Interview with Kenneth Delano Bowe, Sr., Creator & Chief Chillologist™
It’s Sunday evening at the Chat ‘N’ Chill® Bar & Grill and as the big pig turns on a spit grill, vacationers anchor their boats on Stocking Island Beach, Exuma, to partake in a new island ritual. Every Sunday for the past five years crowds gather by the hundreds for a pig roast at Kenneth Bowe’s island retreat.
To outsiders, the trendy eatery seems a strange mix of retirees and spring breakers, stockbrokers and co-eds, coexisting and celebrating island living at its best. For Exuma entrepreneur Bowe, Chat ‘N’ Chill® represents a simple plan.
“People think of an island and they think of something simple…beach, sun, native huts. Hollywood put that out there, why should they make all of the money from it?”
In the mid 1990s, Bowe a former financial analyst, built a wooden bar on stilts on a section of his 8.93-acre property on Stocking Island. The goal: to create a business in his native Exuma catering to baby boomers with extra income to spend on leisure products including vacations. To solidify his ideas for a new bar and restaurant, Bowe listened to boat owners, their mates and business colleagues, to get an understanding of what cruisers wanted.
He served up cold beers to sailors and used the informal meetings to determine what tourists traveling to the islands expected. He found out how much they spent each day and what was considered an affordable lunch and dinner. “A man gets a drink and he starts talking about what he wants and it becomes very clear. Not much room for doubt.”
The cruisers nicknamed him K.B. and laid out their vacation fantasies one by one. “A man works hard for 10-11 months out of the year, he has to get all that he needs out of a two-week vacation.”
In his past life as a Chicago corporate financial analyst, K.B. learned to rely on aspects of human anthropology that he later applied to his business venture. While the former Fisk University Economics major and University of Chicago MBA graduate’s ideas seem easy to dream up, his approach to business is anything but! Bowe hones in on human interaction in its raw state.
“If the female is unhappy, if she can’t find a clean, safe place, she leaves and the male follows,” Bowe said. “I started tapping into the women who sailed to Stocking Island. Even though most of the men bring the boats over, the women plan the vacation from meal to meal. They wanted food that wasn’t fried. For them, island food, while tasty, was heavy. They wanted simple things on the menu: grilled conch, fish, chicken with salad. The only thing they wanted fried were the French fries and even those had to be fried crisp, not limp.
They stressed clean bathrooms. That was a must for women to spend the day eating, drinking and playing on Stocking Island. There had to be proper facilities that were clean.”
Bowe constructed a 30 x 30 foot barn style wooden structure, complete with push-out windows that doubled as hurricane shutters. He figured, if the grill and bar flopped, he could easily turn the space into a souvenir shop or sell boat parts.
On March 12, 1998 Bowe opened Chat ’N’ Chill® and by that evening, with 60 cases of beer and 24lbs of hotdogs sold, he knew he had a hit in the rustic little restaurant facing Exuma’s Elizabeth Harbour. “At first the bar flourished and eventually they tasted the food and kept coming for more.”
Bowe further tweaked his business approach in the coming weeks. He stressed the magic three to his staff: Taste, Presentation and Affordability.
“Boaters want good tasting food that is consistently good. If they had the conch burger or the grilled snapper six months ago and it was good, they wanted it to taste the same every time,” he said. “The overall island presentation must also be intact (hammocks, thatched huts, etc.) and the basic amenities that make people comfortable must be in place.”
He added two TVs, the only connection to reality at Chat ‘N’ Chill® strictly for weather reports, the news and sports scores. Bowe also incorporated a ‘Take one, Add one’ rotating library among the boaters, where readers left their favorite high-seas novels for others to take a stab at while on vacation.
Bowe encouraged patrons to leave their mark on property : signed t-shirts, tattered business cards, license plates and wood carvings cover almost every inch of the bar. When people leave a piece of themselves, they are more inclined to return and bring others and say, “I was here, this is my territory.”
