Meet Puerto Plata’s lovable and local celebrity Big Lee Peak. Bored with his life in the south suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Big Lee was within 3 years of retiring when he decided to start taking vacations to help him decide where to spend his retirement. “I saw a ’60 Minutes’ segment on retiring outside the US where your money can go further. I went to Cancun where I joined a timeshare and then to Puerto Plata and Punta Cana. I’m so glad that I chose Puerto Plata; it is a real town with real people with real culture and history.”
Big Lee is the proud owner of the very popular Big Lee’s Beach Bar, which is located on the Malecón and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Big Lee’s Beach Bar employs 11 locals and a loyal dog named Spot.
After moving to Puerto Plata, what inspired you to open a restaurant/bar, and how did you decide on the type of restaurant/bar, as well as the area?
Big Lee: I’m going to give you some history first. I met a girl, came back in 6 months and in 1 year I retired. My kids graduated & moved across the US. Might as well move down since the relationship didn’t work out. I’m bored out of my mind after 2.5 years of just sitting around on the computer and watching cable TV. I started talking to people in the local watering hole about my interest in opening a sports bar. The cook heard that I was interested in opening a bar and said that she wanted to work for me because the manager at her bar wasn’t her favorite. I spent 3 months looking for the right location. I wanted to find 2 buildings together, one for the tourists to watch the ocean and one for the expats to sit on the street.
We didn’t start off with food until after one year to see if the business will succeed. I know I succeeded when I know that I have two hundred reviews on TripAdvisor with 4.9 stars. Everyone who has rated loves our fish & chips or our burgers & fries. Not a restaurant but bar with a grill with a very limited menu. We do 14 dishes and I try to do them spectacularly. Our fish is bought every day, sea bass, but it’s frozen because it’s caught deep at sea. Everything else is prepared fresh. We peel & slice every potato for fries and we make homemade tartar sauce. Every day we buy meat, potatoes, chicken and start serving at 9 am until 8 pm. We’re starting to branch out with a few specials every now and again to please as many as possible.
The majority of Big Lee’s clientele are Canadian and American expatriates with 20% Dominican locals frequenting his establishment as well. “We play soft classic rock from around the world from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. For three and a half years that we’ve been open, we’ve been rate the number one bar in Puerto Plata and the number one bar in the Dominican Republic.” Big Lee’s Beach Bar is also rated #2 on TripAdvisor’s list of Top Things to Do in Puerto Plata.
Big Lee’s road to becoming the number one bar in the Dominican Republic is also a story of finding love. The cook mentioned above who was not too thrilled about working for her previous boss is now his fiancé.
Big Lee: So, I would love to finish telling you the story about how the girl that said she would never date me, but only work for me. I found the place, opened it up, called her and hired her. I was smitten with her. Worked with me for 3 months, then finally hugged and kissed me. We’re more than 3 years later, we’re engaged and we had a baby.
[Laughing] My vasectomy didn’t work so we are proud. We are moving across the street from her parents in a currently remodeled house. We’re getting married at the end of this year or the beginning of next. She’s now my boss because I can’t own [the bar] because it’s city property.
My baby is 1 year, 4 months. Her name is Marilee. My fiancé’s name is Mariela and she wanted a combination of Mariela and Lee. Thank goodness it was a girl because there was no combination for a boy!
We’ve touched on bits and pieces on your secret recipe to success. Do you think it’s you as the celebrity or combination of location/celebrity, the food, the atmosphere…what is your key to success?
Big Lee: [I’m] always around people. If I was going to open a business, I want to read people, shake their hand, thank them for stopping, say thank you for coming. I can’t imagine running a business any other way. There’s so much competition; places to eat and drink. I want [people] to come to my bar and I want them to return. Our food is spectacular. It’s as good of a cheeseburger as you’re ever going to get around the world. I search for the best meat, bun, lettuce, tomato, pickle. The food is excellent. I had to go through all the different hotdogs at all the grocery stores here just to find one that is edible. It’s spectacular. It’s a jumbo hot dog that tastes like home.
It’s a combination of me (the celebrity), and greeting everyone and the food but the views are spectacular. We are less than 100 feet from the ocean. Two islands are right off our shore. There is a statue of Neptune. I have a row of flags, looks like the United Nations. People find their flag and are really excited. If they don’t find their flag [here], they go find it and bring me one. We are within 2 miles of Mount Isabel De Torres, which is just gorgeous.
In addition to his busy schedule running his bar, Big Lee is also involved in philanthropic endeavors. In 2014 alone, Big Lee helped supply 40 children with back to school clothing and school supplies. With the help of donations and his ever-increasing popularity, in December 2014 Big Lee took 16 children and 2 mothers Christmas shopping. He also helps out the local dog association by helping to organize over 1000 street cats and dogs.
So, for those of you who are wondering, we certainly had to ask!
Where did the name Big Lee come from?
Big Lee: I was 325 lbs, wearing a 4X shirt, 50-inch belt with my belly hanging over; I was a huge man. I weigh 250 lbs now, there are no drive-thru’s, everything is fresh, not processed. [Laughing] They tease me and say that I need to rename it Skinny Lee’s or get the red circle with the slash through it to go over “Big” — formally known as “Big Lee’s!”
What advice can you give an expat who would like to open a restaurant/bar of their own?
Big Lee: If you are going to open a business, no matter where but especially here in the Dominican Republic, put your entire heart and personality into it and do it with a 100% effort. That is what I have done and it has worked.
Big Lee plans to expand to other locations throughout the Dominican Republic and with the first Carnival Cruise ships expected in October 2015, he will become even more busy. Big Lee’s Beach Bar is fast becoming a brand. Check him out in an upcoming JetBlue inflight magazine.