Today, I have a very special story to share with all of you. This month, Sun Dog Cafe in Mongoose Junction with coincidentally celebrate two major milestones that many restaurants never achieve singularly. The tiny outdoor café whose inspiration was a lost dog named Lucky and a kitchen the size of a Volkswagen Beatle (according to the New York Times) will celebrate 25 years of service to the Love City Community AND the service of their one millionth meal this month…Who knows how many beers, shots and Painkillers have been served at the little Gecko Gazebo bar over that period of time. I’m sure that count was lost long ago 🙂
In a world where the average restaurant has a life expectancy of five years and on an island where I can count on one hand the number of places that are still in existence over the past ten, these milestones are accomplishments worth noting! But, Sun Dog Cafe is not just a restaurant.
Owners Michael and Barbie Barry have built it into the community, generously hosting the All Island Holiday Party each year and evolving, since the beginning as a gathering place for locals, visitors, musicians and artists to create and enjoy. On a personal note, Michael has been a hugely positive force for me since I started writing News of St. John. He is always quick with a compliment and a kind word and goes out of his way to share them with me. His generosity with a kind and sincere word of encouragement is a testament to his character. But, if you have ever met the Barry’s, I probably don’t need to tell you that 🙂
This week, Michael reached out and notified me of the milestones on the horizon for Sun Dog Cafe and Gecko Gazebo. Again, flattering me with his entrusting of these special words of celebration. So, instead of continuing to ramble on about these accomplishments from my perspective, I would like to simply share the testimonial and walk down memory lane that he shared with me….
Direct from Michael Barry- Owner and Operator of Sun Dog Cafe and Gecko Gazebo for the past 25 Years:
In an industry and on an island where restaurants change hands so many times that they should be called “Ustabees”, because they used to be something else (joke courtesy of Dave D’Alberto), this is a claim that few can make. The Lime Inn, Morgan’s Mango, Ronnie’s Pizza, Uncle Joe’s BBQ, Skinny Legs and Café Roma all come to mind.
In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to run a crumbling Apple Corp, Princess Diana passed as a result of a car accident, we cloned a sheep for the first time and St. John was emerging from the damages of Hurricane Marilyn (Sept 1995). Of lesser note, Michael and Barbie Barry had a new mouth to feed, a little boy named Jackson, so we decided that it was time to fully commit to living on St. John after two years of learning the ways of the island.
In 1997, the Sun Dog Café and the Gecko Gazebo Bar was open from 11 am to 4 pm, serving a menu of Peanut Butter and Jelly on Monkey-bread and Tuna Fish Sandwiches. A total of four lunches were served on the first day. The kitchen contained two dysfunctional yogurt machines and a Coleman camper grill. The first words out of the bartender’s mouth after learning that we had purchased it was “I don’t want to be the manager.”
And no one could blame her.
I had somehow managed to spend my entire career in the restaurant business without going near a kitchen. So, I decided it was time to learn how to cook and became the head chef…and sous chef and dishwasher and prep cook…For the first six months. Meanwhile Barbie did the books, taught school and played Mom.
Within a few years, the menu had expanded to serve many of the items served today, the tiny kitchen was outfitted with proper tools and remodeled to squeeze in all of the functions of a restaurant, on a smaller scale. People who actually knew how to cook were hired and the café gradually gained a following.
The tiny café was open only for lunch only for many years, but began serving dinner on Wednesday night only featuring live music to attract attention. But in a correspondingly unusual format. I grew up with several musicians in the family and didn’t want a band for fear of boring a steady audience with the same songs. I didn’t want to have an open mic, for fear of the serial mediocrity that can occur. This was the birth of the Wednesday Night Jam, which featured professional and amateur talents, sharing the spotlight equally.
The local and visiting talent on St. John gave so many memorable performances. Topping the list was Kenny Chesney appearing one magical night after Irma/Maria, Jonathan Edwards, who had national fame with “Sunshine” and “Shanty” did an hour, The Hot Club of Cowtown wowed the crowd with some great country swing…But the gig was maintained by the many local talents, including Mark Wallace, who shepherded and supported the emerging and established artists.
Sun Dog Café has organized and hosted the “All Island Holiday Party” aka “the prom” for about 20 of the years of its existence. The party began at Caneel Bay, in the wake of Hurricane Marilyn, and was moved to Mongoose Junction soon after. It has been a mainstay of the island social calendar in early December and has been noted for being inclusive, with attendance from all slices of the St. John community, great bands, fabulous food and the rare opportunity to dress up for a holiday event.
COVID has put a lid on that party and the live music for now at the café. As much as Barbie and I love it, the place is just too small and it would crowd people in.
‘What we want to share is love.’
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, Sun Dog Café opened within 36 hours. It wasn’t my idea but we had some fairly gung ho staff members who saw the need. We had a T1 internet connection, so had 100+ people using the service to let people at home know they were OK. We ran an open bar for a few hours…Then realized I didn’t know when we would get another beer delivery! So, we resumed our business, running on the always starving for diesel fuel generator and running anywhere ice could be found.”
So, if you are on island over the coming weeks, stop by and wish the gang at Sun Dog Cafe & Gecko Gazebo a big congratulations on their accomplishments and triumphs over the past 25 years of service to the Love City Community…And, who knows. Maybe YOU will be served that one millionth meal!