Setting Expectations:  Food Costs in the Virgin Islands

Setting Expectations: Food Costs in the Virgin Islands

We recently returned to St. John and, even after nine years of living here, got a bit of sticker shock on our first few meals out and grocery trips on island.  The already inflated cost of procuring a great meal or provisions that comes hand in hand with island living, or visiting, is growing right along with skyrocketing numbers around the country for the same.  This post is not, by any means, meant to dissuade you from coming or send you into a panic.  I’m simply saying that, if you are planning a trip this year, maybe bundle a bit more resources into your food, booze and grocery budgets.

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The tips to skipping that sticker shock are at the end of the article! Photo- Getty Images

After a “quick” grocery stop this weekend on our way to a potluck, I started pondering my bill.  Racking my brain to see if maybe I was overreacting or if this is just how it’s ALWAYS been and maybe a bit of extra time off island in a place where food is SO inexpensive had me a bit over sensitized to end of my visit to Starfish Market.  I purchased a bag of romaine lettuce, mini tomatoes, croutons, tri colored peppers, a cucumber and Caesar dressing for a salad I was making for the gathering at a friends that evening.  Additionally, I threw in some crackers and port wine cheese dip for a snack for the gang and a 12-pack of Bon & Viv hard seltzers for Teddy and I.  The bill?  $76.

The seltzers, I’ll admit, were probably around $25-$30…But, $46 for a salad and app?  At the grocery store?  The bill has always been high, but that seemed a bit more than excessive!  So, I did what I do and started down the Google rabbit hole to see what is going on.  And, with food and beverage costs rising nationwide, St. John is not immune to the upwards trend.  Now, those of you traveling from New York or San Francisco or another major metropolitan area may not experience the sticker shock on island.  But for those of you traveling from less expensive areas of the country, let’s take a look at what to expect, why to expect it and what to do to avoid some of it.

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US Virgin Islands Cost of Living – xpatulator.com -October of 2021

Three weeks ago, an article in the St. Thomas Source cited that the rising costs started at the beginning of the pandemic and prices continue to rise and the supply lingers behind the demand and distribution and supply chain disruptions limit the on island buyers.  Already high costs that are a result of shipping across an ocean to get the supplies here are now rising due to the nationwide issues.

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The USVI Consumer Price Index reported that the cost of living on island is up 7.3% overall and food costs in the territory rose a whopping 20.7% between January 2020 and January 2021.  Alcohol and housing costs are not far behind that.  Your libation of choice will cost about 11.2% more than it did a year ago.  While finding a long-term rental or purchasing a home on island will be close to 10% more than it was in January of 2020 (hence the inflated rental rates you have been seeing as you search for your vacation abode!).  I might note here that these findings are from January of 2021…Who knows where we are now, 11 months later!

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According to the STT Source article, supply is being met, so shelves are stocked. But the wholesale costs of goods continues to rise.

Now, let’s make these numbers a bit more St. John specific with information taken from the same report.  On St. John food costs were up 25.8% in January of 2021 from a year earlier.  Alcoholic beverages climbed only 7.9% and the housing numbers, while I believe they are a bit skewed, showed an increase of only 3.2%.  When I say I’m not quite sure of those numbers, I can say that with assertion.  I, along with what seems like everyone else, am currently looking for an apartment.  While nine years ago, finding a studio or one bedroom for $1000-$1500 per month was totally feasible.  Now, we look down the barrel of an $1800-$2000 gun…If you can find a rental at all.

But, I digress, back to food costs!

The nationwide number for inflation on food costs, as reported by The Labor Department in September of 2021, shows a nationwide average increase of 12.5%.  The Washington Post cited that meat, poultry, fish and eggs were up 15.7% from August of 2019, pre-pandemic.  The post also cited that, “Food producers have struggled with shortages, bottlenecks, and transportation, weather and labor woes, all of which have caused food prices to rise.”  I would imagine you are feeling these rising costs at home as well.  This, like everything else, can seem a bit more steep while you are on vacation.  And, like everything else, the inflations more surmountable here due to the extended supply chain needed to get things to the islands.  Prices rise for wholesalers, then distributors, then restaurants in order for them to meet their rising bottom line.

