Jan. 9, 2006 – Go out to talk to somebody about the fish business, and you get a veritable history of the restaurant business on St. Thomas — for the last 26 or so years.
Joseph Buckhalton leans back in his chair with an easy smile, long legs extended before him, and talks about his fish business, the restaurant business, the food supplier business, and his attitude about business and the business of life. It was a gradual trail leading up to his own business, which he has owned since 1998.
National Fisheries Virgin Islands is a spotlessly clean, well-lighted place that sells fresh fish. "That's 50 percent of success in this business," Buckhalton says. "That's how I was taught: be efficient and clean."
Buckhalton has two trucks and three employees: a salesman and two drivers. One driver has already left; the other is busily loading up with the day's orders.
Then the phone rings. There's a problem. "Uh oh," Buckhalton frowns. "One of the drivers left back an order for St. John. I've got to figure how to get that there. The driver is already down waiting for the barge."
However, Buckhalton isn't jumping up and down. "It'll work out – it always does," he smiles. He hasn't been in the food industry for 25-plus years for nothing.
Buckhalton arrived on St. Thomas in 1978, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin with a degree in accounting. He came here under the auspices of the Howard Johnson empire to start a couple restaurants on the island.
"I had worked for HJ for a long time," Buckhalton says, "that's how I put myself through school."
However, the two HJ restaurants didn't flourish. "We had one in Four Winds, when it was just a field, and one in the Grand Hotel. But the problem was getting supplies If we ran out of french fries, I couldn't get them from a local supplier – they had to be the HJ Brand. It was a struggle," Buckhalton says.
The restaurants didn't last much more than a year, and then Buckhalton's education really began.
"I went to work for Jean Pierre, who owned L' Escargot in 1979, and it was the biggest learning curve I ever had in my life," Buckhalton says. "Jean Pierre taught me everything. He had more intelligence, charm and personality than anyone I'd known. He kind of adopted me – I'd spend hours in his office listening to him."
Jean Pierre Michoustine was sort of an institution on St. Thomas. In the '80s everybody went to L'Escargot. There were two restaurants, downtown and at Sub Base. He was mentor to more than several young people who went on to successful restaurant careers.
Buckhalton says he learned not just about fine dining and the restaurant business, but also about wines, service, business management and how to gracefully treat customers.
Buckhalton worked as a waiter, sommelier, maitre d', and used his accounting skills on the books. After Michoustine died in the late '80s of cancer, Buckhalton learned the other end of the business. He worked for food supplier Quality Foods for about the next nine years, where he became fully versed in the wholesale food business, including fish. He left there to start Marina Market in Red Hook with a partner. "That lasted about a year, and I sold out," he says.
Then things took another turn. "A friend in Florida asked if I'd like to help him out down here," Buckhalton says. " He had a fish supplying business in Florida, but he needed somebody here to take the deliveries to the cruise ships, Norwegian Lines. So, I found myself in the fish business."
Buckhalton didn't sell the fish. He picked up orders at the airport to deliver to the ships. "When I had a big delivery that came in at night, I would leave the fish in my refrigerated truck in the driveway, and take it to the cruise ship the next day."
And after a year of so of learning more about the fresh fish business, Buckhalton decided to go out on his own. With his knowledge of the restaurant business and the friends he has built up over the years, it seemed a natural, and it has turned out to be just that.
National Fisheries supplies major hotels and restaurants, and even some of the smaller cruise ships, the two-deck Clipper Lines that tie up at the waterfront.
The restaurant business is not easy. It can be brutal and demanding, Buckhalton says, which anyone in the industry will tell you at the drop of a hat.
"Yeah," says Buckhalton. "It's always that way. When I was at L'Escargot, I'd go home in the afternoon, spend a little time with my wife, Hanne, take a nap, and back to the restaurant for dinner. Now, it's even more time."
Buckhalton says he's at the office from about 5 a.m. until 5 p.m., six days a week. "Then," he says, "every night except Friday and Saturday, the fish arrives on a Miami flight that gets here about 10 p.m., so I have to pick that up and bring it back here, and I get home about midnight."
As if that wasn't enough responsibility, Buckhalton also has two daughters in college. He says, "I pay every bit of their way, so they don't have to work." The girls – Katrina, 18, and Cosima, 20 – attend Johnson and Wales University in Miami, where they are working for degrees in the culinary arts.
Buckhalton becomes a bit philosophical. "I'm going to be 50 next year, and I don't have the energy I had five years ago," he says. "You have to perpetuate your own personal energy, to push every day. If I could find a path to retire, I'd do it – if I ever saw that way I'd take it."
But for now, he says, "I like people, I connect with people, I do a good job. When you know the people you're dealing with, you feel a greater sense of responsibility. You have to be concerned about them. If Jerry or Liz Buckalew [of Banana Tree Grille] or any client, needs something, I'll deliver it, Sunday or not."
Buckhalton says his way with people all comes from his mother, who died seven years ago. "She knew everybody," he says. "When she'd go in the doctor's office, if there were 20 people waiting, she'd know them all when she left. She worked as a domestic. She always was doing something to help somebody," he says. "Always. There were 4,000 people at her funeral in Minneapolis where we're from. More than that, really. I didn't even realize it then, I was so devastated, myself."
A little while later, the phone rings again. Buckhalton breathes a small sigh of relief. "That's over," he says. The St. John delivery has been resolved. Buckhalton smiles, "It always works."
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