well. My son went to St Mary’s for 3 years because his cousins went to St Mary’s, even though I of course wanted him to go to Fatima. When things weren’t going well there I sent him to the International School. But I have a lot of cousins who have their boys at Fatima. I have a brother who has his son at Fatima in Form 2 now and another brother who has his son at St Mary’s. But my brothers and I all went Fatima – the three of us.
Q. Were you all in the same year?
A. Shawn entered in 1979 and Gordon in 1976. When I went to university in 1979 he came up with my parents to go with me to Gainesville – on the way back down they stopped off at a Military academy and they asked him “Do you want to stay here?” and he said “Yes, I’ll stay”, so he ended up staying. Now he lives back here.
Q. Do you have any recommendations to the association as to what benefit you would appreciate as an alum?
A. One of the things would be the ability to network with the people from my year. A way to make connections with the alumni from my group – avenues to get in touch with each other.
Q. Do you have any suggestions that come to mind?
A. A profile of each person with contact details like email address, twitter account, where you studied and what you graduated in, where you live, who you work for and other means of contact like telephone numbers. This database should be updated regularly (every few years) as done by schools abroad. For example, I could go on my year and find other people I went to school with and be able to contact them. I haven’t seen my classmate Colin Parris for example in donkey years. I know that he was working IBM way back when. Some men may not even know that I am back in Trinidad.
Q. I think there is a great opportunity for FOBA to get a medical and pension plan for alumni who run their own small businesses or work on their own. What do you think about something like that?
A. That could work well for individuals who would like to have the capability to piggy back on such a plan.
Q. In terms of your affiliation with FOBA do you see where the Association can also look at the family relationships of the alumni to market items which can provide a revenue stream but also encourage the support from a ‘Fatima family’? Example women’s and children’s tees and polos which have appropriate graphics to indicate the relationship with a Fatima alum.
A. Like ‘I am the wife of a Fatima Old Boy” graphic. Maybe we could do a Family Day.
Q. Any closing words of wisdom or remarks?
A. A job well done always to the Fatima Old Boys Association. Without them, Fatima would be really missing a piece of their puzzle. Ever since I came back in 1999 and got back friendly with Roger D’Abadie, who was the main stalwart in the association then, they have kept pushing on. Kudos to the boys who every year have been doing things to keep the school up to mark. I really respect them who devote their time to that. It’s good that you do these things. The Association is really raising funds and helping the school.