Lisa Waddell-Nash: Aspiring lawyer turned restaurateur now with over 18 years of experience in business
Write up by Candice Stewart / Our Today editor
When you have aspirations to follow a particular road in life and then change your mind on multiple occasions, people tend to identify you as an indecisive person who does not know what they want.
In many cases, indecision is not a bad thing. For Lisa Waddell-Nash, changing her road map to success was all part of a bigger picture which has led her to being a successful restaurateur and being in business with ‘The Jerk Pit’ for a little over 18 years.
In what started out with an initial two people and then four in 2005, The Jerk Pit has grown to a team of 20 people seeing to the day-to-day operations of the authentic Jamaican-owned restaurant located in College Park, Maryland in the United States (US).
Though successful, the journey to the Jerk Pit did not start out as a well-planned and thought out mission. Waddell-Nash, who has a degree in Communications from Howard University, originally hoped to become a lawyer with no intentions of being an entrepreneur in the food and beverage industry.
FROM LAW TO COMMUNICATIONS TO FOOD
“Initially, I wanted to be a lawyer. When I graduated from high school, I left Jamaica and moved to Miami. I then attended community college for two years after which, I transferred to Howard to study. While in community college, I looked into what I wanted my major to be and realised that law school was not going to work. I noted that in addition to the first four years of study, I had to enroll for more school. I said, ‘no, that’s too much school for me’.”, she shared in an interview with Our Today.
She did some introspection and said that based on her outgoing and lively personality, she would be good for television as a news anchor, radio as disc jock or show host, and possibly even film.
“At Howard, I hosted a radio programme at the on-campus station on Friday nights for four hours. It was a late night show from 10pm – 2am. That’s when I got my feet wet and truly went into the field of communications,” Waddell-Nash said.
“I interned at this radio station for three months and that’s when I realised that the salary was not what I needed it to be. I looked into it and said in order for me to be a news anchor, I’d probably have to be a reporter that chases ambulances and that sort of thing. Doing that was not gonna work either. I then realised that I needed to do something else. I started selling insurance and got experience in the marketing aspect of company products. After that, I went into the telecommunications field, got laid off on two separate occasions, and then came The Jerk Pit,” she continued.
While she sold insurance, Waddell-Nash recalled working so hard that she never missed a day of work. A time came where she wanted to take a vacation to go to Jamaica. “I wanted to take five days but my boss, at the time, told me I had to be report to work the next work day. I pled my case with him to say that I hadn’t taken a vacation in years. His response what that if I didn’t come back on Monday, I shouldn’t come back to work. I never went back,” she said
She said that her experience of continuously changing her mind and being laid off taught her many lessons over the years to aid in communication, marketing, entrepreneurship that now fuels The Jerk Pit.
TRANSITIONAL SEASON OF COCONUT WATER INTO THE JERK PIT
“That’s when I decided that if I’m going to work this hard, I may as well work for myself. I was going from job to job and getting laid off with not much benefit. So, I figured that I should try and do something for me,” she said.
“My first entrepreneurial venture was selling coconut water. My mom used to send a case for me every week from Miami. I then started doing it on my own,” she added.
“While I was still working in the telecoms field, I used to import coconut water from Jamaica when Air Jamaica was still in business. I started distributing to all the Caribbean stores in the area. I then branched off into Tru Juice. I used to supply most of the Caribbean stores and restaurants in the area. When Air Jamaica stopped coming to Baltimore, it became challenging and I had to truck it from places like Miami and New York. After a while, I noticed that it wasn’t as profitable as I needed it to be. So, I phased that out as well,” she explained.
It was then that the blueprint for The Jerk Pit began to take form. An opportunity came when I found out that a friend of my mom loved grilling. My thought process was, ‘he can grill, and I love to host and entertain. So let’s try it out where, maybe, I could start a restaurant or hangout spot.
She shared that she loved the idea of what the Jamaican restaurant and lounge, Peppers, used to be, where people would hang out, eat, and chill. “That’s what I had in my mind. I said that I would love to do something like that up here. So, my mom’s friend and I spoke and discussed trying to start something small. That’s kinda how we started,” she explained.
She shared that there was a restaurant for sale in a strip mall that she bought and got started. She confessed that “we technically didn’t have a jerk pit. It was really grilling but we started small with a vision in mind. I bought something that was already established and then made it into my own along the way.” Five years later, they moved to a more ideal space that suited the vision. It was a stand-alone building where customers could sit outside and hang out. “That was more of what I envisioned, and, that’s where we’ve been located 13 years later,” she said.
