The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!
Saipan has a new entrepreneur and his name, coincidentally enough, is Mérchant.
With a passion for cooking, Mérchant Thompson (pronounced mer-shaunt) has taken the leap to become the CNMI’s newest "Saipanpreneur" as owner proprietor and chef extraordinaire of Cheap Cut, Saipan’s newest barbecue joint.
Originally from West Virginia, Mérchant left home at the age of 22 for a career in the military. While in the military, he got his first undergraduate degree in General Education from Central Texas College. After accumulating 24 years of military service, he retired as a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer) out of Alaska. He then resumed his pursuit of education to achieve a second undergraduate degree—a double major in Psychology and Social Work from the University of Fairbanks in Alaska. He then continued even further to obtain a master’s degree in International Education from Framingham State College in Massachusetts.
A behavioral psychologist with a focus on substance abuse, he now works at the Community Guidance Center on Navy Hill as a Substance Abuse Counselor Professional for that organization’s Outpatient Program.
I had a chance to spend some time recently at Cheap Cut with Mérchant, discussing life, love, family and the pursuit of passion.
Except for the fact that he says he likes structure, and “loves it when a plan comes together”, Mérchant doesn’t seem to carry his military mind and past into his new life.
In fact, if you chat long enough with him, you get the sense that family, above all else, is what’s important, and always has been. As the sole surviving member of his own immediate birth family, one can perhaps understand why.
So, what brought you to Saipan?
“Employment is what actually brought me here. But I had this passion of being a father again, you know, to raise a family. I was working at Juno Recovery Hospital at the time. All my schooling was done, so I had room to reevaluate myself, and figure out what I wanted to do, and I decided I wanted a family. At about that same time, a co-worker introduced me to the dynamics and virtues of Saipan. The opportunity presented itself, I registered and got employed at CGC, and well, followed my agenda.”
Mérchant arrived on Saipan in 2002, and true to his dream, it was here that he met his wife, Rose, a Philippine native with whom he now has two children.
What other entrepreneurial ventures have you been involved in?
“I spent most of my military service in Alaska. Ended up being there from 1986-2002. While I was there, I raise and sold Rottweilers. I had government contracts for janitorial service, maintenance and repair. I also had my own fishing and sightseeing tour business in Alaska, and also had barbecue stands there as well. In Juno I was a manager of a barbecue stand. In Fairbanks, I managed my own stand.”
I also understand you do some other non-cooking ventures here on Saipan as well.
“I also do part-time remodeling, construction and painting.” (He painted the Guala Rai church.) That’s just a part-time thing, but we focus on doing it affordably so people can get their places remodeled or built.
What’s your passion?
“I love cooking. I cooked my way through college. I’m a certified Chef I, and at one time I was certified as Chef II, cooking for four- or five-star hotels in Fairbanks, and Juno. Other than that, there’s fishing, walking, lifting weights, and any activity with my family.”
What’s Cheap Cut all about? What’s your “wow factor?”
“My mother was a cook, a very good one, entirely self-taught. She cooked for a living, so all us kids grew up learning how to cook for ourselves. She taught us different styles of cooking and how to cook certain things like pork, ribs, you name it.
“Just like here on Saipan, life in Alaska was very multi-cultural. Everyone I met was essentially an ambassador of their own culture, bringing their unique styles, traditions and tastes to the mix so that everyone could experience it. As a result, I learned styles and techniques from a diverse group of people. So my cooking is a mix of cultural styles...
“And now that I’ve been living on Saipan, Cheap Cut is a blend of cooking styles that combines my respect of the local culture with my passion for cooking. This is a gourmet-type barbecue stand. It’s not just your regular barbecue stand. So you can call it Southern style, backyard-barbecue cuisine, locally flavored with a gourmet twist!”
“As far as what’s unique to Cheap Cut, I also have a special dill sauce, our own salmon sauce, there’s a sauce for the barbecue, and there are special combination sauces—Chamorro style, Filipino styles and Southern styles of marinating all combined for unique tastes. They’re all homemade. It may be just a good piece of meat when I start, but trust me, once you taste it with some my secret Chamorro marinades or Filipino sauces, it becomes a Cheap Cut delicacy like no other!”
