By Oyaol Ngirairikl
As the island nation of Palau works to rebuild an economy devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitni Kekerelchad Joseph and Clint Moore are two entrepreneurs hoping they’ll make a positive impact.
Joseph’s roots are in Palau. He credits his restaurant and retail skills, and work ethics to his time working at TGI Friday and IP&E in Guam. Joseph who now works with IP&E in Palau, just opened The Snack Shack by ZayZay in December. And even more recently, this serial entrepreneur just opened a carwash on the weekends, employing teens who live in the neighborhood.
Moore owns Stay Staunch Palau, the newest gym in Palau having opened last October. It’s also the only private standalone gym in Palau, as other gyms are either government or attached to a hotel.
For them, Palau’s stable internet connection helps with business in both marketing but also helping people become more aware of what’s possible. The Palau Cable 1 was the first international submarine cable connecting Palau to the world in 2017, according to Submarine Networks. Prior to that, Palau relied on limited satellite links for internet connection.
Moore, recently retired from the Royal Australian Navy. He went to Palau in 2017, working at Marine Law Division. While there he met many local businesspeople and made many friends.
“I looked at other islands to be honest,” he said, naming the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia, Saipan, Fiji and others in the Pacific. His experience in Palau and the relationships forged alongside the island nation’s relatively new fiber optic connection to the world, helped tip the scales in terms of where he would open his own business.
He first arrived in Palau and one of his first questions was, “Where’s the gym?”
Friends and colleagues pointed to a public gym in Meyuns and there’s workouts run by the U.S. Civic Action Team in Airai. And some hotels have gyms but they aren’t made for a full workout.
“I started talking to my friends about it. I thought there’s totally an opportunity to build a gym,” he said.
As a side project, he built a small gym in the Australian compound in Meyuns. His colleagues enjoyed it and made use of it. He started thinking of a larger gym at Marine Law, where he was working. He put together a plan for it but returned to Australia just before he could get the gym started.
He left thinking his successor would pick it up and run with it. No one did. He found this out shortly after he retired from the Navy, which happened about six months after his return to Australia.
He was disappointed that the plan he’d left behind didn’t go anywhere but then realized his opportunity.
“I thought hang on, I’ve got a business plan ready to go. I’ve done all the research, I know what it takes to ship (equipment) out, I know what it takes to get equipment, I know what I want … obviously I’ve expanded a lot more to have what I have now, but there’s still an opportunity there,” he said.
But to him, this was also a chance to make a difference in the health of a community he’d come to care about.
“It really appealed to me to give Palauans a chance to have this sort of stuff. Most guys come in and say they’ve seen this equipment on Instagram, and now they’re using it,” Moore said. “It’s given people an opportunity, whatever their fitness goals are, and a space here where they can chase those goals down.”
It was August 2021 when he applied with Foreign Investment Bureau. He said being a foreigner and doing business in any of the islands was going to be a challenge. But going to Palau had its advantages in that he was familiar with the location, he’d met business owners and managers, the local community, including other ex-pats and everyone he’d spoken to and worked with was so supportive.
Moore invested about six figures to launch Stay Staunch Palau. He said business so far is “on track and maybe even slightly ahead.”
He added it’s also a bit different from what he’d thought. “I was expecting honestly more of my clientele to be expats, military, and maybe 30% to 40% locals but it’s been the other way around. Which is interesting and great! I thought I was going to work a lot harder to get more from the local community involved. I think once guys got in the door and seen what we have to offer they were enthusiastic.”
Like Joseph, Moore said anyone starting a business in Palau needs to have a plan that you can focus on but also to stay flexible.
“Stay agile and be ready to adapt,” he said. “The remoteness of the place and some of the intricacies of trying to establish a business as a foreigner, there’s some unexpected things along the way. So staying flexible that whole way and also having a goal… there’s been times when things get hard. But the fact that I’ve got a goal in mind, what I want to achieve, what I want to bring to the community, the difference I want to make in Palau, that helps you to retain that focus. As long as you can see that destination.”
Not long after Moore opened his gym, Joseph opened the doors to The Snack Shack by ZayZay.
The shack is named after his nephew Isaiah whom he visited in Hawaii in 2019 for his birthday. It was during that trip when he saw a shack that piqued his curiosity.
“I was driving down Waikiki and saw this small shack and people lined up,” he said. He watched in amazement as people walked out with candies, shaved ice, milk shakes, and food. “I thought ‘All from that little 5x5?”
In 2022, after he’d been back in Palau for about a year, he decided he’d go for it. At this point, he’d had a small catering business he’d been running on weekends but figured a store front would provide kitchen space as well as new opportunities.
It was a roughly $15,000 investment that he coupled together through savings and a small business loan.
The logo for his snack shack incorporates that time in Hawaii, his nephew, and other bites of his life. The canopy in the logo is an acknowledgement of TGI Fridays and the restaurant experience gained there. And color of the shack, blue, is a shoutout to Foodies in Guam, where as a retail manager he was part of the team that opened the Foodies stores in Shell gas stations.
Like Foodies, the Snack Shack offers a variety of foods, including fresh bento boxes in the morning, and a lunch special. They also offer a variety of snacks, including fresh-baked cookies, and pastries, including the local favorite ‘tama’, similar to Guam’s ‘bunelos’. And Friday nights are Collab Nights, where other chefs and restauranteurs bring their goods for the party crew from the evening hours to 3 a.m. Regular store hours are 9 a.m.- 5p.m.
Some of the fresh foods are made in house by Joseph but there’s also a lot that he sells on concession from other local businesspeople. This along with Collab Nights, he said is one of the ways he’s trying to build camaraderie within the business and help show that working together can help them all achieve their goals.
To that end, Joseph said business is going “a little bit better” than planned, adding about 60% of the sales are from digital marketing with 25% being word of mouth and 15% being random visits from people stopping at BankPacific and other businesses along the street.
Joseph said one of the differences between running his own business and managing a business for someone else is the freedom “to explore new ideas and, yes, make mistakes, but also learn and grow from them.”
With that freedom, he’s also added a carwash to his business portfolio. While most carwashes in Palau cost between $30 and $40, he charges about $15 for a car wash and a vacuum. This came about after he brought his car to various locations that charged what he felt were too high a price. He went out bought some materials, got his nephew to wash his car and thought maybe he’d start his own.
“I ran the numbers and thought to myself ‘This is doable,’” he said. The idea for a car wash solidified when he saw some teens hanging out around the neighborhood and he told them he’d pay them to help wash cars on the weekends. They said “sure” and he said, “OK, we’ll start next week.”
Today, those teens help him run the carwash.
He also has four regular employees who help at the snack shack, all of them young. “I tell them to please complete their education, go off island get experience, and then come back and open your own place or work for the government, something. Because Palau needs people who are invested in her growth to come back and help us build our country.”
“I wish more people in Palau knew about these opportunities,” he added.
“The problem is a lot of people want to do it but they don’t know how to. It’s always questions about where to get funds, or not knowing how to run a business. There’s the Small Business Commission… to help you find out how to run a business… And if you need funding, there’s the National Development Bank of Palau … they have funds for young entrepreneurs and women,” he said.
One of the things he likes to tell younger people who show an interest in the business side of his work: “Do it … Plan it out… Trust the plan, trust the process and don’t doubt yourself.” mbj