The South African Who Owns a Mexican Restaurant in Cayman

by Toni Keesee

“He’s like your favorite uncle,” were my fiance’s words after we met Max Hillier at Casa 43. Max is the co-owner of Casa 43 Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar, and he spreads positive energy wherever he goes.

Max has one gear, and it’s GO! If he’s passionate about something, strap on your seatbelt and try to keep up. From the short time I got to spend with Max, I could tell that while he is extremely motivated by success, he doesn’t get lost in the weeds or lose sight of what really matters in life, either. You pretty much want to be this man’s best friend after meeting him.

taco and steak

As the title tells, Max is originally from South Africa. He became a world traveling dive instructor and adventure seeker at a young age, living and working in places like Cayman Brac, Micronesia, Egypt, Mexico, The Himalayas and more. Through it all, he kept coming back to Cayman Brac, and when he found out that one of the resorts there was looking for a manager he told their corporate team that he could do that. Even though he had no experience managing a resort he told them that he knew Cayman Brac better than anyone, and due to his contagious passion and determination they hired him.

While living in “The Brac” (I learned locals call themselves “Brackers.”), he also became President of the Sister Islands Tourism Association and helped them create a whole new brand to promote both Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.

In the meantime, while Max was living on “The Brac” his parents moved to Grand Cayman; and so they were able to visit quite often. After his father passed away, Max wanted to be closer to his mom and moved to “the big city” or as it’s better known, Grand Cayman.

Things were pretty serendipitous from there. He got invited to play golf with some guys—several restaurant owners and property owners, including the man that owns the building that now houses Casa 43. He said he had no golfing experience, but he must have played decent enough because they invited him back. This same group of people, who would become great friends of Max’s, ended up introducing him to his would-be business partner Lloyd. When the space became available (a small back-door type of space that you literally enter in a side door behind Copper Falls Steakhouse) Max and Lloyd’s buddies told them that they should open a restaurant there together. Lloyd knowing the Cayman culinary scene inside and out and Max being a branding guru was a great combo, and they decided to go for it. The trick was in deciding what type of restaurant to open. They aspired to open something that would work for the community and the actual environment of the space. They envisioned opening a place that made people feel completely immersed and transported once they walked through the doors.

Again, serendipity took the wheel. Max met his would-be wife, Candice, at a Pirate’s Week Festival and began traveling back and forth from Atlanta to see her (where she lived). While in Atlanta, he stumbled upon a great Mexican restaurant called Alma Cocina; what he referred to as a modern Mexican kitchen. He knew this was the type of restaurant that he and Lloyd needed, and now all he had to do was convince Lloyd. Max got Lloyd to come to Atlanta with him for research, and after 2 days and 13 restaurants he saw Lloyd’s lightbulb go off when they entered Alma Cocina.

From there they decided to open Casa 43, a culturally immersive, authentic and up-market Mexican restaurant in the “little hole in the wall space” behind Copper Falls Steakhouse. When I walked up to the restaurant for the first time, I was somewhat skeptical as we had to go around the side of the building to enter a side door, and then you walk in and it’s this amazing little place. You feel like you’ve discovered some exciting underground secret.

Mexican restaurant photos

Max drew inspiration for the decor, the food and the branding from a life-changing 5 month stay he’d had in Mexico during his world-traveling days. Every dish is thoughtfully crafted. The Aztec calendar is incorporated into their logo, and 43 is their address. The menu boasts that their tortillas are hand made by a woman named, Sandra and points out things like Max’s favorite salad. Plus, they claim to have the best kid’s menu on the island with options like Mahi Mahi with vegetables.

They decided to add the Tequila Bar concept as a part of the experience, too, and now serve over 80 different tequilas including a $100 shot which Max called the YOLO shot. The entire bar is great, though. We had the best mojitos of our life there and at my fiance’s begging, I asked Max for the recipe twice which he somehow avoided.  Max shared that it’s important to create a conversation in every aspect of your business, and they have definitely achieved this—setting a new precedence in my opinion.

patrons at tequila bar

My favorite part of the entire experience though was entering the restaurant, and I think Max explained it best, “You’re going to feel like you’ve been welcomed into somebody’s home.” And that pretty much sums up CaymanKind.

P.S. Today is Casa 43’s 2nd Birthday! If you’re in Cayman stop by and give them congrats or wish them a Happy Birthday on their Facebook page.