Few do …. Sarah and John Joyce recently left behind the stability of successful NYC careers, the comfort of alovingly restored fixer-upper, and the support of close-knit families to live the dream of becoming restaurateurs on the tiny island of St. John, in the US Virgin Islands.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, John and Sarah were high school sweethearts who parted ways when Sarah left for college (although there is some debate over who was responsible for the parting). The couple reconnected 10 years later through social media and decided to catch up. They hit it off and on their 3rd date they went to see John’s favorite band in concert, where theyfell in love dancing to a cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love”. They married in 2008 and bought a starter house on Staten Island. They spent the next several years restoring it and making it a home. Sarah went on to become a VP on Wall Street and John became an operations manager for a telecom.
In April 2011, after completing nearly a year of DIY renovation and restoration on their home, a 100-year-old mess with beautiful character, the Joyces needed a vacation. With no money, but lots of credit card points from the renovation, they set out to find somewhere off the beaten path where they could check out for a few days.
While Googling beach vacations, Sarah stumbled upon St. John in the US Virgin Islands, a secret paradise for adventure travelers and beach bums alike. You won’t find major hotel chains dominating the beaches or national restaurant chains overrunning the town. Instead you can book your stay at one of the hundreds of private villas dotting the hillsides with amazing views of the Caribbean and beyond. Over 60% of the Island is National Park and half of the surrounding waters are a National Monument. The 200 plus beaches are uncrowded and on any given day you could have the beach all to yourself.
The Joyces have always enjoyed a bit of adventure so when they read, they could rent a Jeep and drive from one beautiful, empty beach to another, they knew this was the place for them. Sarah booked the airfare, cashed in their points for 5 free nights at one of only two hotels on island and ordered the essential guidebooks, St. John Off the Beaten Track and Fins, Feet, & Four-Wheel Drive.
When they first arrived on the Island, the Joyces were met by the smell of the salt air; fresh, clean and awakening. The first night they had dinner at ZoZo’s (back when it was at Gallows Point) where they watched the sunset over St. Thomas and felt that they had arrived. Over the next few days, they saw turtles at Maho Bay, barracuda at Salt Pond Bay and eagle rays at Little Lameshur Bay. It was magical and transformative. It made them desire a life less ordinary. One afternoon, while enjoying a post snorkel drink at Shipwreck Landing, a laid back, waterfront restaurant, they decided that one day they would move here and own a restaurant with amazing views like this one.
When it came time for the Joyces to leave, they experienced what repeat visitors to the island call “the walk of woe” or the walk to the ferry dock. Sarah cried. She hadn’t seen enough of this beautiful island or experienced enough of the culture. She did not want to leave, so John promised her that they would return and one day make their dream come true. And they did return, nearly every year for close to 10years.
They kept their dream a secret, carefully hidden from family and friends …
Back in New York, John and Sarah fell into the routine of life. Sarah developed her career in financial services and John continued his work in the electrical industry. They kept their dream a secret, carefully hidden from family and friends, out of fear that people wouldn’t believe them. While on the outside life appeared to progress at the normal pace, inside they no longer felt permanently attached to their home, their neighborhood or their livelihood. They knew that their destiny – their true home – was on St. John.
On their yearly visits, they secretly developed their plans. They looked for business opportunities, but it wasn’t until Spring 2017 while on a vacation to the Island, that they discovered that Shipwreck Landing, the very place that inspired their dream, was for sale. After a flurry of emails, phone calls, and covert meetings with the owners, they settled on a price.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma struck the Island that fall as a category 5+ hurricane, packing winds over 280 mph, spawning hundreds of tornadoes, and creating a destructive tidal surge. The devastation wrought by the hurricane was extreme. Homes were torn from their foundations by the wind or blown apart by tornadoes, leaving personal belongings scattered across the island. The once verdant mountains of the National Park were stripped bare of foliage. The tidal surge leveled forests of palm trees, destroyed roads, and knocked Shipwreck Landing to the groundwhere it was literally washed away. After the storm the Joyces were heartbroken for the residents of St. John and sad for the loss of their dream. But instead of being defeated, they decided to put their energy into something positive and became a part of the rebirth of the island. They made donations to local non-profits and John volunteered on the island with All Hands and Hearts Smart Response, providing relief for residents. After the island had healed and a sense of normalcy returned for the residents, the Joyces resumed their search, undeterred.
The dream of moving to the Caribbean finally became a reality this past February. One evening, while putting his 3-year-old son to bed, John received a call from the Landlord at the Isola Shoppes, an up-and-coming retail space in Coral Bay. John had met him on a previous trip, and they kept in touch. The Landlord offered them the lease for the terrace level restaurant but therewas one catch – they had to take over the operation in 2 days. Without a second thought, they signed the lease. That night they called their families to share the news. The sudden announcement was met with shock and surprise, but also with overwhelming support. The Joyces’ family and friends all understood the courage it took to follow this dream, and everyone wanted to see them succeed. The next morning John quit his job, kissed his wife, hugged his son, and bought a one-way ticket to paradise.
