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A Story of Perseverance, Community and Entrepreneurship Otherwise Known as Café Roma
The story of Café Roma began over three decades ago in Cruz Bay on the beautiful island of St. John. It is a favorite spot among locals and tourists alike, and has overcome more adversity than perhaps any one business in the U.S. Virgin Islands has ever seen.
But for John Hiebert, current owner of Café Roma, the story is barely beginning.
It was 25 years ago that John and his wife Michelle honeymooned in St. Thomas, promising each other that, not only would they return some day, but that they would make the island their home.
Originally from Connecticut, John always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Upon graduating college he started a small recycling business. He then sold to a large waste disposal company and became a manager for Papa John’s in Orlando, FL. Later, moving to South Florida, he worked at an Italian restaurant where he got the know-how and hands-on experience. Finally, along with a couple of partners he bought four restaurants.
After selling them all, John considered moving to the Florida Keys, but a customer who owned a ski resort in Vermont offered him a management position, and John accepted. Several years later, he accepted a job as Food and Beverage Director for a chain of over 20 bowling centers from Maine all the way to Tennessee.
After seven years based in Vermont, however, John and Michelle figured it was time they kept their promise to each other and move to St. Thomas. And, because it is part of the U.S., they felt comfortable with the decision to raise their children there. What came next was finding a business that was for sale. And here is where Café Roma comes into the story.
“I found it on Craigslist,” John says. “I flew down to take a look at it, and it was not in good shape. It looked old, dirty, broken. So I went back home.”
Time went by, but John couldn’t get Café Roma out of his mind. A year later, the restaurant was still for sale. John flew back to the island, this time taking his family with him, along with his mother and a potential business partner to look at the restaurant. While Café Roma was a landmark restaurant with a tremendous following, great food, and great reviews, it would require a lot of upgrading.
Still, John and his wife agreed that they could make it happen. What they didn’t count on was not being able to obtain a loan to buy the restaurant. So they sold their home in Vermont and every possible belonging they knew they could live without. With an investment and loan from a friend, John became a restaurateur once again.
“I flew down on July 7, 2008 with my luggage, and lived in a hotel for a month,” says the entrepreneur. “My family came down in August just before school started.”
But as luck would have it, two weeks after opening day the Health Department shut down Café Roma, due to broken and erupted tiles that were causing a safety hazard. Having no cash left to upgrade, John paid for everything with his credit cards and retiled the entire floor himself. Café Roma was closed for nearly three months.
After re-opening, Café Roma continued to enjoy its following. As John says, “the food was good and we won several awards.” But times were still tough for this restaurant and its owner. Everything kept breaking down and money had run out.
Learning about the Virgin Islands Small Business Development Center, John visited the St. Thomas / St. John Service Center and worked on a business plan and loan proposal.
Administered by the University of the Virgin Islands under a cooperative agreement with the SBA, the Virgin Islands SBDC provides training, individual counseling and technical assistance to dozens of existing and potential entrepreneurs in St. Thomas and St. John.
“The SBDC gave me technical assistance and counseling,” John says. “I got an SBA guaranteed loan through Borrego Springs Bank and was able to consolidate debts and pay off the credit cards.”
The SBA’s 7(a) Loan Guaranty program provides financing for a variety of general business purposes, such as working capital, expansion or renovation of facilities, the purchase of machinery and equipment, and the purchase of land, among others.
It seemed Café Roma would survive after all -- for a while, at least. In the spring of 2013, the SBDC informed John that Café Roma had been nominated for the 2013 St. John Business of the Year Award, to be bestowed during the upcoming Virgin Islands Small Business Week celebrations in May of that year. Soon after, a film crew arrived at Café Roma to tape the restaurant in action.
About a week after filming, around 2:00 in the afternoon on a Sunday, a few hours before opening time, John received a frantic phone call at his home in St. Thomas. Café Roma was on fire.
“As we rode over in the ferry we could see the smoke and the flames billowing in the sky,” he says. “We were devastated.”
Café Roma was completely destroyed by the fire, apparently caused by an electrical problem in or around the air conditioning unit. Nothing could be salvaged. And, while there was insurance, it wasn’t the right kind of coverage, and John received no money.
But it never occurred to John not to reopen. He just needed to figure out how to proceed with no income. A visit back to the SBDC resulted in the advice and direction John needed to get started.
“They gave me ideas on how to obtain funding. More than that, they gave me encouragement.”
Having a loyal following, it didn’t take long for those ideas to take off. Through crowdfunding, promotional events at which part of the proceeds would be donated to Café Roma, or by John cooking Café Roma food in another restaurant’s kitchen, the community became the businessman’s backer. In August that same year, the shell of the building was up.
“I bought most of the equipment on-line,” Johns states. “I didn’t even know if it would fit or not. I never saw a thing. I had everything shipped to Miami where it sat in a 40-foot container until it was time to ship here.”
The electrical wiring was completed, and a friend of John’s worked on the plumbing and gas lines. Burma-born artist Helen Eltis returned to repaint the mural she originally painted a decade earlier, and master carpenter Maurice Smith handcrafted the mahogany bar, cabinets and wine rack. On January 2, 2014 John walked to the bottom of the stairs and knew that it was opening day.
“I wrote ‘We’re Open’ across the lid of a pizza box and put it up. We were busy from opening to closing that day. I can’t even tell you what a feeling that was.”
Would John do it all again? Absolutely.
Café Roma is alive and well. It employs 10 people and is open every day from 5:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night. Everyone is welcome.