K.B.’s success in business comes from his ability to listen to consumer opinions and use those ideas to heighten island life experience. To draw in corporate clients, he started the “Sip ‘N’ Dip Bush Bar” and invited CEOs to hold retreats in the Exumas, where drinks are served seaside to employees as they bob up and down in the blue waters.
Keeping it simple lead to the Sunday Night Pig Roast. “It was an instant hit,” Bowe said, “It succeeded because it recreated a feeling associated with island life. Guests flash back to Survivor and Lord of the Flies or a luau. They love it..” Either way, for Bowe the risk paid off.
“You can’t hold on to ideas that you believe will eventually work – hold on to those that actually do. If I introduce a new item to the menu and it doesn’t turn over in the first week, I don’t take it personal, I toss it.”
Not taking things personal quickly earned K.B. a reputation for being a stern boss and an unreasonable businessman.
“Reliability and standards are necessities to grow a business. People have to know that when you say your bar is open at 11am and your kitchen can serve a meal at 12 PM. If an employee is late, it interferes with the guest experience, if the food is different, the experience changes. Sometimes employees take liberties that can hurt a business. I create all of the menus and no one is allowed to deviate more than 5% from the original recipe or I’ll fire them,” he said smiling.
For K.B, there are more pressing things for an entrepreneur in the tourism sector to worry about than a few crushed egos, like the seasonal nature of his business.
“This is the biggest challenge facing any tourist-based business. After the peak season is over, how do you generate business when most of the guests have headed back to the real world?”
Taking a proactive approach, K.B. is developing new products to increase traffic from the upscale Emerald Bay development. This summer Bowe will launch ‘Chat ‘N’ Chill® Adventures’ using a 33 seat passenger bus, where guests pay a flat fee for food, drinks, land and sea transportation from Emerald Bay to Stocking Island.
“The way in which we do business on Exuma is changing, in particular with developments like Emerald Bay where the clientele is very high-end. We have to shape our business to adapt to these changes, still keeping in mind that guests are looking for a natural island experience.”
Simple business tactics alone did not earn Chat ‘N’ Chill® high mentions in Fodor’s as a “very hip and upscale, yet casual…” or multi-page spreads in travel magazines. While Bowe benefits from word of mouth marketing among boaters, he hasn’t neglected alternative marketing solutions including a website, www.chatnchill.com. Bowe knows that once guests leave, their island memories are only a click away. The website also attracts new potential visitors, helping to combat seasonal lulls.
There are other challenges as business expands. “As we grow and as the clientele shifts there are differences in what patrons want to experience. Young locals are looking for quick service. The whole set up is for relaxation. The grilled food may take a while because it is cooked fresh. A guy from Minnesota, enjoying his beer in a beach chair doesn’t want anything rushed on his vacation. Local patrons demand fast service so the staff receives mixed signals.”
Another challenge, finding motivated workers who can execute the vision of a Bahamian vacation. “We as Bahamians must move beyond the notion that service is servitude. There is a responsibility on the part of employees to show up on time and to sell the product. If something is not available at the time, it is up to the employees to suggest other options, another beverage or meal option, anything that pushes the product.”
While his approach may be unorthodox, pushing and reinventing the product is something that Bowe does well.
He made provisions to start Beach Church on the island in an attempt to draw more guests to his island escape. For six months out of the year, Stocking Island’s non-denominational church, lead by Rev. John Gray of Tiskilwa, Illinois, meets for Sunday services under the pine trees. After service, parishioners take in Sunday brunch, volleyball and a few rounds of dominoes at the Chat ‘N’ Chill®.
“I learned early on in business that where ever there is a church, there is hope,” Bowe said. “ I lease the space under the trees, near the volleyball court to Rev. Gray for $1 a year. To me, Beach Church represents the hope that exists here on Stocking Island.”
Bowe plans to expand his island development to include small cottages to encourage boaters to overnight on Stocking Island. In 2006, expect more beach parties and bonfires, a gift shop, shower facilities, an Internet cafe and the much-anticipated Laundromat for weary boaters to cleanup and re-energize for the long journey ahead.