Monday, October 26, 2009

Jeremy Merrin >

Jeremy Merrin, Founder, Havana Central

What do you need to be an entrepreneur?
I believe that an entrepreneur needs to be willing to take risks. Secondly, they need a good idea. An entrepreneur also needs the ability to find, motivate and retain great team members because you can’t do it all alone.

What did inspire you to start your business?
I wanted to do something on my own, to be my own boss. I found an idea that I believed was unique and that had the power to develop into a big business.

How did you finance it?
This business is mostly self-financed with some help from my family. I have had entrepreneurial successes in the past and was able to use that money to start Havana Central. Now that we have a successful track record, we are mostly borrowing money from banks.

Being Hispanic…Does it have any influence on your business?
I am not Hispanic, but this has not inhibited my success with a Latin Food Concept based business. It was many years ago when I first connected with Latino Cuisine and Culture and it has ALWAYS been in the back of my mind. In creating Havana Central, I wanted to recreate the Latin sense of fun, celebration of life, great food, and great Latin drinks. We see the huge crossover potential in a market that includes multi-generational Hispanic Americans as well as all of us gringos.

In the face of adversity, how do you decide to keep going?
In my case, I have sunk a lot of my net worth into this business. I don’t have a choice. I have to succeed. When adversity hits, you grit your teeth, take a very careful look at the problem and possible solutions, speak to as many smart people as possible, and then make the best decisions you can.

What is the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The biggest challenge is finding terrific team members to work with us.

If you could change one thing about your business, what would it be?
I would like to be doing so well that I could offer my team EVERY benefit that there is. As it is, for a restaurant company, we are pretty competitive. In this economy, we have tried to balance out our bottom line and we are offering the best we can to recruit top talent.

What was your childhood ambition?
I suppose it was always assumed that I would join the family business. Also, I always wanted to be a marine biologist. Neither is very related to what I do now, except that we serve various kinds of fish.

Tell us about three entrepreneurs that you admire?
I admire people who have created something from nothing. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are great examples of brilliant, über-competitive people who have created entire industries. Danny Meyer, the great New York restaurateur and creator of the Union Square Café and Shake Shack, is also an incredible inspiration for me because of the way he focuses his team on employee training and quality of life. The high quality of his restaurants represents a goal that many other restaurateurs look to achieve.

For business meetings: breakfast, lunch, or dinner?
Havana Central has private rooms and areas that allow for business meetings. We also have all the necessary audio and visual equipment that people need for presentations.

What sacrifices on your personal life did you have to make in order to become a business success?
I have spent more time away from my family than I would have liked. In the early years I did not take many extended vacations

What is your favorite quotation?
My favorite quotation is from Albert Einstein: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Is it difficult to be unconventional?
It takes imagination to be unconventional. From the beginning, we wanted Havana Central to be a different kind of an experience. We approach our team members in a different way and we approach the guest experience in a different way. We are in a constant process of figuring out how we can deliver a better and more unique experience. For instance, when the recession began, rather than cut costs and pull back from the experience we offer, we actually hired a training team and created dishes.

Biggest mistake in business made?
I did not hire a great director of operations soon enough. That should have been one of my first hires once we got bigger. This made the early years harder financially and more stressful than they should have been.

Do you consider yourself an innovator? Why?
Yes, I consider myself an innovator. Havana Central is a 360 degree experience without feeling like a Disney enterprise. It is a great value because it is more than just about the food. It is taking a vacation for an hour or two. I believe we are developing a corporate culture and a brand that is new and fresh and that many people will learn from. We do a tremendous amount of experimentation and learn by trial and error.

About the Company:
Havana Central (
), New York City’s premier Cuban restaurant, is a treat for all five senses where the party never stops. Accommodating waiters serve heaping portions of delicious, real Cuban cuisine best enjoyed family-style while bartenders muddle mint for fresh Mojitos and bands play hot Cuban jazz. All three Havana Central locations —Times Square (151 West 46th Street), Union Square (22 East 17th Street) and the West End (2911 Broadway between 113th and 114th Streets) — evoke memories of pre-Revolution Cuba with a décor and ambience that transport patrons back to the golden era when Havana was one of the world’s swankiest playgrounds.

The brainchild of noted New York entrepreneur Jeremy Merrin, Havana Central has plans to expand its restaurant and catering businesses both in the New York Metropolitan area and nationally.

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