So you’d like to open a restaurant in the Dominican Republic?
As any traveler or world citizen worthy of their backpacks and open tickets to adventure will tell you: it’s the people one meets, and the stories shared along the way that are perhaps the most significant rewards of a life lived on the road or abroad.
When I first crash-landed in the Dominican Republic, I was finished with my former life in music and ready to get on with a whole new chapter. Or so I thought.
Necessity being the mother of invention that it is, etc., etc.—I soon found that wistfully strumming my ukulele to the birds, palm trees, and the trade winds that made them all dance— just wasn’t cutting it.
It seemed that I still had some unfinished business.
After a particularly inspired rum-fueled night of reckless hedonistic abandon, I found myself sat in a settee in Cabarete, wildly strumming the very excellent Larrivee acoustic guitar of a new multi-instrumental-playing friend named David. The guitar sang and chimed along with my vocal wailing like a six-stringed symphony.
And that was it. The fickle, fleeting muse of music had bitten me in the backside once again and seemingly wouldn’t let go.
Soon David and I were off and running—playing a procession of north shore tiki bars and clubs. Through the kind suggestion of a well-established local keyboardist named Andrea, we were invited to play the well known Chez Arsenio restaurant, which was a significant step for us.
As we came to know the owners, it quickly became apparent that there was much more to this story than just another restaurant founded by hopeful expats in an idyllic tropical on-the-beach setting.
Sitting at J-P’s table by the stairs leading down from the beachside under the spacious poolside palapa hut before, during, and after our musical sets, I would come to know Anne and her husband as friends and as highly-supportive members of my newly-discovered local community – as so many others had also come to know them.
They are very special people.
J-P has a neuro-muscular condition known as Oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy or OPMD, a debilitating but non-life-threatening form of muscular dystrophy. OPMD is a genetic condition that goes back many generations. It is an adult-onset condition, and he has known for many years that it would soon come into his life. So far, he has been living with it for 25 years.
After many years of vacationing in the DR, Anne and J-P decided that the north coast was the place to build a dream home that would accommodate J-P’s future life in a wheelchair.
The north coast was perfect. It has everything that one needs to have a healthy life plus a delightful year-round climate. The clincher was affordability. An affordable dream home plus an economical domestic staff that was required to support J-P’s restricted physical ability was readily available in the DR.
They built their wheelchair-friendly dream house, but soon, the dream home became almost like a prison. It was perfect for wheelchair access all around the premises, but it essentially became the total sphere of existence. There were occasional visits to area restaurants, but the experience was always full of stairs to negotiate narrow passages and totally inaccessible bathrooms. So these excursions were few.
The solution came to Anne in a brilliant flash of inspiration. They would open the then-closed Hideaway Beach restaurant. J-P could drive his golf cart to and from the restaurant, and the range and scope of living would greatly expand. They would have a place to go to get out of the house and a chance to meet new people and make new friends. Opening the restaurant created a great social experience that continues today.
To maintain his health and mobility, J-P swims a 1/4 mile each day (402.3 meters or 22 laps in the pool to you non-math types) in his 20-yard (18.3 meters) lap pool and then works out with pool weights, push-ups, and pull-ups.
For most of their lives, Anne and J-P had built their lives around J-P’s ideas and needs. And it could be said quite rightly that the move to the DR and the quest for a great place to eat were also done mainly to accommodate J-P.
But that quest also allowed Anne to assert her own skills and talents in building and growing the Chez Arsenio brand.
As J-P relates: “Given her proficiency for planning, list-making, and detail, Anne dug right into Chez Arsenio and took care of all the little details. Chez Arsenio was the perfect antidote to an otherwise boring life. There were many benefits for her… a social life, new friends almost daily, a chance to build something of her own (we had always built our lives around my ideas). And she did a great job of building the Chez Arsenio brand.”
In helping themselves, they also helped the local Dominican community. Again, J-P elaborates: “We also got to become part of the Dominican community…Hiring a staff of 8-10 Dominicans…supporting Dominican businesses and families. We have a lot of Dominicans that we regard as family. We are truly part of the Dominican experience.”
What follows is the story of a truly genuine Dominican experience from a couple of remarkable expatriates who, despite a few extra challenges and obstacles, never let those potential setbacks hold them back. To the contrary: they overcame them all and built an incredibly rewarding and meaningful life in the little island nation that made it all possible.
Anne, J-P, and Arsenio’s story
One starry night many years ago (2009), Anne and J-P sat out on their terrace. As the trade winds blustered in from the Atlantic side of their recently-adopted home in the heart of the Caribbean, the couple mused about a convenient place to eat.
Due to OPMD, J-P was slowly losing physical function, so the conversation centered around their finding someplace suitable without too many intervening steps or stairs. The couple had to solve this problem because Anne was in the DR part-time and J-P spent nearly all year in the island nation. J-P needed a place to eat and something to do besides productive puttering, so the search was on.
They knew about a rudimentary restaurant, rustic and scenic, located at Hideaway Beach Resort. There was one huge problem. The restaurant had no food. If you wanted something to eat, they had to get on a moto and go buy your food. There was a good reason for this…the restaurant was only open to owners and renters (not open to the public), and there were very few owners and renters.
Anne thought about this and came up with the idea of operating a restaurant at Hideaway Beach and of making it open to the public. She contacted the owners of the restaurant to see if they would be receptive to the idea. The owners agreed, and the couple was off to a life as restaurateurs…sort of.
Anne had been and is a lifelong accountant and J-P a mechanical Engineer. So their choice of life in the foodservice sector wouldn’t seem to make much sense. But Anne had an angle and ideas that made the whole thing possible.
