Caribbean Twist: making a principled business decision profitable

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Besides its truly excellent food, Caribbean Twist, the north end Jamaican restaurant, is probably best known for successfully negotiating a zoning hassle that threatened to close the business just a year after it opened.

But the Twist also presents an interesting case study of a business owner dealing with personal ethical standards that come smack up against accepted business practices.

Before he opened the restaurant, Lyndon Hibbert was a child and youth worker. In that career, he developed an intense dislike for cigarettes, because of the effect they had on his charges. Hibbert recalls one exchange with a young person that crystalizes his thoughts on the matter:

One of my previous workplaces was Phoenix Youth Services where I worked as a residential counsellor. One evening I was walking outside with one of the clients that I worked with. He was having a cigarette. We would frequently have very deep conversations without saying a lot of words because we seemed to understand each other. I said to him "cigarettes are my nemesis". He asked me to explain further. I told him because it affects the people I love and care about in a bad way including being addicted to a substance that slowly kills you and that my children are exposed to that substance. He looked at the cigarette in his hands and said "It is my nemesis too" before taking another puff of the cigarette. We both knew that his desire to quit was present but the will to quit wasn't. Most of the youth that he knew smoked and except for being around a few people like me it was common place.
In 2009, Hibbert moved on to start Caribbean Twist. He bought the former Toulany's Lunch Box on Gottingen Street, which served Lebanese food cafeteria-style, as well as pop, candy and the usual items you'd find in a convenience store---including cigarettes and lottery tickets. Hibbert kept the same basic set up, switching to Caribbean food and selling Jamaican-related grocery items, but immediately discontinued the cigarettes and lottery tickets.

This is no small matter. Hibbert thinks cigarettes don't have much of a profit margin for store owners, and retailers I've discussed this with agree---in areas with stiff competition, many will sell cigarettes at cost. Even in less competitive markets, I'm told, mark up on cigarettes is only about 10 percent, where most convenience items are sold at double the cost of wholesale. But cigarettes are an enormous generator of foot traffic, and most convenience store owners can't imagine surviving without them.

"People who buy cigarettes are not going to buy their cigarette at one place and then go to another place to buy their milk, snack items, etc," explains Hibbert. "I know that by discontinuing the sale of cigarettes, I've driven some customers away to other stores who will sell them cigarettes while they buy other items such as milk and snacks, but selling death is not an option for me."

Clearly, Hibbert's ethical decision to not sell cigarettes contradicts what most other convenience store owners consider basic business sense. But Hibbert has reframed the issue, turning it into a marketing campaign; on the first Wednesday of every month, he is donating 25 percent of all sales from 2 to 9pm to the Canadian Cancer Society.

"From strictly a business perspective it would not seem to be the most intelligent move," says Hibbert. "But from a moral and sociably responsible perspective it was my only move without a second of doubt."

Hibbert is also asking people to try to go without smoking on those Wednesdays, and has invited musicians to perform at his restaurant those days as well. Anyone interested should call him at 404-3855.

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