Aug. 29, 2005 Winston Bennett's reach stretches far across the St. John business community, but he takes the most pride in the job he does on the St. John School on Gifft Hill board, where he serves as the organization's treasurer.
"Education is extremely important," he said, taking a break from his busy schedule at one of his businesses, Simple Feast market and deli at Palm Plaza.
While he spends many hours on St. John School board work, he doesn't neglect the island's largest public school. He said he serves as a celebrity waiter at the annual Julius E. Sprauve School gala that raises money for the school.
He's also a member of the V.I. Banking Board. "I take that job very seriously," he said.
Currently, Bennett owns a quartet of high-end St. John restaurants Chateau Bordeaux, Asolare, Paradiso, and Chloe and Bernard, as well as the Simple Feast.
Bennett said the $2 million uninsured loss that came with Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, coupled with the fact that the tourism business fell apart in its aftermath, convinced him to geographically diversify. He is now involved in historical renovation in St. Joseph, Mo., as well as other stateside endeavors.
Bennett, 43, came to this point in his life by a circuitous route. Born in Carbondale, Ill., to parents who were educators, he moved around the country, thanks to his father's job. After studying business at Iowa State University, Bennett went on to work on corporate pension plans for Bankers Trust in Albuquerque, N.M.
He traveled a lot, but when his father died at age 42, he decided he needed to stay put to help his mother and two sisters. He then worked for Carter Hawley Hale, which owns Neiman Marcus, Bergdoff Goodman and Broadway department stores.
He was recruited by Equitable Insurance to head up their Iowa department store, and in 1988 by Ralph Lauren to help develop retail stores.
"Which is how I got here," he said.
Ralph Lauren had stores in San Juan and St. Thomas, as well as one underway on St. Croix when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. Bennett said that when the company wanted him to move to New York, he decided he had enough of the retail word.
He moved to St. John and opened the long-closed Paradise Pizza, located adjacent to the Texaco Station.
Bennett then began to expand his empire with the opening of Chateau Bordeaux, the island's first upmarket restaurant located outside of the hotels.
Asolare and the others followed. Along the way, he had interests in Zoom, a retail business in Wharfside Village; the early version of Starfish Market (then located in the Boulon Center); Bad Art Bar; and Barracuda Bistro. He also branched out to St. Thomas with involvement in L'Scala and Old Stone Farmhouse.
Bennett said that, for him, being in business isn't about making money.
"It's about the challenge of building and developing," he said.
Despite the difficulties of doing business in the Virgin Islands, he stays because he likes it.
He said that when he attends business meeting in the states, it focuses on trendy business buzzwords. On St. John, he said he can stick to the fundamentals like whether the electricity will go out.
"Because of St. John's challenges, substance becomes more important than style," he said.
Bennett acknowledged that he has contributed greatly to St. John's recent growth by developing upscale restaurants that bring in a more moneyed visitor than previously frequented St. John.
"My biggest fear is that St. John is going to become the victim of its own success," he said.
Meanwhile, Bennett dashes around town, keeping tabs on all his businesses. He said he like the lifestyle, works a lot and doesn't spend much time relaxing. He also keeps in touch with his daughter, Alexandria, 19, a college student in Oregon.
"The best thing about my work is I can't get fired," he said, laughing as he headed out the Simple Feast's door.
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