The GRIOT Cafe ~ A Story " The Place, The Food & The People " By: William Kunga

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

Hidden amongst the countless stores of the bustling Jersey City Heights Shopping District is a small, calm blue sanctuary laced with gold. This is The Griot Cafe. As I entered into this enclave, I was immediately flooded by a sense of tranquility and warmth, a calm in the middle the effervescent Central Avenue. The art hung on the walls, the bookshelf on the side, the relaxed lighting, and chill music created an aesthetic ambience that one seeks for exactly in a cafe.

John Gichuru

The Griot Cafe is run by four ambitious and upcoming business partners/friends, one of which I had the pleasure of interviewing this month. Despite his obviously busy schedule for the cafe, John was able to sit down and talk for the interview. John is one of the full time partners of the cafe. Running the cafe entails a lot of work for him and his friends, short term and long term. In addition to being a full time partner, John also handles the Griot’s day-to-day operations: custom service, coffee bars, and just about everything.

Meaning behind The Griot.
The word “griot” has dual meaning. In Haiti, it is a popular, citrus, marinated pork dish, served at parties and family gatherings. In West Africa - a "griot" is a poet, storyteller that uses oral tradition to pass down stories and connect generations of people.

After the group’s long brainstorming session, the name was chosen because 1. It was “the” name - a simple and perfect appellation. 2. it matched the meaning that these entrepreneurs wanted for the cafe. They want to tell a story and connect people like griots did, except through food. They do this by serving diverse, new flavors from the places they are all from (Kenya, Haiti, South Africa, and Senegal). Aside from their delicious griot sandwiches, their other signature dish is the turno (short for turnover). It is a sort of Haitian equivalent to empanadas except with more exotic spices.

Making The Griot

“What did you have to do to create such an establishment”

”A lot!” Being entrepreneurs, they were all quite new in the business world but did gain some insight from working in startups and even from their employees. Nevertheless, actually creating and managing their own cafe was and still is a grand challenge. The following they have now is the result of months of dedication and sacrifice. The search for great employees and the love they've invested into the space all led to the haven that exists today.

Before the group of friends first decided to become entrepreneurs they were all had been financial professionals who just wanted to get into business. They knew they needed a plan and a cause. They came to the conclusion of starting a cafe to bring people peacefully together. The actual planning took about 2 1⁄2 months. They then needed to find a space. The Heights was a great location to start up considering some of them knew the area already. The rental prices were better than in Newark (their primary plan), and the location in the busy shopping district was ideal. The construction phase took seven months in total, then they started hiring. The cafe was finally opened for business in March of 2018. Although they started slow, their faithful following is constantly growing. Their anniversary is fast approaching.


“Is there a specific thing that keeps you moving on?”

“The customers. People coming here for their first dates, coming as two separate strangers, and leaving as friends.”

The goal of the cafe is not only to link us to other parts of the world through food but also to unite us !

As previously mentioned, being successful in this industry entails many setbacks and struggles. John stays determined by remembering his cause: the people. Like the griots of the past, who connected people through story they provide a comfortable environment for people to commingle. They are a community cafe whose product isn’t just commercial, but also heartfelt. I myself could see the community that they formed within the cafe each time John opened the door with a handshake and a smile to his returning customers. Each time they feel and hear customer appreciation, they are happy knowing their hard work is paying off. In the summer, when many international tourists come, Victor, another one of the business partners who speaks 4+ languages, can usually speak with them, epitomizing the meaning of their establishment.

Entrepreneur Advice from John
  • Get a plan and have a good viable product, that is what you want to offer to the general public

  • You need someone great with numbers

  • Have fun with it!

  • There’s going to be a lot of problems but that’s how you learn

  • If it’s too easy, it’s probably not worth it

  • You’re either in or you’re out, no halfway

For Partner Work:
  • Make sure you get along with them and respect each other because they help fulfill your vision

  • Understand each others’ expectations

  • Once you start so many things go wrong and you need to be able to trace something back to find who had the responsibility (not blaming) and to understanding the problem

  • You have to be willing to help, and do everything

  • This includes being the first to arrive and the last to leave work, like John

  • You need to put the needs and wants of your employees first

  • It feels good and turns out for the better when you do!

  • Be willing to do anything

  • Down the line, when you hire someone to do a specific task, it’ll be easy to know how much to pay them fairly

  • Let people make mistakes, everyone is always learning

A quote John lives by:
“In the fundamentals of anything that we do, it's important to be consistent”

The Griot Cafe is located at 432 Central Ave. Jersey City, New Jersey 07307.

Visit this charming cafe, savor their delicious food and

follow them on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/griotcafe/

© Melida Rodas 2018   Web Developer / Writer / Multimedia Artist