This Black Female Entrepreneur Opened One of Brooklyn’s Hottest Restaurants During the Height of the Pandemic — Here’s How She Did It
A boy meets a girl. They fall in love and get married. A boy and a girl build a restaurant empire – and the rest is history.
At least that’s the shortened version of the love story between Ria and Kevol Graham, co-founders of the Brooklyn restaurant. Kokomo. The restaurant they opened together has since become a Williamsburg staple for its good vibes, great service and Caribbean cuisine favorites like slow-braised oxtail, island pasta, style red snapper escovitch and wah gwan flatbread.
It’s no surprise, however. Ria Graham is a hospitality veteran who was able to use her years of experience in the hospitality industry to create one of New York’s hottest new restaurants. That’s not to say it didn’t take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to pull it off – it’s no small feat to open in the midst of the pandemic. The 28-year-old and her husband opened the restaurant in June 2020, and have since made millions of dollars in sales a year.
But Ria does not stop there. She recently co-created and participated in the launch of a brand of rum cocktails, Good Guice, which she hopes will enjoy similar success. For ESSENCE, Ria discusses the challenges of the restaurant business, what it’s like to be in business with her husband, and how she juggles the demands of entrepreneurship and motherhood.
About 80% of restaurants fail within the first five years. What strategies are you putting in place now to ensure Kokomo’s long-term success?
The hospitality industry is based on trends. If you don’t keep your audience captivated, they’ll move on to the next best thing, labeling you as old news. We’re spending more time than usual thinking about how to engage and captivate our customers. It goes beyond great food and cocktails; there are many restaurants in New York that offer this.
We consider ourselves an immersive experience and continually strive to engage our audience. We are the actors of an interactive theater play with the guests as spectators. Our goal is to stimulate our guests’ senses by exposing them to our culture through food, music and art so that they feel transported to the Caribbean. There is always something new to see, hear or do in Kokomo. We’re not afraid to try new things, because making mistakes is part of this journey.
How did your experience help set everything up for the opening of the restaurant?
I spent my early career in marketing and sales for a local restaurant. My husband, Kevol Graham, has spent many years running culinary experiences with a traveling chef group and nightly promotions. We have a common passion for the culinary arts and hospitality. Kokomo was a natural progression for our passion.
What was the inspiration behind the menu? What sets Kokomo apart from other restaurants in Brooklyn?
Kevol and I are both from New York. We travel extensively and have a deep love for our Caribbean heritage and culture. We knew we wanted to design the menu to reflect who we are and the versatility of the Caribbean as defined by influences from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Kokomo’s menu is the culmination of our experiences and our culture. It celebrates our love of culture, diversity, gastronomy and travel.
What are the challenges of being in business with your significant other? How were you able to quickly identify everyone’s strengths and weaknesses?
I totally understand why they say don’t do business with your partner. Being in business together will allow you to quickly discover all your flaws (and strengths) that have been covered up. A fast-paced, high-volume environment makes it even worse because you don’t have time to deal with it.
A genuine commitment to your spouse and your business and a willingness to deal with problems as they arise will ultimately strengthen your relationship and take your marriage to another level. At first, we relentlessly pointed out each other’s flaws until it came to a head. We recognized that this approach was unsustainable and made a commitment to set aside the first half hour of each day to pray together. This morning prayer was the start of our journey to understand how to communicate effectively to solve our problems, how to celebrate each other’s strengths, and how to work on our shortcomings in a positive way. Our marriage, our family, and our growing relationship with God remain the most important aspects of our lives.
How do you juggle the demands of entrepreneurship and motherhood?
I sent limits mainly around my personal life. I allow my children to come to work with me but I will not allow my work to come with me for a period that I have designated for my children. The idea of my children feeling secondary to my business is something I struggle with every day. What is generational wealth worth if you don’t have a family to enjoy it with. I’d rather secure my children than secure every business transaction that comes my way.
You opened Kokomo at the height of the pandemic. What tactics and strategies have you put in place to pivot and ensure the success of your business during this time?
The hardest thing about this trip was COVID-19. Opening a restaurant for the first time is tough, but the added pressure of opening in the midst of a global pandemic has taken life to another level. The ability to adapt and pivot was essential. What saved us was our lack of knowledge about industry standards. We learned how to run a business first and then a restaurant.