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My point is this…It is likely going to be more expensive for you to eat, drink and stay on island than it has been in the past.  Please don’t take that sticker shock stress out on the bar tender, server or grocery clerk at the end of your transaction.  They get it!  They live here and have to deal with it on the daily.  So, please keep that in mind when your drinks and lunch at your favorite establishment concludes to the tune of $100 for two.  When we sit down for happy hour with the intent of food with our drinks, we pretty much expect to spend that.  Let’s break that down a bit more…

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Remember $1 beers and $2 drinks? Ah, the good old days!

The average cost for a cheeseburger on St. John is $17.

Happy hour used to be $1-3 drinks everywhere!  Now it’s closer to $3-7…or more?

If you are planning for a nice evening out, factor in $10-17 for a glass of wine or a cocktail, about $20 for an appetizer and, roughly $40-60 for your entree.

A pizza will roughly run you about $30.

Your grocery bill will be tough to swallow.

These are all facts…But how can you get around some of these costs while you are visiting?

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First thing’s first…And I hate to say it because it takes away from the local economy and likely drives costs up more in the end game.  But, pack smart.  When I go back to the states, I ALWAYS hit up Trader Joe’s and a big box store for things like snacks, rice, pastas, spices, oils, vinegars and basically anything that can pack well into a suitcase.  Non-perishable items such as nuts, dried fruits, cereals, crackers, cookies, etc. will all drive that grocery bill up.  Additionally, if you enjoy cooking in your vacation rental, I HIGHLY recommend getting the spices, specialty items, oils and other things you will want to use to create your greatness in the kitchen.  And, when you leave, you’ll likely have plenty of goodness from the states to leave behind for the housekeepers.  They will love you for it!

If you plan to bring a small cooler, cheeses, seafood and nice cuts of meat would be my recommendation for packing.  These items can add up quickly at the cash register and good meats and seafoods are hard to come by unless you head over to St. Thomas.

Speaking of St. Thomas…Shop local.

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I mean really local.  There is an amazing open air market on Saturday mornings in Market Square on our sister island where local farmers, fishermen and artisans gather with their wares.  Knock out your produce shopping, grab some fresher than fresh fish, some island hot sauce, spices syrups or juices and get a little explorative with your time in the kitchen.  The cost will still be island prices, but the product will last longer and skip that inflated cost of shipping.

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An array of local produce at the Saturday Market on STT- Photo- Kai Frett

Market square is located in Charlotte Amalie on the St. Thomas Waterfront and is a great day trip from St. John or stopover on your way here.  But, if the Saturday morning market doesn’t line up with your schedule, there are some stops to made on St. John to find some local produce and possibly fresh fish.  On occasion, there are some local fishermen with a white cooler in the customs parking lot across from the post office.  If you see them, ask what they have for the day…You never know what kind of oceanic treats they have hiding in that cooler.

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There is a lovely lady that sells souvenirs, fresh local produce and spices and seasonings at her booth in front of Connections (the pink building just up the street from the ferry dock).  And, during peak season, there is an open air market with several booths offering produce, spices, hot sauces and local juices right in the square in Cruz Bay.  Also, check out Josephine’s farm in Coral Bay.  She has fantastic offerings of local greens, herbs, eggplant, long beans and more.  And, the property is a beautiful stopover on your way back from Salt Pond or Lameshur.

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Stop by the local fruit and veggie stand in front of connections in Cruz Bay

DO go to the local grocery stores on St. John.  Supporting the local economy is SO important when it comes to visitor traffic.  Without you, we wouldn’t need five grocery stores on island.  The extra visitor traffic to the grocery stores on island keeps their doors open and makes that one stop shopping way more convenient.  Imagine living in Coral Bay and having to drive all the way to town for olive oil.   Ha!  My recommendation for the grocery stores here is to never go in with a firm plan.  Maybe they are out of eggplant for that parmesan you were thinking about or maybe strawberries for your dessert are $14 a quart.  Get yourself in the flow of the island and be flexible and versatile.  It will likely save you some money and provide for a more enjoyable visit in support of our local vendors!

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The locally owned and operated Mid Way Grocery Store on Centerline is a great stop for your supplies!

If being on vacation means you’re not spending a moment in the kitchen, there are plenty of options on island for discounted food and drinks during happy hour.  Lovango Rum Bar, Beach Bar, High Tide, Joe’s Rum Hut, The Windmill Bar, Dave & Jerry’s Island Steakhouse, The Tap Room, Rhumb Lines, The Terrace, Woody’s, Tap and Still and many more still offer a wide range of great happy hour specials.

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A $12 one topping pizza at Lovango Rum Bar during happy hour is a GREAT dinner on a budget.

