Have you ever gone on vacation and said to yourself, “I could live here?” On a trip to Jamaica, Kalisa Martin entertained that idea — and actually went through with it.
It was during a lingering and nasty New York City winter in March 2014. Martin and her boyfriend Jeff Belizaire decided to escape the snow by taking a last-minute getaway to Jamaica. At the time, Martin had a dream job in the New York culinary world: brand director at Tasting Table, a digital destination for culinary enthusiasts. She also appeared on national television shows like Good Morning America.
But there was something about that trip that spoke to Martin — profoundly.
“That long weekend, the idea of the B&B concept came up and we thought, ‘Why not?’ It could happen, and it could happen right here in Jamaica,” said 30-year-old Martin. “That was the first time we seriously considered the idea.”
Within four months Martin had quit her job and was on her way to Jamaica with Belizaire to create The Runaway, a bed-and-breakfast that has grown into a lifestyle travel brand.
“We ran away from the cold and the typical 9-5 to follow our dreams and create this new life,” says Martin.
And this isn’t your average bed-and-breakfast. The Runaway Jamaica is the first successfully funded B&B on Kickstarter. Backers donated almost $47,000 to help bring the property to life.
The concept: a community-oriented luxury bed-and-breakfast that also serves lunch and dinner. Located on the North Coast of the island, The Runaway focuses on local food, curated cultural experiences and a design that incorporates contemporary art by Jamaican artists. “It’s a unique destination for adventurous travelers to come to live as locals,” says Martin.
As co-founder and executive chef, Martin is responsible for the culinary experience (menu development, recipe testing, ingredient sourcing, cooking for guests), along with the day-to-day operations. This newfound entrepreneur shares what it takes to become an hotelier and live the dream in Jamaica.
Laura Begley Bloom: Tell me about yourself.
Kalisa Martin: I’m a self-proclaimed food nerd and can talk your ear off about ingredients and chemical reactions, issues of food access and topics of food culture. I decided early on that I wanted to learn everything there was to know about food and received degrees in food science and nutrition from Cornell University and chef training from the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.
Begley Bloom: What inspired you to do this?
Martin: I had a dream that could be realized in this project. I wanted to create an intimate culinary experience that I could share with others and a platform on which I could express my food philosophy. I was in the right place and at the right time in my career to make it happen.
Begley Bloom: Why Jamaica?
Martin: Jamaica is my favorite place in the world and it’s incredibly fulfilling to be able to share my love of the island with others. My parents are Jamaican and Jeff’s are Haitian, but we were both born and raised in the Northeast United States. After living in New York City for several years, the lifestyle and pace of Jamaica were a welcome change.
Begley Bloom: How did you come up with the name, The Runaway?
Martin: Besides the literal fact that we’re located in a town called Runaway Bay, it also represents how we ran away to follow our dreams. We hope it entices our guests to run away with us, too, even if just for a few days to change up their scenery, rejuvenate and experience something new.
Begley Bloom: You had no hotel background. How did you do it?
Martin: When we sat down and planned it out, Jeff and I realized that we already possessed the tools to make it a reality. Launching this project just required a reapplication of our skills. We were excited to apply our talents — operations and culinary design from me, brand strategy and marketing from him — to something we could create for ourselves and share with others.
Begley Bloom: Why did you decide to fund the hotel with Kickstarter?
Martin: Since we planned for this to be a community project, we wanted to engage our communities from the very start. Announcing the project on Kickstarter not only gave us a platform to spread the word — and get some up-front capital — but it also invited folks to take this journey with us and be part of the process. We worked with an amazing company called Launchpack to produce our 45-day campaign. Thanks to overwhelming support, we raised almost $47,000 — more than 50% above our goal. It’s amazing how in this day and age, sometimes all you need is a great idea and a demand in the market to build a business. Because of Kickstarter, I was able to focus on the vision first and the capital followed after. If you’re scrappy and resourceful, you can change your life with less than you might think.
Begley Bloom: Tell me about the food concept.
Martin: I use fresh ingredients to create hyperlocal dishes with a progressive take on classic Jamaican flavors. Dishes range from sweet plantain pancakes with spiced maple caramel (breakfast) to pureed callaloo soup with tostone grilled cheese (lunch) to Dragon Stout-braised oxtail ragu over garlic mashed breadfruit (dinner).
Begley Bloom: Where do you source your food?
Martin: Every week, I source food from different groceries and specialty markets, organic farms and farmers’ markets, our local fisherman’s stand and multiple roadside fruit stands. And I get our coffee from a friend who grows and processes his own beans on his boutique coffee farm in the Blue Mountains. Though I could probably find what we need at fewer locations, my goal is to find the highest quality food. Plus, I love meeting and talking with all the food purveyors.
Begley Bloom: What are your secret tips for opening a hotel?
Martin: The details matter and curation makes a difference. That applies to everything — the design, food, local experiences and the communications and interactions with the guests. If patrons are inspired everywhere they look and with every bite of food they taste, they’ll remember it. AND they’ll recommend you to their friends.
Begley Bloom: Did people think you were crazy when you told them you were going to do this?
Martin: Yes! Once people get over the initial shock of what we’re doing, the overwhelming next feeling is inspired. More often than not, folks we encounter have an idea or a project they’ve always dreamt of pursuing but never gave themselves a chance to take it seriously. Hearing us tell our story broadens their perspective of what’s possible.
Begley Bloom: What’s it like to be a woman in the hospitality industry?
Martin: Though I’m not acutely aware of many gender obstacles in small-scale hospitality, there have been instances of sexism that I’ve encountered as a business owner in Jamaica. For example, I could cite times when my partner and boyfriend would be taken more seriously than I would be in a negotiation — to the point where I would send an email and the response would repeatedly be addressed to him instead of me. Fortunately, most business in Jamaica is done face-to-face and once I’m able to assert myself in person, there’s rarely an issue.
Begley Bloom: What’s your advice to other women who want to do something like this?
Martin: Hospitality, like any customer service-focused industry, requires that you put others’ needs before your own. My main advice would be to make sure you balance that prerequisite with self-care. I learned that the hard way. I have a tendency to prioritize whatever thejob might need over my own transient needs — it’s my misguided “commitment to excellence.” When you create your new business routine, incorporate what YOU need into it. If you used to work out in the mornings or always had a moment to yourself to quietly sip coffee and catch up on the news, don’t stop now. If you’re taking care of yourself and feeling good, your product will invariably be better.
Begley Bloom: Any plans to expand?
Martin: We’re going global. The Runaway Experience will offer curated international adventures for travelers by partnering with on-the-ground companies to host intimate group trips. Our first new market will be Cuba. The Runaway Experience will also be the basis for a digital food site, where we’ll be showcasing international culinary scenes — interviewing chefs, meeting artisans, visiting farms, sampling distilleries. It will be a celebration of culture told through the lens of food.