Home Behind the brand The Resourceful Kesian Bennett, founder of Kingston 21

The Resourceful Kesian Bennett, founder of Kingston 21

by Out and About Mag.

  • Tell us about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey.

I'm from St Catherine, Jamaica. I am a country girl. I went to Shortwood Teachers’ College, and then I moved to the UAE. When I came here, there weren't many Jamaican foods, obviously, in Abu Dhabi. Yes, there are a few in Dubai, and that inspired me. When I just came in 2018, I wanted to explore bringing Jamaican food, Jamaican culture and Jamaican vibe to Abu Dhabi. Right now, I don't consider myself an entrepreneur; that's just a word to me. I feel like I entered this, creating an opportunity for myself and others and also to spread the wonderful Jamaican culture and food. The journey has been bittersweet, rewarding, and just awesome. It has been wonderful; I'm just happy to be at this place in my life.

Kingston 21

  • How did the Kingston 21 concept come about?

Kingston is the capital of Jamaica and 21 was sort of our hypothetical extension of Jamaica, because there’s 20 who sell food in Kingston, and we wanted our 21st to be like an extension outside of Jamaica, into the diaspora. So yeah, that was the thought into the concept. And, of course, you can't have a Jamaican restaurant without authentic food, authentic people, the Michelin are Jamaican, the owner is Jamaican, you know. We wanted to ensure that we were authentic, that we were giving Abu Dhabi something that was missing. And I'm not in any way throwing words at anybody, but we wanted to make sure that people understood that this is what the food should taste like, and this is how we do it in Jamaica. These are recipes that grandmas, great grandmas in Jamaica have cooked this way for centuries.

  • So when someone walks through the doors of Kingston 21, what should they expect?

They should expect our wonderful hostess to say, ‘Welcome to Kingston 21’; they see the big banner, ‘Kingston 21’. They immediately [say], ‘Wow, this feels so relaxed; I love the ambience, it's all spacious. Look at the view.’ That is what Jamaica is about— that dining by the ocean, that warm, friendly atmosphere—that's what we pride ourselves on. So when they walk in, they just feel at home, they feel relaxed. And we've been winning on that so far.

  • Kingston 21 is the first and only restaurant in the country that is Jamaican-owned. What is the significance of that?

It means a lot because I'm a pro-Jamaican, and it irks me sometimes when I see other people riding on our coat-tails. I don't know if it makes me feel proud that I am, I guess, sharing the legacy of what it is to be Jamaican, and not take it for granted. When people come in, they hear the accent of everybody, and that alone is significant. Jamaica can be so much more; it has so much potential. And, as a young person, I want other people to be inspired by this and know that you can do it. You don't necessarily have to be Jamaican to do it, but it means a lot when you're overseas, and you can wave the Jamaican flag. It's a big inspiration. So I don't take it for granted.

Kingston 21

  • All creative projects have their challenges and highlights. What was the biggest challenge in opening the restaurant? What has been a major highlight?

The highlight was finding the location because we had a vision in mind of what it should look like; we wanted to be on the water. Yes, God made us here. And again, the name, you know, once you're registering, you'll have to submit like three options. This name was our third option, but this was the only one approved, Kingston 21. Another highlight has been as you said, it must have been challenging to get to this point of opening the door. That staff launch that we had, actually getting to that point and seeing the theme scenes, everybody in uniform, it was like, ‘Yes, it's real. After all of this, it's actually real.’ We weren't sure that we would get to the end because there were so many hurdles.

  • What motivates you?

I think that's a good question. The fear of failure or the hunger to succeed maybe, I'm not sure which one. But I think my family does because I want to succeed for them. So that's a big motivation, to know that my mother is so proud of me, and I want to keep her proud.

  • What message would you give to a young woman who wants to step out?

Do it! I would say, ‘Don't sit on it.’ Even for me, this idea had been at the back of my head, and I've wanted to do it for so long, but it took losing my job, a pandemic, depression, hopelessness, to finally say, ‘You know what, I'm going to find out how to do this.’ Just do it; find out, think about it logically. What steps do I need to take to get here? Ask questions, research, just don't sit and say, ‘I can't, or it's too difficult.’ Once you start, that is a big indication that it's possible; so, just start

  • How do you look after your mental health?

I am doing well, I think. It's never easy to talk about your mental health. You know, and as someone who has had challenges, I can say that it gets better. You just have to hold on to the positive. That's a daily struggle—holding on to what is going right and don't look at what is going wrong. So when I get up in the morning, I listen to TD Jakes. While we’re there getting ready, I just turn on YouTube and let it play in the background to inspire me, to motivate me. I don't think about what happened yesterday that wasn't so good and that brings me down. I try to focus on all I have to do today to make sure that I have a good day, and everybody has a good day, and we have a successful day. So I just try to focus on the positives, to be honest with you. It's a daily struggle and practice, you have to practise every day and decide, ‘I'm going to be positive.’

kesian bennett

  • How do you keep your team motivated and inspired? 

We do have our team meetings. I mean, ‘We ask how's everybody doing?’ That's what we start with. We want to know that you're okay; we want to know that you're coming to work and you're happy, and we give them a forum to express themselves. We have this meeting every three weeks. They have their daily team meetings with their supervisor, but we want to know how they're doing because this is not a come here and clear type of job, no. From the get-go, we emphasise communication. We emphasise that we're trying to build a family team, not just a labour force.

I want them to be as passionate about this as I am. Because then, if you're as passionate as I am, we're going to treat the place and the customers as if it is your business. So this is what is instilled in all of them. They're not afraid to talk, because we emphasise communication, and we do our team building.

  • What’s that one quote you live by?

I have two, and this is what has helped me to get to this point. ‘If you have a dream that's bigger than you, God will help you.’ I've said that so many times throughout this process, and I've told people because it's true—only God. The other quote is: ‘What other people think of you is none of your business.’ That will also affect your mental health, so just leave that over there.





Gary Matalon – CEO of KLE Group including Usain Bolt’s Tracks and Records

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