From the beginning, things did not go as planned. The Joyces believed they were receiving a turnkey Pan-Asian restaurant. What John found out when he arrived was that the restaurant was shut down, the sign torn off the wall, and the staff let go 2 days prior. The sous chef and a few staff members were attempting to keep going, serving small plates and beer, but most of the staff had already moved on. With the lease stipulating that they had to be open for business, John put a temporary sign on the roadside with the Restaurant name “TBD” and got to work.
The next few months were hectic and sleep deprived. The Joyces had a vision for their restaurant, but it would take months to execute. In the meantime, the restaurant remained open asTBD – a pop-up shop, where they tested recipes, trained waitstaff, and prepared for the launch. Sarah remained in New York with their son working full-time while also running the restaurant’s social media and coordinating the family’s relocation.
Selling a rehabbed home in NY is no easy feat. Sarah was given a list of requirements by the architect, that needed to be met before the house would pass an inspection. She worked tirelessly for the next 4 months meeting those requirements. Meanwhile, John was getting a crash course in restaurant management. He managed the front and back of house, placed the orders, and tended bar. When the restaurant was closed, John conducted renovations; running new electric, figuring out plumbing, and wiring the space for live music.
Buying furniture and equipment for the new restaurant would also prove to be a challenge. St. John had no restaurant supply houses, so they explored shipping from New York and Florida, but that would cost a fortune. Puerto Rico seemed to be the best bet, so John bought a $300 round trip ticket and was on his way.
The trip was a success but not without drama. John was the only passenger aboard the 9am flight, a quick 30-minute trip in a Cessna. It was a rainy day and the winds were high, so, after a bit of a delay, they finally had wheels up at 10am. The winds picked up as they were coming in for a landing in Puerto Rico and the pilot put the plane down hard on the runway. The rear tire blew, and the plane went skidding out of control and into the stripes where it came to a stop. Emergency crews raced out to meet the plane but, luckily, passenger and pilot were unharmed. Later that day, John would come to find out that a similar incident had resulted in a plane cartwheeling down the runaway killing the pilot. The rest of the day was a sprint to buy equipment and have it shipped to St. Thomas on the Norma H. a local freighter that made weekly trips between the two islands. John scored everything they needed including a 4 tap kegerator for the new waterfront bar. John was determined to have the freshest and coldest local tap beer on the Island.
The relief progress brought turned out to be fleeting. New challenges appeared daily, and some days seemed insurmountable, but Sarah and John tackled each one head on, not even distance would get in the way of their dream. It would take 4 months for the family to reunite permanently on St. John and even longer to bring their vision to life as “The Danforth”.
It’s been nearly 9 months since the Joyces signed their lease and they are finally ready to launch their restaurant, just in time for the arrival of tourist season. They chose the name “The Danforth”, after a common boat anchor. The name fits perfectly with the vibe of the restaurant, which serves upscale food in a casual, waterfront setting. The restaurant is located in Coral Bay, a 20 minute ride from the ferry dock. From the dining room you can watch sailboats rock gently in the harbor, donkeys amble down the road, and tribes of goats chew grass at the water’s edge. It feels tranquil and undiscovered and it is the perfect spot to lose yourself in island reverie.
The Danforth is quickly becoming a food destination on St. John. The menu draws its inspiration from traditional Caribbean spices, freshly caught fish, and locally sourced produce resulting in a unique menu with bold and vibrant island flavors. The restaurant hosts a daily happy hour, where you can dine on sushi fresh from the ocean to your plate. The waterfront bar serves ice cold, local craft beer and fresh cocktails made with local fruit. Live music is a staple at the restaurant, where most evenings you can hear reggae, yacht rock, or other island inspired sounds.
For the Joyces, the chaos of the first few months is in the past and their dream has finally come to life. They have created a unique culinary experience where you can truly indulge your senses in Caribbean flavors, sights, and sounds.
The Danforth is located on the terrace of the Isola Shoppes, overlooking Coral Bay. It is open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the high season. Daily happy hour at the barruns from 3pm-6pm and Sunday brunch is served from 10am – 4pm.Reservations are recommended during the high season (November – July) and can be made by calling 340-626-8740.
You can follow what’s new at The Danforth via Instagram & Facebook @TheDanforthVI and through their website www.TheDanforth.VI. The Joyce’s also keep a personal Instagram account about life on St. John @lifelessordinaryvi.