And what can we get at Cheap Cut?
“Quality meat. There’s roasted chicken, Cornish hen, baby back ribs, pork ribs, grilled salmon, tilapia, and other local fish upon request, and if I can get it, all at reasonable prices. There’s nothing over $7.50 on the menu.
“We’ve been doing the Thursday Street Market for about a year now. Now that we have a physical location, we’ll be expanding our menu. So people should stop by and tell me what they’d like to try.”
I always tell people that just because they have a passion for cooking, for instance, that a restaurant is not necessarily the only way to go. Some people like the creation aspect and the public response, some people like to use food to heal, some people like teaching culinary skills to others. What’s the attraction for you?
“I personally enjoy the feedback. People tell me what they like, and I get a kick from fixing different things to meet their tastes. I enjoy it whether they say it tastes good, or it tastes bad. That gives me growth room to go back and say, ‘Let’s fix this to see how we can please the customer.’ People eat, they’re happy.
“I prepared some gumbo once for the Thursday Street Market, and the response was so great that people are coming to Cheap Cut now asking for gumbo!”
What are your plans for Cheap Cut?
“Right now we’re primarily “call-up and carry out.” If you call at 3pm, your meals are ready by 4pm, or if you just stop by you can get something to carry out. We’ll be opening for lunch in the next couple weeks. When that happens, we’ll probably open from 11-1pm, and then from 3-9pm.
Who knows, if things go well, we’ll expand to other locations in various areas of the island—Kagman, Garapan, Koblerville.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?
“A lot of people spend too much time worrying. My advice is do it and worry about it later. What I mean is sit and plan, then execute, evaluate your performance, learn from your mistakes, and then take the next step. Everything’s a learning curve. No one ever gets everything 100 percent perfect the first time. If you wait for that to happen, you’ll never get started.
“Also, focus on your uniqueness. At Cheap Cut, I like to think of us as a local company doing our part to promote the local economy and culture. When tourists come from Japan, for example, they don’t typically come looking for sushi, or things they can get back in Japan. They want to see what’s here, and how we live and cook here. Therefore, I have a blend of cooking styles that try to meet and respect the cooking lifestyle here. That’s what I do. It’s primarily for local enjoyment, but there’s an awareness that we have something unique to offer visitors as well.
“Along with Allen Grill, Dela Cruz’ stand and Shirley’s who are my street market “neighbors,” there are only about six of us who are family-run food vendors. I’d like to encourage more people to do it! It makes us all that much stronger.”
Any special hellos you’d like to make?
“Well, since being here on Saipan, my co-workers, ex-managers and present director at CGC have all been very warm and welcoming to me.”
At Cheap Cut, Mérchant himself prepares the secret sauces, and does the grilling. Two staff members, Merline Marquez and Noel Fermaran, culinary artists and certified food handlers each, assist with food prep and operations. His wife, Rose, helps with the supervisory aspects of running the business.
Cheap Cut Barbecue Stand is located on Beach Road in Chalan Kanoa, right next to Bhartis Flower & Gift Shop and Joy Market. If you’re traveling south on Beach Road, it’s about 50 yards before you get to Marianas Electronics. They’re open every day (including Sunday) from 12:30pm to 9pm except Thursday. On Thursdays, you can find them at the north end of the Thursday Street Market from 5pm to 9pm.
To watch a short video of Mérchant showing off his “Backyard style with a gourmet twist” process, visit www.welovesaipan.com/merchant.html.
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From what I’ve learned, last week was the first of an expanding weekly schedule for the local farmers who sell their locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Now, in addition to Saturday mornings (Sabalu=Saturday) on Beach Road roughly across from Marianas High School, you can now catch the farmers on Beach Road in Garapan opposite Jollibee’s Tuesdays from 3pm to 9pm. Please offer your support to these Saipanpreneurs!
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Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!
Walt F.J. Goodridge is author of over two dozen books including Turn Your Passion Into Profit. Walt offers coaching and workshops to help people pursue and profit from their passions. Originally from the island of Jamaica, Walt has grown several businesses in the US, and now makes his home here on Saipan. To learn more about the Saipanpreneur Project and Walt’s philosophy and formula visit www.saipanpreneur.com and www.passionprofit.com)