Al La Kebab: Look before you leap

Read our article in the Cayman Financial Review Magazine, eversion 

Advice from Alan to potential small business owners:

When Alan Silverman and his partner Laura started Al La Kebab they knew they had to be 120 per cent committed; otherwise it was never going to work. There were sleepless nights along the way and some learning curve setbacks, yet 10 years later they have a successful small business and big dreams for the future.

Alan was a server at a number of well-known establishments such as Bed and the Westin Casuarina Resort, but had been considering opening his own place for some time. He and Laura discussed the possibility of bringing kebabs to the Island – popular fare in the US and UK – and began to research everything that would be involved in opening a shop.

In the meantime his father sat him down and asked him some direct questions regarding his ability to run a business as opposed to working for one. He advised young Alan to study the subject before beginning his venture, and so books such as The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber and Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker began to appear on the shelf.

These and other reference materials provided a solid base of information that completely changed Alan and Laura’s business perspective. By the time a space next to the Cayman cinema became available, they were ready to make their move. Their original plan was to open a place that would cater particularly to service industry workers; servers and chefs who by the time they got off work would have limited options for buying food.

Al La Kebab opened in 2002 and things got off to a slow start. Many locals were unfamiliar with kebabs and after a number of months in operation a hiccup arrived in the form of meat import issues.

Unable to get the kebab product they had been serving since they began, Alan found his costs rising as he tried to source alternative more expensive options that didn’t taste the same and therefore lost customers. It was a tough couple of years and the climb might have continued to be slow had it not been for Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Al La Kebab was back in business only 14 days after the storm, and with people craving hot food word, suddenly it was booming. It was in those months that Al La Kebab won over a legion of fans. Once they had tasted the magic; they kept coming back for more.

Alan and Laura have put money back into the business over the years by adding an outdoor area, upgrading the cooking and refrigeration equipment, building a storage hut behind the shop and expanding the order window.

The only time they ever tried something that didn’t really work was when they opened a branch in downtown George Town. It was a much bigger location that required a number of extra staff members and simply didn’t have the customers to keep them afloat. Two-and-a-half years into it they made the decision to close it and concentrate on the profitable original hut.

As Alan says “You learn from your mistakes. I learned to never stray from the formula that works!”

They have now expanded their menu, which can be as flexibly healthy and low-calorie as you make it. It’s all in the ordering. In the future Alan and Laura would like to take Al La Kebab stateside as they are now older and wiser about choosing their market. In the meantime they look forward to celebrating their 10th anniversary later this year; an impressive milestone for any small business.

The best piece of advice Alan can give to anyone looking to start a business of their own is to focus on the actual amount of work and costs involved. It is the easiest thing in the world to dream of being your own boss, but the reality is very different. Look before you leap.

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