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On Island Profile: Gladys Jones

Aug. 29, 2005 – If you are wandering down Royal Dane Mall some morning, or afternoon for that matter, and you hear some Tina Turner or Dinah Washington come belting out of a doorway, you have just reached Gladys' Café.
Jazz comes as naturally to Gladys Jones as cooking, both of which she combines with flair. Her café is her bandstand, or to some, her living room. Like any good entrepreneur, Gladys has her devoted regulars. This particular morning, businessman Leo Barbel and former Attorney General Godfrey de Castro are breakfasting over the morning papers, seeming completely at home. Barbel says, "I don't come for the food, I come for the singing," though he seems intent on his breakfast.
This is one of the few places on the island where you can get grits or lox and bagels for breakfast – in fact, Frommer's travel guide calls it "the best breakfast in town" – and, if you're lucky and Gladys isn't in the kitchen, she might wake you up with a little Dinah, Tina, Billie Holiday or Joe Williams. She keeps 110 CDs on hand, and she must know the lyrics to all.
"I love jazz, I love to sing and dance, and I love to cook," Gladys says, and it shows.
But this isn't Gladys' first venue. She started her St. Thomas career a couple buildings over in the Petite Pump Room, when it was located in Palm Passage.
Born in Antigua, Gladys moved to St. Thomas when she was 18 years old. After a brief time at the old Chinnery's Coffee House, she began a career at the Pump Room that would last 18 years. "I was always a waitress," she says, "I liked that best." And she learned the business from owners Douglas and Anna Watson.
"You have to love the restaurant business," she stresses. "It's like having a baby – it's every day. I wake up sometimes, and I wonder, did I order bread? And you have to know how to treat people. Some people can be very picky. You have to love people, too. I sing and I dance and I enjoy myself." She looks around, "and some of the girls sing, too," she says.
Her staff has been with her for years, with few changes. Her sister, Pauline, who is straightening the bar, glances over with a huge smile. They must run in the family.
Pauline asks, "Did she tell you about her hot sauce yet?"
The far end of the bar is covered with fresh vegetables, fronted by a tray piled high with bright orange scotch bonnet peppers. "Just look at their color," she says. They, of course, are the basis for the hot sauce.
What started out as just a few bottles, has become a burgeoning business on its own. There is a rack at the doorway with her three sauce types – tomato-, mustard-, and oil and vinegar-based. And above the display are honorable mentions she has garnered for the sauce – the N.Y. Times says "don't leave without a bottle," while WCDestination Guide calls it "amazing." In fact, it even gets a mention in a blog. An entry in HotSauceBlog.com says, "but you haven’t tried a hot sauce until you’ve tried hers."
"It's my own recipe," Gladys says. "I started it about 14 years ago, and now I can't keep up with it."
Growing up in Antigua as the second of 12 children, Gladys says, "I had to learn to cook early, always helping my mother. In fact, I just finished making oxtail stew."
The menu at Gladys' Café is eclectic. It varies from fish and fungi and oxtail stew, to gazpacho next to kallaloo, Caesar salad, and Gladys' famous hot chicken salad. "Everyone likes it," she says without conceit. That is not in her nature. Gladys is dismissive about her accomplishments. They just come naturally.
As we talk, she mentions that she has made her chicken salad on a Channel 2-TV cooking show. "They have invited me two or three times," she says. Her recipe is available online .
After leaving the Petite Pump Room, Gladys first struck out on her own with a restaurant called the Anchorage, on the East End. "But it got too small," she says. "I moved downtown to Main Street and started in the old location of Famous and Chang's Patio."
She soon began singing for her supper at that locale, where she rapidly drew a following from her waitress days and from the Anchorage. However, after about eight years or so, she found she needed a still bigger base of operations.
"About that time," Gladys says, "this location became available, and it was perfect for me." What was not perfect, however, was the timing. It was October of 1995, just in time for Hurricane Marilyn.
"We were washed out," she says, "no insurance. The place was two-feet-deep in water. Salt water damage is terrible." Somehow, with the help of friends, Gladys got the restaurant in shape and has been going strong ever since.
The café is housed in what was at one time a warehouse, built with stone and molasses like many of the Charlotte Amalie waterfront buildings. Gladys has taken advantage of the building's stone structure, which sets off the attractive bar and dining room.
Gladys has two grown children: Debbie, an attorney, and David, who is attending college in the states. And she is married to Clarence Jones. She says, "Clarence is very shy. I think he gets embarrassed sometimes when I sing. But he loves jazz, too." It is indeed, impossible to imagine Gladys with anyone who didn't share her love of jazz.
"I love Tina Turner," Gladys says. "She is my hero." There is a big assemblage of Turner photos in a place of prominence above the bar. Has she ever met Turner? "No," Gladys says, "but if she ever comes to St. Thomas, someone will tell her about me, and I'll meet her."
One of the few jazz venues on the island, Gladys' Friday Night Jazz with the Louis Taylor Trio was a popular spot for years, with all sorts of musicians sitting in. "Joe Ramsey would sit in on sax," she says, "and Martin Lamkin from UVI would sit in on the trombone once in a while. We had all sorts of people sitting in." However, she laments, "I had to stop it because of security. It's just too expensive, and you have to have security downtown at night."
The walls are cluttered with pictures of Gladys and celebrities who drop by, going back to a shot of former Sen. Elmo Roebuck from her Petite Pump Room days.
"My old customers always stop by," she says. Shirley Lincoln, a retired librarian and Gladys' fan, remembers when a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration scientist visited the island. "We asked him where he wanted to have lunch, and he instantly said Gladys', as if there was no question. He said he needed a helping of her West Indian sampler." That would include potato stuffing, saltfish, fungi and maybe some mutton stew.
Anita Malmquist, a local artist and salesperson and a longtime habitue of the café, designed new menu covers for Gladys this year. "She just came in and started drawing out a design right here at the bar," Gladys says. Malmquist says she was happy to make some new covers because "the others were boring." The new red, yellow and blue covers feature a backdrop of local architecture fronted by the café.
"I've come here for years," Malmquist says. "Gladys always has fair prices and she treats the locals well. She has supported jazz for years and that's important. She wasn't making money – she did it because she believes in that type of music. The woman is wonderful; she's worked hard for everything."
There's no shortage of accolades for Gladys — whether it's Gladys personally, her singing, her café or her hot sauce — who seems totally unaffected by
the attention. She is an attractive woman, with shortish, reddish hair, and an immediate, welcoming smile. Though she has the air of someone who knows exactly what she is doing, occasionally, she can be a bit shy.
About the singing, she says, "People say I sing well … I don't know, I just love to sing." And for the café, "I love what I am doing," she says. "It's hard, but if I decide to retire, I could just make hot sauce."
However, there's no indication that day is coming any time soon.
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