In addition to Jamaican cuisine, The Jerk Pit also has a hint of the foodscape of Trinidad and Tobago. “We sell Trini favourites such as roti, buss-up-shut, and doubles. We also provide Shandy. So, there’s a little Trini in there,” Waddell-nash explained.
CHALLENGES AND WINS WITH THE JERK PIT
The restaurateur shared that The Jerk Pit business has been one of the hardest things she has ever done.
“I honestly did not realise that I would have to work so hard. The restaurant industry is the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life and that’s not only because it’s my business. One of the greatest challenges I’ve had is staffing and relying on others. If someone doesn’t show up, you have to cash, wash the dishes, cook, and you can’t necessarily do all those things at one time,” she said.
“When people decide that its raining or snowing and they’re not going to work even though the restaurant is open for business, you’re it. You have to show up,” she added.
Waddell-Nash mentioned that finding working capital is another major challenge she has faced. She did not reliase that credit played a crucial role in everything as an adult in the US as she shared that her credit score was not the best.
“At the start, I did not have the credit or the assets and no one wanted to lend me money. I had to mortgage my house in order to get the money to start the business. People always say, ‘try to have three-four months of your bills put aside’ and I could barely afford to keep the restaurant open, much less keep staff. I have since learned. An adjoining challenge that we faced was to get the capital to keep us going during the slow times. When we moved from the strip mall to our current location, that took a lot of capital. I went through unconventional routes with advances and going against our sales and things like that. We even paid a higher interest rate in order to move to a better location,” she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Waddell-Nash said the business was able to stay afloat because they were already doing third-party online delivery with companies such as Uber Eats and Door Dash and that got them through.
On the other side of the coin, she celebrates some major wins that the restaurant has seen in its 18 years of existence. As shared by Waddell-Nash, the first highlight is that The Jerk Pit is known within the Washington Metropolitan Area as being among the best Jamaican restaurants.
“In addition to our fame, during COVID, we identified five hospitals and provided 100 meals to doctors and nurses,” she said, adding that every Christmas season, the company feeds the homeless at shelters or homeless camps.
“I love giving back and being in a position to do those things is really a blessing. Being a woman in business for 18 and a half years in an industry where most restaurants fail in the first year is something else that means a lot to me. Also, knowing that people love my food is another win!” she exclaimed.
To add extra whipped cream and a cherry on top, Waddell-Nash boasted the opening of a lounge upstairs the restaurant in 2015. They have music with a disc jockey (DJ) on Friday and Saturday nights. “I’m realising the dream of what I wanted it [The Jerk Pit] to look like. It’s almost 100 per cent there and we’re still growing and trying to expand” she said.
JERKING INTO THE FUTURE
Waddell-Nash says that though she has been approached about franchising The Jerk Pit, she is not interested in doing that. Her focus is more on expanding the business and opening a second location.
“I’ve always been afraid of jumping too soon. I didn’t want to be like some who opened multiple locations and then end up realising that I’ve bitten off more than I could chew,” she said.
“After 18 years, it’s time to expand. We have outgrown our little space and we make the best of it, but it’s time to spread our wings. It took me a while to find the ideal location in where we are now, it’s just small. We’re currently in a great location near a university, it’s the ideal spot, and I knew that I wanted to be here. So, now, I’ve been looking for a second ideal spot and I haven’t quite found it as yet,” she shared.
LESSONS LEARNED AT THE JERK PIT
Waddell-Nash, in identifying some lessons learned as a restaurateur, spoke in a manner that others can learn as well. She said, “you can’t give up and you have to have perseverance all while believing in yourself.”
“One of the things I’ve found is that you don’t realise how truly strong you are until you’re faced with certain challenges. I have so many people relying on me that quitting is just not an option. I can’t let people down and I can’t let myself down. You have to find a way to get things done no matter what issues may arise. There are resources out there for business people in the restaurant industry, you just have to find them to help you, and find a way to make things work,” she added.
Waddell-Nash stressed the importance of reinventing self while overcoming challenges and preparing for new ones to arise.
Lastly, she explained that, “One of the things I don’t compromise on is quality. I take The Jerk Pit and everything about it seriously. It’s a reflection of me and that’s because I have made my product valuable and unique. This way, customers continue to support. This way, if you have something good, people will come,” she said.
Waddell-Nash said that though she seemed to be indecisive, she always knew what she did not like or want and made adjustments in life to steer her in a different direction. “Nothing is wrong with that as it led me to The Jerk Pit,” she said.
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