Barbados is reputed to be the restaurant capital of the Caribbean. British film director Michael Winner, while endorsing the Barbados Gourmet card, stated that the food in Barbados is the most enjoyable in the world. I once met a visitor who told me that you can eat in a different restaurant every day in Barbados for one year and never get through all the restaurants on the island.

Although that designation of restaurant capital of the Caribbean may not be official, it is certainly fitting, given the larger number of restaurants, from backyard to fine dining, that occupy this 166 square miles.

Dining in Barbados is definitely an experience for anyone who appreciates good food, and culinary tourism has become one of the fastest growing niches on the island. The interest in dining out in the island has transcended the focus on mainly visitors, and has permeated the local market, where the international trend of convenience has lured busy Bajans away from the kitchen, to track down the best eateries for breakfast lunch or dinner. It is a known fact in Barbados that food sells. Apart form the national pastime of pudding and souse limes on Saturday at renowned locations, locals frequent anything from fast food establishments, to local cook shops, to sports bars, hotels and stand alone restaurants, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Special occasions such as mother’s day, Valentines Day, anniversaries and birthdays are all occasions to dine away from home. Even Christmas is now one of the biggest dining seasons for locals, and the traditional home cooked Sunday lunch is often replaced with a trip to a fast food establishment or restaurant buffet.

This growth in domestic dining has helped to sustain many of the local restaurants and has lead to a growth in the number of restaurants on island. Certainly, the importance of restaurants pursuing and maintaining a strong domestic customer base is evident in these economic times, when we witness the closure of several restaurants on island due to the down turn in business. Those restaurants with a strong local customer base are weathering the downturn. Those who mainly wooed visitors to the island are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to stay in business at this time.

However the issue of pursuing a local customer base is a sensitive one. There is a school of thought which states that locals do not dine out for several reasons; these include: restaurant prices are too high, restaurant food is too fancy and locals like to eat what is familiar, locals do not feel comfortable in restaurants because they are not treated the same as visitors. I don’t think a survey has ever been taken to test the attitudes of locals to particularly fine dining. Maybe that is a topic that we can explore later. However, we do know that these perceptions may be myths or perhaps excuses.

With the high cost of inputs to our food and beverage industry, coupled with the current inadequacy of our local food production, thereby making it necessary to import a large percentage of food and beverage input, the claim that it is costly to dine out can be substantiated. The fact that our labour costs are among the highest in the region also compounds this issue. However, there are so many dining options, from al fresco at Oistins to exquisite luxury at some of our fine dining establishments, that there is something for everyone. Fine dining options also range from within the region of BB$120 per person on average, which considering the cost of fine dining internationally, is not excessive.

What is fact is that there are a large number of locals on island who frequently dine out at fine dining establishments. Programs like the Taste of Barbados Food Festival and the BHTA’s Gourmet Evenings with the Barbados culinary team, have made tremendous inroads in encouraging locals to experience fine dining. The food festival was the catalyst for a group called the Frugal Feasters.  Formed at Zen restaurant at The Crane during the first Taste of Barbados Festival, this group of young professionals took advantage of the restaurant dine around specials and booked at Zen.  They enjoyed the experience so much that the small group has now grown to over 150 young professionals who dine at a different restaurant, as a group, each month.

The growing local “foodie” culture is also being fueled by the rapidly growing interest in all things culinary that is occurring internationally. 27 million travelers in the US market alone, engage in culinary or wine-related activities while traveling. Champions of this growth are channels like The Food Network and the BBC, that have developed and capitalized on a growing army of “foodies” who see the once hidden away in the kitchen Chef as a celebrity.  Today, celebrity chefs are paid like movie stars for appearances at food festivals and events worldwide.  Following closely on their heels are celebrity bartenders, many now referred to as mixologists.

This growing interest in food worldwide has seen the growth of the culinary travel agents and tour operators, who specialize in planning culinary travel experiences. Destinations, cruise ships and hotels across the world are re-strategizing to include culinary tourism offerings in their products. Many are seeking to capitalize on their unique competitive advantage, merging elements of community and agro-tourism with the culinary niches, creating unique experiences for visitors, similar to the traditional vineyard tours in destinations such as France and California.

It seems that the world has woken up and smelled the coffee, literally. The opportunities of culinary tourism are limitless, and Barbados, perhaps more than any other regional destination is poised to take full advantage of it. The diversity of our culinary landscape, the easy access to an abundance of fresh local and international produce, the high level of trained food and beverage professionals on the island, the growing interest among young people in pursuing culinary careers, and the recent realization that Barbados already has a unique competitive advantage that can be packaged and marketed to the world, make us poised as a destination to capitalize on this growing international trend.

This small island has the distinction of being the first and only island in the Caribbean to be awarded its own ZAGAT guide. This in itself is testimony to our claim of being the restaurant capital of the Caribbean. The growing interest in our very young food festival, with enquiries coming from far off nations such as China and Iraq, shows that we are on the international foodie radar. What could be a better sell than a sunny Caribbean vacation packaged with great food and drinks and the chance to explore one of the richest culinary heritages in the world.

Barbados has one of the most cosmopolitan dining landscapes in the world, with influences coming not only from our forefathers, but from the many cultures that have visited and settled on our shores over the years. To not take advantage of this would be to ignore what would otherwise be a very lucrative niche for the island.

Our traditional methods of promoting the island need to change to embrace what is now one of the fastest growing trends in international travel and tourism. While it is fair to state that people do visit our shores for sea, sun and sand, it is also a fact that visitors do not have to go to the beach, they do not have to dive, or take a tour.  However, the one thing that each and every visitor must do when they visit our island, is eat. Whether it is international cuisine, our local cuisine done all fancy to world class standards, or even if it is a good ball of cou cou and flying fish, or a fish platter from Oistins, Barbados has so much to offer that even the most discerning of customer will be satisfied.

Next time we will explore some of the challenges within our food and beverage industry that need to be addressed if we are to maintain our claim of being the restaurant capital of the Caribbean. Our neighboring islands are “hot on our heals”, developing their culinary niches and adding restaurants to their repertoire. The exclusive period for the ZAGAT guide also nears its end, which means that soon there will be other Caribbean nations, other than Barbados, with ZAGAT guides. We will explore what the culinary industry in Barbados needs to do to maintain the reputation as a leading culinary destination, especially considering that Jamaican food is more renowned internationally than Bajan cuisine.