When the Jamaica Observer visited last week, Evrol “Blackie” Christian, owner/manager of the world-famous Little Ochie Restaurant and Bar, talked up a storm about the 20th anniversary of his annual seafood carnival, set for July 8.
Not only will the food be good, but according to Christian, musical entertainment will be top class with leading acts including Trinidadian soca star Destra and a host of local reggae and gospel artistes.
“This will be my biggest in terms of entertainment over 20 years,” he said, though in the past he has hosted such stars as Gregory Isaacs, Beenie Man and Chronixx, among many others.
“Come down and eat a fish with us and give God thanks,” said Christian.
As he waxed lyrical, Christian recalled that while the July 8 seafood fest is now 20 years old, Little Ochie is much older, going back to 1989.
Back then Christian had no idea where he was headed. The way he tells it, Little Ochie started with “rum talk” among friends on the grey sands of the Alligator Pond fishing beach.
Christian recalled that he was in his late teens and had just left school “without anything to do, but wanting to make use of myself”. As a direct result of the “rum talk” he and two friends, all from Alligator Pond, joined forces to “try a ting”, serving breakfast to fishermen early in the morning.
“We start selling fry fish and dumpling to the fishermen in the morning with little mint tea,” he said. They soon found that the availability of a tot or two of rum wasn’t misplaced because “fisherman like him rum in the morning”.
Eventually the three-man group split up. But Christian stayed put and the next thing he knew, the business was growing. He had stumbled on a niche he never knew existed.
“That’s why I have to say Jamaica is one of the most blessed places to start a business, because you could start sell a crate a beer and a quart of rum… That’s where we start from,” he said.
“The next thing we realise, there is a business for people waiting on the boat to come from sea and then we started to serve them, and then it open up and move on to what it is now,” he said.
“If somebody did say it back then that it would become what it is today I would just smile, but [after a time] you realise that people gravitating to the business, people from Mandeville, Kingston, all over, coming to eat your food and you have to keep going,” he said.
Christian was helped by Alligator Pond’s long-running reputation among the top fishing beaches not just in Jamaica, but in the “whole Caribbean”.
For generations, householders from around Mandeville and elsewhere have travelled to Alligator Pond “on a daily basis to buy freshly caught fish”.
The opportunities were obvious. “In that period of people waiting (for fishing boats to come), you could sell a fry fish or a dumpling or you could sell a soda and a bottle of water,” he said.
Christian had a good, long laugh when asked at what stage he first went to the bank for a loan. “It takes a little while before you go to the bank, but sometimes the bank is not the best decision,” he finally said, still chuckling.
“You go to the bank after you build a brand… probably about eight to 10 years after [starting]. You start small, build a little shed and then you take from you little savings you to build a next little shed,” he said.
In his case he first started cooking using a makeshift stove.
He eventually bought a conventional stove and fridge on credit from Kinkead’s Appliances in Southfield/Top Hill, St Elizabeth — a store with a reputation for helping small business people get a start.
“I have to say thanks to man like Mr Kinkead … in the early time those were the only people who could credit you based on knowing you,” said Christian. “Men like those are pioneers who contribute to not just me (but many people), him don’t need no driver’s license to credit you. He just wants to know that you doing a business and you can pay. He knows you, or somebody who he trusts recommend you,” he added.
Today, the Little Ochie Restaurant and Bar is among Jamaica’s top seafood eateries and employs 45 people on a shift basis — the largest employer in Alligator Pond.
Christian says 90 per cent of his staff live in the village. “They (workers) happily walk to work,” he said.
On any given day, people from across Jamaica and overseas flock to sample the wide-ranging menu of seafood dishes.
The success of Little Ochie has attracted competition with several operators setting up similar businesses in the community. Christian says there is enough to go around and there is a healthy relationship.
“If one of us run out of any items we can call on each other, so that’s love and unity,” he said.
Yet, it’s not all honky dory. Perhaps the biggest problem facing business operators and residents of Alligator Pond is beach erosion. Christian estimates that over the last decade, Little Ochie has lost about 40 feet of beachfront to aggressive wave action. Sections of the Little Ochie property, closest to the sea comes under serious threat at times.
To counter that threat, Christian spent $3.5 million to bring 50 truckloads of large stones which were deposited on the shoreline in front of Little Ochie. He believes the measure helped to slow down the wave action, but readily accepts that he lacks the technical know-how and capital to find a suitable long-term solution.
Like others in Alligator Pond, Christian hopes that plans being developed by the Tony Freckleton-led Manchester Parish Development Committee (PDC) to protect the Alligator Pond beachfront using advanced and proven techniques will attract the required funding.
Another major problem is overfishing off Jamaica’s south coast, which has depleted fish stocks. Gone are the days when Christian and others could depend solely on local fishermen. He is not deterred, noting that diminishing fish stocks are a global problem.
He relies on large commercial suppliers to ensure that at all times he has “two to three thousand pounds” of seafood in storage.
The deteriorating condition of the road from Downs to Alligator Pond is another concern. Christian is calling on Member of Parliament for Manchester Southern, Michael Stewart, to try as best he can to get the road surface fixed.
For now, though, Christian wants seafood lovers to ignore everyday inconveniences such as bad roads and come for his carnival on July 8. “Come and eat some fish with us and enjoy Alligator Pond,” he said.