Empire state of mind

The Chin Dynasty: Derek Chin and sons Stefan and Ryan. PHOTO BY Jeff Mayers
The Chin Dynasty: Derek Chin and sons Stefan and Ryan. PHOTO BY Jeff Mayers

FOR more than 15 years, MovieTowne has helped shape the cinema landscape of TT and with the recent opening of MovieTowne Guyana the brand has begun its expansion into other countries. It’s part of Dachin Group CEO Derek Chin’s vision of a regional brand, complimented by their eight (soon to be nine) restaurants, including the brand new Jaxx.

And helping him bring this vision to life are his two sons Ryan, 38, and Stefan, 34. Business Day chatted with the three Chins at MovieTowne, Port of Spain, last week.

Ryan spoke at Rizzoni’s Ristorante Italiano which he manages, along with Brazilian-style steak house Texas De Brazil. He recalled how his father started off with arcade games, then a security business and small fast food restaurants; he remembers helping to portion out fries. One business led to another, culminating with MovieTowne opening in 2002. And with MovieTowne, they needed an anchor restaurant ­– which led to the opening of Ruby Tuesday.

“And from there the rest of the business started to grow.”

Texas de Brazil was opened in 2011 and Rizzoni’s three years later. There were not a lot of Italian, family-oriented restaurants on the market at the time, Ryan said. The name is a portmanteau of Rizo and Pizzoni, the two Italian families that furnished the Chins with recipes for creams, milks and cheeses, and cured meats. The ambience, Ryan explained, is based on the flavours – the Port of Spain Rizzoni’s features a Tuscan-inspired design while the South branch, opened in 2015, has a downtown New York pizzeria aesthetic.

Ryan Chin, manager of Rizzoni’s and Texas De Brazil. PHOTO BY Jeff Mayers

Rizzoni’s has won several awards, including Certificates of Excellence from Trip Advisor. Texas De Brazil has also won a number of corporate awards. Ryan is proud of Rizzoni’s being a popular place for special occasions including a number of marriage proposals ­– all of which were successful to his knowledge.

“We boast about that.”

He was also proud that Rizzoni’s and other group restaurants can compete anywhere in the world.

“These restaurants can go into North America and hold their own.”

On the perennial problem of poor customer service in TT, Ryan said he does not believe it is a cultural problem but there was a need for proper training. He also said he has a focus on treating staff well and allowing for upward mobility. Staff turnover has not been very high and staff were proud to keep the standard of the group’s restaurants high.

The MovieTowne brand, he said, was not just about restaurants and businesses but “synergies of entertainment.”

Did he always see himself being part of the family business? Ryan initially studied sciences and aquaculture but when he did an MBA and got involved with the restaurants, he never wanted to leave. He was also hopeful of younger sister, Alexis, eventually joining the family business.

All That Jaxx

Stefan, who is responsible for the Jaxx restaurants in Trinidad, spoke with Business Day at the Port of Spain location which opened April 1. A local brand, conceptualised by the Dachin group, Jaxx launched at the start of this month, replacing longtime anchor brand, Ruby Tuesday, which is an American franchise.

Director of Dachin Food Services Trinidad Ltd, Stefan Chin, centre, take a photo with the staff of Jaxx International Grill MovieTowne, Port-of-Spain. PHOTO BY AYANNA KINSALE

Stefan explained the international franchise has been in decline for the past couple of years and had been bought out by a private company.

"(Keeping) it would not have been sustainable. It was time to start our own brand and improve things where we felt could have been done better."

The key with Jaxx is fusion. “You get so many different items under one roof. That's why we call it 'the world at your table,'" he said.

In most restaurants, you get American casual dining and Trinis love wings and burgers and those types of dishes.

"But we tried to push the envelope a bit more and a variety of other options like Asian items – noodle bowls, rice bowls – or Mexican aspects like a chili bowl and fajitas as well. We also did some stuff in relation to authentic Indian. So (we have) many different flavours infused together. A variety of exciting dishes you can come and try."

In any group of diners some may be cravings for wings and burgers, others may feel for a chicken tikka massala or others for a rice or noodle bowl.

"So, the key is variety. And you get all these things in one restaurant instead of going to many different restaurants for the authentic experience."