Hmmm…Should we do a Guide to Happy Hour post?

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Again, with this post, I am simply attempting to set some expectations for you and your upcoming and long awaited trip to Love City.  Trust me when I say, it’s the WORST to be a bar tender and watch the sticker shock on someone’s face when they receive their bill.  And correspondingly watch your tip go down with that.  So, be prepared for higher costs here, just like everywhere else, on your next visit.  Plan accordingly and set yourself up for success and an AMAZING trip to St. John!  I always joke about the price of paradise…It is, however, very much worth it.

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14 thoughts on “Setting Expectations: Food Costs in the Virgin Islands”

  1. I like how you’ve reiterated that the high costs with recent increases is not the fault of your server, bartender or grocery clerk, so be kind and come prepared.
    Well done article.

  2. One lesson learned along time ago is “Tip well.” For most visitors who can afford the costs related to a St. John trip, a minimum of 20% tipping is not excessive – even in today’s economy. In reality, we make sure to tip at least 50% just to help out the local economy. Please be generous and plan for tipping the hard working locals.

  3. Well the prices in st.croix usvi is more than 25% morerhan NYC. A can of an16oz. Red beans from the locate store like Plaza cost 3.79, in which NYC 2.79 Cost u less is a joke and all the markets are just as higher. The first of the each month prices sky rock and the by the middle of the month prices changes. Things need to change in the usvi…….

  4. Nothing has changed since I moved down the USVI back in the early 70’s. It usually takes 6 months or less to catch up down there !
    We used to say… Ur monthly income goes as follows: first 2 weeks for rent, 3th week for utilities and 4th to stay alive (food).
    Anything xtra, u needed a second job !
    For entertainment was to dress like a tourist and frequent the different daily locations for hors d’oeuvres
    and maybe a glass of rum punch, if any left in the bowl. Now this call living in Paradise in style ! ⚓

  5. Remember when booze was cheap? What happened? I used to be able to get a liter of good single malt scotch for $30. Now it’s $90. Most liquor (besides Cruzan) is cheaper in Mass or NH. I can pull up the Yankee Spirits web page to compare and confirm the prices (which have been rising there as well). The days of great duty free shopping are over.

    And yes, food prices are astronomical. I hate to say it, but you can easily make up the $50 barge cost with a day of shopping on STT at Cost U Less, Home Depot, K Mart, and the Cash and Carry, plus a tank of gas. You’ll always need to run into Starfish or the St John market for other things, but a day trip to stt pays for itself.

  6. Since Pres. Biden made it his first thing to do , Cut off the Alaskan Pipeline, we are no longer self sufficant with fuel. It is not just the Islands, it is the entire country.Since Biden has raised the cost of fuel, Everything will cost more, since it cost more to ship.
    It is not ST. John that is raising the cost of everything, it is Biden.

  7. Two things:

    First, don’t take it out on waiters, servers and bartenders. They struggle as well, even more probably. So, be even more generous.
    Second, we used to pack to big boxes of food purchased at home, including frozen meats, and bring them down on the plane (non-stop flights). Never had a problem with spoilage getting it to our rented home on St. John. That was particularly helpful when our kids were young.

  8. It is important to understand why
    ” the sky is the limit” in costs and prices of goods and services happen. It is called unhinged capitalism with an unregulated market-driven economy thanks to neoliberal dogmas of “free competition” and the situation definitely has an effect on both, local citizens and the bulk of tourists. Naturally, in such scenario, a small island that needs to import everything is impotent when facing such a threat. Yes, it is a threat to human dignity, one that creates the most favorable and fertile conditions for inequality where the poor becomes poorer and the rich becomes richer.

  9. We were on ST John in October. Yes cost are up but as stated buy local. Get a lunch at the North Shore Deli or hit the counter at the new store Midway Grocery. Great empanadas. I tried all the different ones which where 8-10 depending on what was in it but the chicken was only 3 bucks. Get out and enjoy!

  10. I vacationed on STT May of 2023. Im from Ohio, so food prices aren’t too bad. Im still in shock what the cost of food is there. $10.50 for a small box of Special K cereal, $5-7 for half gallon of milk. Going out to eat is 25% more than home. it’s a damn shame what the locals have to pay to survive there. The US representatives and governments of USVI need to be doing a better job at getting prices down. Its beautiful there and I had a great time! But I probably wont be going back anytime soon.

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