Boy meets girl. They fall in love and get married. Boy and 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 Brooklyn restaurant Kokomo. The restaurant that they opened together has since become an acclaimed Williamsburg fixture for good vibes, great service and Caribbean cuisine favorites like slow-braised oxtail, island pasta, escovitch-style red snapper and wah gwan flatbread.
It’s no surprise, however. Ria Graham is a hospitality veteran who has been able to use her years of experience in the hospitality industry to create one of the hottest new restaurants in New York. That’s not saying it didn’t take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to bring it to fruition — it’s no small feat to open in the middle of the pandemic.The 28-year old and her husband opened the restaurant in June of 2020, and have since gone on to make millions of dollars in sales annually.
But Ria doesn’t just stop there. She recently co-created and helped launch a rum cocktail brand, Good Guice, which she’s hoping will see similar success. For ESSENCE, Ria discusses the challenges of the restaurant business, what it’s like being in business with her husband and how she juggles the demands of entrepreneurship and motherhood.
Approximately 80 percent of restaurants fail within the first five years. What strategies are you putting into place now to ensure that Kokomo has long-term success?
The hospitality industry is one based on trends. If you don’t keep your audience captivated, they will move to the next best thing, labeling you as old news. We dedicate more time than usual thinking about how to engage and captivate our guests. It goes beyond having great food and cocktails; there are many restaurants in New York City that provide that.
We view ourselves as an immersive experience and continually strive to engage our audience. We are actors in an interactive play with the guests as the audience. Our focus is stimulating our guests’ senses with exposure to our culture through the food, music and art so they feel transported to the Caribbean. There is always something new to see, hear or do at Kokomo. We are not afraid of trying new things, as making mistakes is part of that journey.
How did your background help with putting everything into place for opening the restaurant?
I spent my early career in marketing and sales for a local restaurant. My husband, Kevol Graham, spent many years curating dining experiences as part of a band of roving chefs and in nightlife promotions. We have a shared passion for 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 City. 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 the influences of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Kokomo’s menu is a culmination of our experiences and our culture. It celebrates our love of culture, diversity, food and travel.
What are the challenges of being in business with your significant other? How were you able to quickly identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
I fully understand why they say do not go into business with your significant other. Being in business together will quickly uncover all your flaws (and strengths) that were camouflaged. A fast paced, high volume environment makes it even worse because there is no time to deal with it.
A true commitment to your spouse and business and a willingness to confront the issues as they arise will ultimately strengthen your relationship and bring your marriage to another level. At first, we relentlessly pointed out each other’s flaws until it came to a head. We acknowledged that this approach was unsustainable and committed to setting aside the first half hour of each day to pray together. That morning prayer was the beginning of our journey to understanding how to communicate effectively to resolve our issues, how to celebrate each other’s strengths and how to work on our flaws in a positive way. Our marriage, our family and our growing relationship with God remain the most important aspects in our lives.
How do you juggle the demands of entrepreneurship with motherhood?
I sent boundaries 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 during a time I’ve designated for my children. The thought of my children feeling second to my business is something that I wrestle with everyday. What is generational wealth worth if you don’t have a family to enjoy it with. I rather secure my children than secure every business deal that comes my way.
You opened Kokomo at the height of the pandemic. What tactics and strategies did you have you put in place to pivot and ensure your business was successful through this period?
The hardest thing about this journey has been COVID- 19. Opening a restaurant for the 1st time is tough, but the added pressure of opening in the middle of a global pandemic took life to another level. The ability to adapt and pivot were critical. What saved us was our lack of knowledge about industry standards. We learned to run a business first and a restaurant second.