Pouring passion into food business
Entrepreneur leaves building trades for Hyde Park eatery
For more than seven years now, Hyde Park’s ZaZ restaurant has been offering a fresh and healthy menu that focuses on Caribbean and Asian fare, from BBQ Chili Jerk Chicken to Quinoa Asian Shrimp Wraps and Thai Basil Fried Rice.
Olrie Roberts, owner and chef of the restaurant, was born and raised in Grenada, West Indies, and came to the United States in 1999. For his whole life, he says, he was exposed to food and its preparation, but he truly discovered his passion and love for cooking when his friend would ask him to prepare several different dishes when Roberts would attend events. This led him to enter the catering field.
ZaZ restaurant opened in 2011, and the entrepreneur’s two children, Zaria and Zalin, inspired its name. The restaurant itself is small, containing 21 seats. ZaZ also offers catering for major events such as weddings and parties.
The following interview with Olrie Roberts has been edited for brevity.
What made you decide to start a restaurant?
I started cooking at a young age. I’m from the Caribbean and, growing up with my grandparents, you kind of needed to know how to cook. When I came to the States, I became a welder. I was doing physical labor for 10 years. And then I started working at a bakery and I always was fascinated with pastry. I wanted to learn how to bake. And because of the bakery experience, I ended up meeting the chef at a country club and he invited me to come and work at the kitchen as an assistant. I had the opportunity to go there and work. And ever since then, I kind of did that, and I went to Spain, I lived in Spain for a few years, and I learned to cook over there as well. I went to culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu.
What were some of the challenges you faced opening a restaurant?
As always with a small business, it’s going to be difficult. So I think financially I had to make a lot of sacrifices in the beginning, and still do. I was a foreman at my previous jobs. I was making pretty good money. And I left that industry and I went to the culinary industry, making [about] a third of what I was making before. So, it was a pretty major transition for me, but my passion was cooking, so I kind of closed my eyes and I went by faith and did it. But the challenges were always financial.
How did you finance the launch of your business?
At that time, I was going through a divorce, So, I had lost the house to foreclosure and my credit was horrible. And horrible credit means I couldn’t get any loans or anything like that, so I had to use everything I had. I sold my cars, and I sold jewelry that I had. I went into this like dropping from an airplane — and I was hoping that the parachute would work! At the time, no one knew of me, no one had heard of me or knew what I was about. So I had to build the brand from the ground up. And we did that.
What are the advantages of being in Hyde Park?
I was being open-minded at the time and I didn’t care about the location. But I don’t believe in coincidence. I looked at a space in Mattapan that I was interested in. The landlord took me to this other location that I’m in right now. I loved it over here because of the transit. There is a train station, there is a police station, fire station. So the decision was easy because this area is very busy in terms of foot traffic, and that’s what drives my business.
What do you like about owning a restaurant?
I do a lot of different things now, like charity stuff. I train people that have a passion for cooking. Cooking comes easy for me, it’s like second nature, it’s natural. Being able to teach people and do stuff for the kids at the YMCA and different foundation I support — being able to have that platform at this point in my life been beneficial to me.