Mine host bows out

After 13 years of drinking his rum and Coke for free, Garry Steckles makes a last toast to a St Kitts bar he founded to make his tropical island dream

Garry’s wife Wendy catches him sneaking out of the kitchen to grab a beer. Photograph courtesy Garry Steckles

Just over 13 years ago, it all seemed so simple.

I’d finally realised one of my biggest ambitions: to own and run a bar and restaurant in the Caribbean. It had been a long time coming; along the way, I’d left a trail of bored and sceptical colleagues at newspapers in Toronto and Montreal, whose ears I’d been bending for something like 20 years about how I was going to escape from the newsroom and the cold, head south, and spend the rest of my days playing Mine Host in an exotic tropical island.

In December of 1993, it happened. My wife Wendy and myself opened StoneWalls Tropical Bar and Eating Place in Basseterre, the capital of the tiny Eastern Caribbean island of St Kitts. It was an open-air oasis in the heart of Basseterre’s Historic Zone, that we’d created ourselves, from scratch, in a disused courtyard surrounded by 250-year-old stone walls.

It was—and is—quite beautiful, a lush tropical garden with a cosy atmosphere somewhere between an upmarket West Indian rum shop and an English pub. I was looking forward to sipping endless rum and Cokes, all on the house, dazzling the free-spending crowd with my clever repartee, and doing nothing more strenuous than making sure the music on StoneWalls’ sound system was up to par.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

It had never crossed my mind that I was plunging head-first into a business that is one of the toughest in the world, and with zero experience.

I’d grown up in the pub trade, and that, I figured, was all the background I needed.

Big mistake.

The day we opened, we discovered that the first barman we’d hired had another job. A day job. Not good news when you’re open for lunch as well as dinner, as it meant he couldn’t start work until we’d been open for several hours.

No problem, I thought, bartending’s in my blood.

So much for my pub pedigree. It quickly became apparent that while I might not have been the world’s worst bartender, I was almost certainly the worst in the Caribbean. I was hopeless with the tabs (economic suicide); I panicked when I was backed up with more than two orders at a time; I didn’t know the difference between a Manhattan iced tea and a tequila sunrise; and, perhaps the cardinal sin, I was more interested in making sure my glass was full than those of the customers.

Fortunately, my career as a bartender wasn’t to last long. It came to an abrupt end when we realised that the kitchen staff we’d hired hadn’t a clue what they were doing. I’d been a keen amateur cook for decades, and the decision was quickly made to get me out of the bar and into the kitchen, where it immediately became clear that our problems were even worse than we’d thought.

Within six months of opening our doors, I found myself, to my considerable consternation, the last man standing. I was a full-time professional chef, single-handedly responsible for everything from appetisers to main courses to desserts.

But fortunately, I proved somewhat more adept at cooking than bartending. Even more fortunately, Wendy—whose professional experience, like mine, had been mainly in newspapers—turned out to be a natural as a hostess, and, almost before we knew it, StoneWalls was functioning with a degree of efficiency that surprised us almost as much as the customers who’d stuck with us through those first few chaotic months.

Within four years of opening our doors, we were named one of the World’s Best Bars by Newsweek magazine. We were getting rave reviews in major-league travel publications. Even more important, our customers loved the place.

Eventually, I even managed to orchestrate another Great Escape: this time from the kitchen. We found a chef who actually knew what she was doing, and with Wendy continuing to work her magic with the hands-on running of the business, I spent much of the next few years doing more or less what I’d planned in the first place—playing the genial host, enjoying the occasional rum and Coke, and helping out in the kitchen whenever I was needed.

So why am I writing this now?

Well, all good things have to come to an end, and, after 13 years in the bar and restaurant business, we decided recently it was time to do something different.

So StoneWalls has a new proprietor—someone who actually has years of experience in the bar and restaurant business—and he’s doing a terrific job. It’s a delight to see the positive vibrations are still positive, that the bar and restaurant we made happen is still a happening place, and that long-time customers are telling us they still love the food coming out of the kitchen that was virtually my home for all those years.

Plus, the rum and Cokes taste as good as they ever did. Although it does come as something of a shock when they’re followed by a tab!