As smoke filled the sky outside of Cafe Roma in Cruz Bay, all that was left inside where charred remains of the popular Italian restaurant.
When the Cafe Roma crew locked the doors to the popular Cruz Bay Italian restaurant on Saturday night, April 20, around 11 p.m., they had no way of knowing it would be the last time they would see customers for at least the foreseeable future.
By the next day, the restaurant would be completely gutted by fire.
Although no one was injured in the blaze, the incident shuttered the doors of one of the most popular restaurants on St. John. The fire also put out of work the recipient of the V.I. Small Business Development Center’s St. John Small Business Owner of the Year, not to mention his staff of nine dedicated employees.
About 1:45 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, Cafe Roma owner John Hiebert got a phone call from an employee with the news that the restaurant was on fire, he explained.
“We were open on Saturday night and we locked up around 11 p.m. like we normally do,” said Hiebert. “At 1:45 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, it burst into flames. Someone saw our bartender and told him and he called me.”
Since Hiebert and his family live on St. Thomas, however, it would be a few more hours until he could get to the restaurant.
“I couldn’t get over there until the 3 p.m. ferry,” said Hiebert. “We were sitting at Red Hook and you could see the smoke. Then we were sitting on the front of the boat going across the sound and getting closer and closer, and it was just all smoke.”
When Hiebert’s ferry arrived in Cruz Bay, St. John residents made sure he knew they cared.
“Then the boat got into Cruz Bay and there were so many people who knew we were coming over and met us at the ferry, it was amazing,” said Hiebert. “We could hear people talking about the restaurant on the ferry and crying about the fire. It was pretty unbelievable.”
As soon as smoke was detected coming from the second-story restaurant located across the street from Bayside Mini Mart and above Joe’s Diner, nearby business owners jumped to action, Hiebert explained.
“There are some good things; no one was injured and the fire didn’t spread,” said Hiebert. “As soon as smoke started coming out of the window, Dan from Castaways jumped on the front porch roof of Joe’s Diner with a hose and tried to put it out.”
“The guys from Woody’s were up on their roof too with a hose and spraying the back, trying to make sure the flames didn’t spread,” said the Cafe Roma owner.
V.I. Fire Department officials, St. John Rescue members, V.I. Police Department officers, along with the Woody’s and Castaways crews, helped to extinguish the flames from the building and kept everyone at a safe distance.
“When we got there at 3 p.m. the firemen were fully working and at about 4 p.m. the fire was out but it was still pretty smoky,” said Hiebert.
The scene Hiebert did see when he was allowed inside his restaurant around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday was not a pretty one.
“It was about 5:30 p.m. when they let us in and it was just a complete loss,” he said. “Everything inside was black and ruined. There is nothing left.”
While Cafe Roma was devastated by the flames, just one floor below, Joe’s Diner was relatively untouched, Hiebert added.
“Joe’s Diner is fine,” he said. “They didn’t really have any damage, just water.”
More than just a place to get quality Italian fare, Cafe Roma has a long history serving customers on St. John. The restaurant originally opened in the early 1980s when Cruz Bay was still a sleepy Caribbean outpost.
Joshlynn Crosley, a 28-year-old waitress at the time, bought the eatery from the original owners, the McGinnis family, in 1998. Crosley operated the restaurant until Hiebert purchased it from her in 2008.
Since that time, the restaurant’s loyal customers have embraced the long-time chef and restaurateur. That appreciation has grown even more evident in the days following the devastating fire, Hiebert explained.
“The community has been amazing,” he said. “We’ve had so many phone calls and emails, it’s incredible. Everyone is offering help, but honestly I don’t know what to ask for because I don’t know what to do.”
While Hiebert must wait for the owner of building 1-C Cruz Bay to determine insurance issues and then rebuild the roof — which alone could take several months — the restaurant owner pledged that he will reopen.
“I hope so,” Hiebert said when asked about reopening the restaurant. “I have to. It’s Cafe Roma and the island needs Cafe Roma.”
A more difficult question, however, is when the eatery will indeed be open once again.
“I have so much work to do first,” said Hiebert. “They will have to take down the whole roof and put up a new roof first and that has nothing to do with us.”
While Hiebert was hesitant to suggest a timeline for repairs, the work could easily take “months and months and months,” he said.
As Hiebert continues to figure out the next move down the road to reopening, he expressed thanks to the community.
“I am so grateful to the Woody’s and Castaways guys for jumping in so quickly and for all their help,” said the Cafe Roma owner. “I’m also sorry to the businesses who were affected by this tragedy because the power had to be shut off in the area, including Woody’s Castaways, Rhumlines, La Tapa and Joe’s Diner.”
In the meantime, Hiebert will be recognized by the V.I. SBDC on May 29 on St. Thomas. He also continued to be floored by the outpouring of support.
“We’ve gotten 2,100 messages on Facebook so far from people offering their support and condolences,” said Hiebert.