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It's Story Time: Barbequed Vacuum Cleaners
By Steve Cokkinias
It was the summer of 2000 and I was enjoying my time as a manager during the pre-opening of a hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Being a part of the “local/permanent team” at a hotel opening can be a wonderful experience, because you have no employees, no guests, and no hotel. You spend months working on refining standard operating procedures (SOP’s), developing training programs, and recruiting new employees. The hotel is still under construction. And there is not a guest in sight. However, Jamaica was still very much a small island, and after a few weeks, we realized that in the evenings, there was not much to do.
One of the things you quickly learn after moving to a Caribbean island is that you have relatively limited choice. Unlike major cities or more developed countries, for example, there was not a myriad of restaurants and dining options. In fact at the time, there were only 2 fast-food restaurants within a 3 hour’s drive: McDonald’s and KFC. That, a few road-side stalls selling jerk chicken and jerk pork, and 2 restaurants/nightclubs was about it. Jamaica was the first place that I had ever seen a grocery store with empty shelves, because “the next shipment arrives tomorrow”. There was one furniture store, one small airport, a few golf courses, and lots of beautiful beaches. Frankly I didn’t mind for the first month or so. But eventually we started craving a “taste of home”.
One of the things we found extremely difficult to get our hands on was a decent steak. Quality local beef in Jamaica was non-existent, as the cattle roamed wild in the hills (and often across the streets in front of cars and motorcycles), and to import quality grade meats was extremely expensive. In the evenings we would often have cook-outs, either at my boss’s house (we’ll call him “Dom” to maintain his anonymity) up in the mountains, or in any of my other co-workers rented homes in the “Iron Shore” neighborhood in the hills above Montego Bay. Every night, it was chicken and pork. Some nights, to mix things up, it was pork and chicken. And of course, Red Stripe beer. We couldn’t get anything else.
“Jerk” cooking is a Jamaican specialty, the meat grilled over large charcoal pits with a specialty blend of herbs and spices. It is commonly served with tomato ketchup and a few slices of white bread, wrapped in a piece of aluminium foil, and sold street side for a few dollars. As tasty as it was, what we really wanted was a good steak. We tried importing steaks from some beef suppliers in the U.S.A., but it was expensive and they arrived rotten, packed only in containers of melted warm water. Then a few weeks later, the word began to spread: “cook-out barbeque with awesome steaks at Dom’s house this weekend!” Had we found a new local supplier? Had the Jamaican beef industry somehow improved?
The day before the cookout I was asked to go down to the receiving docks at the Montego Bay shipping port with a few co-workers to help “clear” some cleaning equipment that was arriving from America. One of the items was a “carpet extractor” for the Housekeeping department, which is a large “wet-vacuum cleaner” that sprays a jet of water onto a carpet before sucking the dirty water back up into a giant blue plastic bin attached to the back of the machine. And for some reason, the carpet extractor that was arriving that day was getting a lot of extra special attention. “Steve” I was told, “be sure nothing happens to that carpet extractor, it is very important.” Yes, I figured we needed such a machine to clean the carpets after the construction finished. “Steve” I was again reminded, “make extra sure to be personally responsible for the carpet extractor.” Ok, ok, I got it. But it seemed odd, was this machine made out of gold or what?
When I arrived to the receiving docks at the port, I noticed a large box that had been over-night expressed in from the U.S.A. It contained our carpet extractor machine, but I thought it was strange that it was express-shipped. And the box was extremely heavy, at least twice the weight that I was expecting. We signed for the package, loaded into the hotel van, and I called the hotel. “All clear boss, on the way to the hotel with your prized carpet extractor.”
“Excellent!” came the reply, “make sure you come to my house for the cook-out tonight, we got STEAKS!” Strange, I thought, because all I could see was that we had a giant vacuum cleaner. But when I reached to the hotel, a small group was waiting for us at the receiving area, and that’s when it all made sense. We tore off the top of the plastic bin at the back of the carpet extractor and inside, neatly vacuum-packed into a large cooler and covered in still frozen ice, were about 40 huge U.S. Grade-A steaks, neatly delivered to our door.
That night we had an amazing barbeque up at Dom’s house with all of the managers of the hotel, and I learned an important lesson: if you want something badly enough, you will find a creative way to “make it happen.”
About the author
Steve Cokkinias is the Founder & CEO of InnSense Leadership (www.innsense.com) which he established in 2012 after a successful 17-year career in the hospitality industry that included senior positions with Ritz-Carlton, Westin, and Sheraton in the U.S.A, Caribbean, and Asia. An inspiring and sought-after speaker and executive coach, Steve has delivered energizing programs on service, leadership, and talent management to a wide range of international companies. During his 9 years as General Manager in Kuala Lumpur, his hotel was named "Best Employer in Malaysia" 4 times consecutively by Hewitt & Associates, earning him a place on Human Capital Asia's "Hot 40 - Asia's H.R. Superstars". In 2010, Steve was named Malaysia's "General Manager of the Year" by the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards. His new book, "InnSanity - Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime in Luxury Lodging", is due for release in early 2013. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow Steve on Twitter: @stevecokkinias.
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