“Family is important – We all work together as a team.” – Gus CartwrightWhen Checkers Café started, its owner, Llewellyn “Gus” Cartwright was no stranger to entrepreneurship. His experiences taught him quite a bit about the business environment, what it took to run a successful business, and most importantly, he learned a lot about people. With the technical and hands-on knowledge and skills he acquired, he knew he had more to offer. In 1988 a seed was planted. Gus wanted to sew something new, something different. The idea to move from a clothing store business to the restaurant business was one he started to give considerable thought to. He surveyed the landscape and determined that there was a need for a restaurant that could cater to working people – one that could provide eat-in and take-out meals and beyond that, provide a comfortable setting for families who wanted a sit down experience to enjoy high quality Bahamian food. Gus relied extensively on the know-how and experience of his family – his mother in particular. Muriel Cartwright, (his mother), had more than thirty (30) years experience in the food business. He had many lengthy discussions with her about the advantages and challenges of a food service business which were sufficient to help him come to a decision. Next, he thought about the start-up capital he would need to open a restaurant and so he turned to his life-long friend, George “China” Cartwright, who agreed to provide some financial support. The decision was made in December 1988 to pursue the dream. The name Checkers came from the popular game that so many Bahamian men at the time, played competitively on the docks. On July 22nd, 1989, the first Checkers location opened its doors on Mackey Street. From the onset, the mission was to become a dominant player in the restaurant industry. During the early years a customer could purchase a five dollar ($5) baked chicken meal from Checkers when the competitors charged eight dollars ($8) or more plus gratuity if it was sit in. Bahamians knew and quickly came to accept, that Checkers offered great food. Within a short time, there was a loyal following of customers who, even today, are still regulars.
“I can truly say that success does not come overnight, nor is it easy.” – Gus CartwrightLike everything in life, businesses always have challenges. In the early years in particular, Gus acknowledges that there were some hurdles to cross. Firstly, Checkers was new and its leadership committed to work at building a reputation for great Bahamian food so that it could become the first choice for everyone wanting Bahamian food at a reasonable price. Additionally, there were personal and family sacrifices that had to be made. Finding the “right” people was difficult particularly for a 5:00 a.m. start time. His mother filled a critical void and was there at 5 a.m. on many mornings to get the cooking started. His friend George was a shareholder who worked as a manager and was very much hands-on daily in the business for the first twenty-three years. As its owner, Gus was also constantly working long hours. In fact, for the first four years he worked 13 hour days, six days per week. All of this was done to ensure that at the end of the day, the business would be successful. Presently, Checkers is a household name for Bahamians from all walks of life who want delicious, Bahamian food. Today, some twenty-six years later, the doors at the Mackey Street location remain open.
“Businesses change and ideas change.” – Gus Cartwright
For any business, change is constant. Checkers was no different. Almost immediately it was noted that the Mackey Street location needed to expand and in 1991 that is exactly what happened. Business continued to grow and grow. As a result of the increasing number of customers, it became clear that there was a demand for the Checkers product and that a second location would be well supported. In October 1993, Checkers Robinson Road was opened and is still operating at that location today.
Not all of the expansion efforts were successful. Between 1994 and 1996 Checkers opened locations on Blue Hill Road, Bay Street, and Soldier Road. It was later recognized that for these three locations, several challenges proved insurmountable – a competitive business market, location, and in the case of Bay Street – an area that closed down at 5 p.m. Undaunted, the family determined that Checkers simply needed to refocus, re-organize, and re-invent itself to embrace other opportunities. It was therefore with great optimism and a significant degree of resilience that plans were discussed and efforts were focused on the creation of a third Checkers location.
In September 1998 Checkers planted roots on Carmichael Road for the first time. Carmichael was viewed as a new and emerging economic hub in the south and it was believed that a Checkers Restaurant would thrive given the growing economic and population increase there. During this time, Gus decided that the business needed something more. For him, re-invention and ingenuity are key ingredients to the survival of any business and so he continued to think of ways to reinvent the business. In 2003 his daughter joined the family-run business once she completed university and had gained hands-on experience working in the restaurant business in the United States. Gus was ready for some fresh ideas and approaches. He was also ready to turn things over to her so that he could take a step back after many years of constant movement.
And so, business at the Carmichael location mushroomed. In just under ten years it was realized that Checkers had outgrown its Carmichael Road site. A new location in Carmichael was identified and construction began. Gus returned full time in 2005 because there was so much work to do. On October 4th, 2007, Checkers Carmichael moved to its new location which included a newly built and much larger building and a more modern look and feel to the restaurant’s physical presence. A drive-thru was introduced to the Carmichael location – after all, there were hardly any food franchises in the United States without a drive-thru at that time. For this type of Bahamian restaurant, it proved to be the first of its kind! It should be noted that even before Carmichael was completed, the family began to re-strategize and focus on winning the future – they were ready to expand yet again.
On September 10th, 2009, after much effort in searching for the right location, Checkers opened the doors of its fourth restaurant in the East. This location was the Fox Hill store which was also built with a drive-thru. A wash-house was built adjacent to the restaurant. Both businesses are doing very well. As a result of his business acumen and success with the Checkers brand, Gus was awarded the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year 2009 – 2010.
“The growth potential for Checkers is limitless.” – Gus Cartwright
Checkers believes that there is a strong market for its product and the potential the business has is limitless. The leadership is assured that they have achieved their mission of providing the widest selection of great Bahamian food at competitive prices, while providing excellent customer services and recognizing the value and contributions that their employees bring. The future is wide open. There will be no turning back.