Of course, they had to include local. As part of the fusion theme there will be Trinidadian seasonings and West Indian flavours in some of the dishes, for example, tamarind sauce wings.

How did they come up with the name? Stefan said they played around with different ideas until they settled on Jaxx, which "just felt right".

But a restaurant is only as good as its service and Stefan says customer service was a challenge generally in the industry. But like his brother, he noted that Dachin focuses on retraining their staff to be "up the level of our game."

The dishes are priced at the mid-point, similar to what people would have been familiar with at Ruby Tuesday, and the restaurant is geared towards more casual dining. "All walks of life, all types of food," he said.

The staff from Ruby Tuesday was all retained and more staff was hired. An important feature for the group is that all the Jaxx chefs and staff are local.

"We wanted to create a local brand and that includes the people," Chin said.

Jaxx currently has five locations: Port of Spain, Grand Bazaar, Price Plaza, Gulf City and at the C3 Centre in San Fernando. Stefan said it took a lot of planning to open all five restaurants simultaneously and the logistics were very important. The sixth Jaxx branch will be open in MovieTowne Guyana in mid-April. Stefan said restaurants have to complement the cinemas and vice versa so, wherever MovieTowne goes, the restaurants will go with it.

Mr MovieTowne

The family patriarch, Derek Chin, is the face of MovieTowne. The renowned businessman and entrepreneur described the change from Ruby Tuesday to Jaxx as a good decision overall. In changing, he said, the group had to decide what they would have to change to and how to “stimulate the appetite and the imagination of the people of TT.”

With the change, he added, Dachin was now in charge of its own advertising and will be saving on foreign exchange, access to which he said was a challenge. To counteract, the company has been focusing on sourcing local products and services.

On the culinary side, Derek said while Ruby Tuesday had burgers and ribs, at Jaxx there will be new things on the menu.

“I think it is very refreshing. And we are getting good feedback.”

Chairman of MovieTowne, Derek Chin and his son Stefan at the VIP Platinum Cinema and Lounge. PHOTO BY AYANNA KINSALE

He said customers like the fact they have the choice of cuisines from around the world. And with this extended offering, specialty nights were being planned, like Cuban or authentic Chinese.

MovieTowne, Derek said has been a journey and the Fiesta Plaza (the performance space in MovieTowne, Port of Spain) has unearthed a lot of talent.

“The people love the place. MovieTowne has made me a celebrity ­– not that I wanted to be.”

Derek has launched four MovieTownes – the flagship in Port of Spain, another in Price Plaza Chaguanas, Gulf City Lowlands Tobago, and C3 Shopping Complex in San Fernando. With those four, he said he felt that “we needed to start looking at this brand which has become so popular” and start looking around for expansion opportunities. Derek was born in Guyana, and some of the group’s directors have roots there – it was the next logical step.

“Ten years ago, I said let’s give (MovieTowne Guyana) a shot. So, it’s not just a decision we made overnight.”

MovieTowne Guyana was opened on March 14 and the opening ceremony including representatives of the Guyanese government.

But the brand will always be from Trinidad and Tobago. Chin said MovieTowne is a brand Trinidadians call their own and do so with enthusiasm. The group is looking to extend further into the region and Derek has been in talks with the governments of St Lucia and Jamaica.

“(We have to) just take a deep breath and decide where we want to go.”

It’s been a wonderful journey since first opening MovieTowne in 2002, Derek said.

“I didn’t expect it would become a household name."

MovieTowne had seen growth from 2002 to about 2014/2015, he said, and was able to attract 1.6 million customers two years ago. For the last two years, though, the box office has been a bit quiet, which Derek attributed to the rise of streaming services like Netflix and customers having other viewing options. It was up to the marketing department to fill the gaps.

“We don’t just sell movies here; we give experiences.”

In 2002, cinema was a dying industry and many were closing down or being converted into churches. Chin said he was glad to have given the industry new life and he hopes his children will pick up the mantle and take it to the next level.

On new technologies in the industry, Derek said he was not a fan of 4DX, which some of his competitors have introduced, but he was looking at a simulator experience for MovieTowne. He said he was inspired by what his competitors were doing. “Look at what we created.”

He is also inspired when he sees little children enjoying themselves and calling him “Mr MovieTowne.”

“We had an impact in the country. It makes me feel good.”


"Empire state of mind"

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