If they haven’t jumped in yet and experienced the reality for themselves, many people view being an entrepreneur through decidedly rose-tinted specs. The romantic notion of being a lady boss and calling the shots are all well and good, but what about the struggles, the 18-hour days and the very real fear of failure?
Every entrepreneur journey is as unique as the person taking the steps and one story we find endlessly fascinating is April Jackson’s. Former Miss Jamaica Universe, star of BBC’s The Apprentice and most recently, the founder of Three Little Birds, a Caribbean restaurant chain that’s dedicated to warm atmospheres and colourful tasting food. We dropped in on one of her marathon nightly shifts at the Brixton branch of Three Little Birds, and after enjoying a delicious three-course meal (review coming soon), we quizzed April about how her journey began, the highlights of owning a business and her plans for the future.
What inspired you to start Three Little Birds?
I think when people talk about starting a business, they always tell you “do what you love and love what you do,” for me I love Jamaica and I love food. Since I’ve been in England, I’ve realized the Caribbean is usually portrayed as ‘ghetto’ or a beach and I happened to grow up with neither of those experiences. Three Little Birds was an opportunity to showcase my version of Jamaica.
Where did the idea come about?
It’s quite funny actually. When I opened the restaurant, a lot of my friends reminded me about what I was like when I was younger. When I was like 16, I purchased a website domain name for a restaurant! I would go out to dinner a lot with family, friends, and always be analyzing what it would be like to be the waiter at our table, or the chef in the kitchen or even the greeter at the door. My best memories formed in nice environments eating great food or sometimes food that wasn’t so great. I was always critical in honest terms, even when I was younger. My imaginations grew more into a passion and one day transformed into reality.
Would you say you’ve always been entrepreneurially minded?
Maybe? Actually, yes, I’d say so. I knew I was always going to be in business, my dad is a business person.
What does he do?
He’s been doing shipping and money transfer before I was born, always had a company. I’m truly my dad’s daughter. He would be the one to pick up on my restaurant fantasies and encourage them forward, saying, “why not start your own restaurant one day, April?” and I politely declined his idea, but his words became routine to think about every night, for years afterwards.
There’s a big gap between wanting to start a restaurant and actually having one, so what did you have to do to equip yourself with the knowledge to get to where you are today?
My patience is really thin and something I try to work on continuously. But it’s my lack of patience that allowed to me to go straight in. I am still learning all the time. When I opened, I had never worked in a restaurant and came into it strictly as a consumer, working my way backwards. I designed a place I’d like to eat at and then figured out how to communicate it to builders. They asked for the architectural drawings for the interior design and I’d point to areas and describe what I envisioned instead. I’d go to other people’s places and I’d measure their bar counter or measure their seat depth to then design the dimensions for my own chair. I didn’t have this intricate business plan, rather a feel. That’s just my character, not saying it works for other people. I do think in business you have to do something that actually works for you and for me too much planning would just take the fun out of it.
“I didn’t have this intricate business plan, rather a feel. That’s just my character, not saying it works for other people.”
Did you have any mentors?
No, someone asked me this the other day. As I said, I’ve definitely been influenced by my dad, but again, he doesn’t have any restaurant business experience. However, the principles of business I truly believe are the same and I controversially believe business people are born.
That’s interesting, explain that concept to us
We live in an age where everybody is glorifying entrepreneurialism and they like the idea of running a business and making lots of money. I think there’s danger in not being honest about the struggle, about when you’re crying to yourself in doubt of your decisions. It’s not admitted because folks want to protect their own ego. It’s terrible, because people think something’s wrong with them because their life isn’t an Instagram post. I also think there is danger in the fact that we now live in a world that looks down upon the employee and to me it’s utter crap anyway because not everyone is supposed to be at the top of the pyramid. If we are all sitting at the top of our pyramids who the hell is holding them up? I can’t do what I want without a really strong team. Back in the day, someone would work at Ford for 50 odd years and be admired for their responsibilities. Now if we looked at that same person we would be like “oh what are you doing with your life, you’re wasting it, but don’t worry, it’s never too late to open a business.” It’s ridiculous. It really pisses me off.
What are some of your highlights of your business?
Time Out magazine featured us and gave us a high rating, it was huge for me. I remember being extremely excited and even thinking “why would you come here?” But it was brilliant for business, no joke, we sold a difference. So, that would definitely be one of my highlights. And then they also named us one of London’s best Caribbean restaurants, which was certainly another highlight.
What are the challenges now?
Oh wow, I can talk about that for days. Top one is people management by far. Learning from my dad, I thought that as long as you treat people good and fair, they’d be your ‘ride or die’. Wrong! This industry [hospitality] is notorious for people just moving around. It’s like people don’t have any loyalty [laughs], the principles that I grew up on aren’t the principles that people care about here unfortunately, and so that’s by far the hardest challenge. After opening another branch, I am in that spot where it’s kind of like, I want to continue to grow and need to hire more people, because you need more help, but I don’t want to spread myself too thin.
Did you fund your business yourself?
Yeah, but without help from my dad none of this would be possible. I think this particular summer has been really hard for business, World Cup, oh my god, it was terrible because we didn’t have a TV screen.
Why don’t you have a TV screen?
Because I’m not a fucking sports bar and I like to believe the spirit of the place is more important.
How important is the ambience and vibe of the restaurant?
I do find in England, the roles are very defined, there’s a huge separation between customer and staff which I don’t like. Jamaica is much warmer and inviting. When you come to my restaurant, that’s what you should feel. If people aren’t leaving here feeling good with that kind of warmth, we haven’t done our job. Why be in the business if you can’t do that. When some people have a bad day, they go for a drink and get drunk, especially in this country. For me, having a bad day means you have a lovely meal. And that covers the whole experience, from the food, to the people.
What’s next for for April Jackson?
In terms of restaurants? I will probably open another one.
In central London?
Oh no, I can’t afford those premiums. I am thinking my next place would probably be Dalston. You know what though? Sometimes I would love to just get a job because I like the idea of being able to look forward to the weekend … but nah, that’s just not for me. [April pauses for a second] But trust me. I do like the idea, for sure.
Visit Three Little Birds
412 Coldharbour Lane
42 Battersea Rise