Anne & J-P had known Chef Arsenio Martinez for many years and wondered if they could induce Chef Arsenio to be the chef and manage this restaurant.
After a bit of sleuthing, they found out where Chef Arsenio was working…a sports bar serving wings and fried cheese…not exactly what he was professionally trained to do. Chef Arsenio was professionally trained by a major hotel corporation.
So they donned disguises and pretended to be customers at the sports bar. They asked the waiter if Arsenio was there. He replied yes, he was in the kitchen. They asked the waiter to tell Arsenio that some people wanted to talk to him. Arsenio appeared shortly and peering into the darkened restaurant he exclaimed, Oh, it’s you!! He sat down, and they explained the plan to operate the Hideaway restaurant. Arsenio was thrilled…he had a tear in his eye. J-P said: “I assume that tear in your eye means yes?” Arsenio choked up, just nodded. J-P then said: “We want to call it Chez Arsenio!” Arsenio then said, “But that’s my name!”
J-P responded: “We checked with many people if they were familiar with Arsenio Martinez. Everyone answered that he’s the best…when you have a proven brand name like Arsenio, you use it… ’brand recognition.’” Chez Arsenio was born.
Arsenio was a whirlwind. A magnificent manager, he knew precisely what staff to hire, knew where to buy the best food at the best prices, knew what his specialties were, and built the menu around them. He was driven to have a clean restaurant and keep it that way.
Furniture…kitchen equipment…place settings…a thousand small things…nothing a little money couldn’t solve. Combined with Arsenio’s talents, shortly a new fine dining and entertainment establishment emerged from the palms sprouting in full splendor in the surreal beauty of the Dominican beach that defined its location.
The biggest problem the new restaurateurs faced was getting customers…who would be their target market, and how do they get them to come to Chez Arsenio? How to build the customer base—or even make it known that the place was now open to the public? These were the most elusive and challenging things to accomplish.
Hideaway Beach, as the name implies, is not easy to get to. You need a car, or you need to take a taxi…and even then, you need to find the place. The location was both idyllic and a drawback.
Located about halfway between Sosúa and Cabarete, it was difficult to get to but ultimately worth the effort. The garden-like environs, the lush seaside palm grove’s grass-lined trails to the ocean, the rustic restaurant, the peacocks roaming the grounds, all combined for a memorable experience. But the experience was not had by very many at first.
The restaurant is located next to a top-rated surf beach. An attempt was made to lure customers from the crowd who came to surf or to watch the surfers. But alas, surfers and their posse tend to be more of a two-dollar tacos, munchies, and one-dollar beers bunch—not really fine dining aficionados. So not much happened with that crowd.
Gradually, the venue built up a client base composed of locals and tourists who heard about the place through word of mouth. Chez Arsenio slowly built an excellent dining reputation and often appeared in a positive swirl of comments and reviews on social media.
With its on-the-beach positioning and secluded private grounds-feel, Chez Arsenio became a sought-after venue for weddings. The location, the food, and the staff all received high praise. Destination weddings are popular but not enough to build a business.
Gradually, through nine years of effort, Anne, J-P, chef Arsenio, and staff built up a pretty decent customer base. They always prided themselves on having repeat customers—the hallmark of a good restaurant.
The emphasis was always on great food at reasonable prices. The combination of the two equals value to their value-conscious customers. Add to this an attentive staff, comfortable furniture, and a unique scenic environment, and you have a memorable dining experience.
Over the years, Chez Arsenio developed special events. Live music was introduced several years ago and has proven to be a good attraction on Friday and Saturday nights. Fortunately, there is a pretty decent pool of local quality musical acts.
One of the most essential dining aspects to address was that of holidays. With this in mind, Arsenio developed what would become a wildly popular Thanksgiving dinner (American) that draws hundreds every year. He then quickly followed up with special dinner feasts for Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day.
Lastly, there is the enormously popular Easter Egg hunt which attracts local families with young children. The praise from the parents is heartwarming. The relationship they’ve built with the local community is one of the most significant rewards Anne and J-P have received from their culinary adventure.
Coda: the beat goes on, and the journey continues…
Recently, Chez Arsenio lost its lease of the restaurant at Hideaway Beach. After much searching and negotiating, there will be a re-launching of Chez Arsenio at the Ocean Palms Residences: just to the east of the Encuentro Beach Rd. This will not be a new beginning but a continuation of what was built at Hideaway Beach…the same great food, staff, and entertainment that locals have come to expect.
Of all the success a person might have with a new venture in a new land, it is the success with personal connections that have resonated most deeply with J-P and Anne: the friends they have made and the families they have helped along the way.
No part of their journey has been easy. There have been all the regular complications, challenges, setbacks, and obstacles encountered in setting up a new life and business in a new country.
But as he waxes philosophical over a glass of red wine at his new favorite table, J-P recalls that starry quizzical night on that windswept Caribbean-Atlantic north coast terrace back in 2009. And suddenly it clicks: new land, new business, new location even—in helping others as much as himself—J-P finally has an ideal place for dinner surrounded by friends, compliments of a dream and the Dominican Republic.
So, if you happen to be anywhere near the Puerto Plata region next Saturday, come on out and join Anne, J-P, Arsenio, Andrea, staff, and a host of well-wishers from the communities of Sosúa and Cabarete for the launch of Chez Arsenio at their new location in the Ocean Palms Residences: just to the east of the Encuentro Beach Rd., Saturday, October 5th, 2019. Music starts at 7 PM with the always entertaining keyboard and vocal antics of Andrea.