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@Work: Petite Pump Room

May 26, 2005 — One day in the mid-1950s, a group of Chicago businessmen visiting St. Thomas thought it might be a fine idea to open up a mini version of Chicago's famous Pump Room restaurant.
Thus, the Petite Pump Room was born. Today, it is arguably the oldest restaurant on St. Thomas, having survived several locations and incarnations. However, under the care of the Watson family, it has grown and thrived and continues to provide a hub of local food, local gossip, and general good will.
Michael Watson, who has managed the restaurant since his days as a University of the Virgin Islands student, recalls the restaurant's serendipitous history.
"First, Helga and Danny Frazer had it when it was in Palm Passage in the '60s," Michael recalls. "When the Frazers decided to move to another location, the lease became available. Some friends of my folks suggested they try their hand at running a restaurant. My dad had been in local government and felt like a change. He thought it over and said, 'Why not?'."
John Douglas and Anna Watson managed the restaurant in the '60s and '70s until, after a brief tenure on Government Hill, it moved to the old Antilles Airboats location on the waterfront in 1982.
That's when Michael Watson took up the reins as restaurant manager, first with his sister, Barbara, who left when she married Gov. Roy L. Schneider and became first lady, and now with his wife, Judy.
"After the move to the seaplane ramp, it was all mine," Watson said. His parents would visit regularly, but only to kibitz with old pals.
The restaurant moved to its present location — upstairs over the Edward Wilmoth Blyden IV Marine Terminal (commonly known as Tortola Wharf) — in 1995. You could put the former, cozy seaplane restaurant in one corner of the present digs and barely even trip over it. The new location is huge, spacious and airy. The walls are covered with local art, with a selection of Mark Isaacs' acrylics for sale.
While tending bar, chatting with customers and answering the phone, Watson genially makes time for an interview. "Excuse me for the interruptions — can I get you a drink?" It is second nature for Watson to be doing three things at once.
"That's the business," he remarks. The restaurant business is demanding; it can be brutal in its demands on one's time. And, generally speaking, if you don't manage it yourself, hands on, you are in trouble. However, both Watsons are happy with their choice.
Judy Watson has come downstairs from what she describes as her "cubbyhole" office up a narrow stairway. "It's a hectic business," she agrees, "but we love to interact with people." Michael Watson adds, "If you don't love working with people, you're in the wrong business."
And if the restaurant weren't enough, the Watsons also run a busy catering business.
"We started it a few years ago," Judy Watson says, "and it's very successful." They do all sorts of menus for whatever the occasion demands. "And we have four different sets of uniforms for our catering staff, so they get a variety," Michael adds. They do private, government and commercial parties. "Whatever anyone wants," he says.
To survive the long and stressful hours, the two have developed a steadfast rule: never on Sunday. "We are in this for the long haul," Michael Watson says. "You have to pick your hours and do it right. If you were just running something for a few years, it might be different, but we have to have time together as a family." The Watsons have a 13-year-old son, Michael Jr.
And the family affair holds true for their employees, many of whom have been with them for years, to say nothing of their oldest employee, Donald Van Crannigan, 86.
"Donald was behind the bar here for nine years," Watson says. Legions of customers have chatted with Van Crannigan during his tenure, becoming accustomed to his slow smile and gentle manner. Even as 90 approaches, he remains a part of the Petite Pump Room family. "He still helps out," Watson says. "He does shopping for us and errands."
Judy is a former assistant tourism commissioner, and before that she did hotel marketing, so she is no stranger to the business world. These days she makes use of her tourism skills and contacts.
"Guess what?" Michael asks his wife. "Some tourists came in for lunch today, and they said they had heard of us in the Frenchman's Reef newsletter." And that was free advertising.
Local movers and shakers like to come to the restaurant to keep up with what's going on, and they like the privacy that the large seating area can afford. Since the Bar Normandie closed in Frenchtown some years ago, the Petite Pump has picked up some of the local politicking that used to be conducted there. The Watsons know almost all the locals that stop by. "Our business is mainly local," Watson says, "but we do get tourists, too."
With all the British Virgin Islands passenger services departing from the terminal downstairs, ferry traffic is constant and a large part of the tourist trade comes from folks taking a day trip. Michael Watson says, "Lots of times we have people who stop in for some breakfast or lunch, and then return on their way back."
Even as he says this, three young men are leaving the bar en route to Tortola. One of them is looking longingly at the last of his beer. "You can take a beer with you on board," Watson volunteers. The young men perk up.
"They'll let us on with a beer?"
"They almost won't let you on without one," Watson laughs.
The menu features a different local specialty each day: red-peas soup, conch in butter sauce, and always a local fish, fried, baked or boiled. There is also an array of sandwiches and salads. For a firsthand look, visit the Petite Pump Room Web site.
The biggest attraction nowadays, the Watsons say, is their porch, built about a year and a half ago. Judy Watson says, "People really love to sit out there, the tourists and the locals, too. We've had people sit in the rain under the umbrellas. They say they still prefer it to being inside where it's dry."
Indeed, it's an immediate view. It doesn't really overlook the harbor — it's more like you're sitting in the middle of the busy thoroughfare with its non-stop commerce. The Seaborne seaplanes next door take off about every hour or so, and the B.V.I. and St. Croix ferries are back and forth all day, to say nothing of the V. I. Port Authority pilot boats, which guide the cruise ships into the harbor.
The Watson family has been an integral part of the community since the patriarch, Douglas John Watson, left his post as Property and Procurement assistant commissioner to run the restaurant. Michael, in a departure from the restaurant, served as a member of the Casino Commission under the Schneider administration; Judy is a former assistant tourism commissioner; Barbara Schneider is a former first lady; Thelma Watson is medical director of the RLS hospital; Lorraine Watson Cranston is owner of Cranston/Dottin Biomedical Lab, and Douglas Watson is a computer consultant. Another sister, Margaret Watson, a nurse, lives in the states.
Michael Watson is also an honoree at a UVI Alumni Association St. Thomas-St. John chapter breakfast on June 4 to recognize outstanding members' contributions in giving back to the community.
Possibly the most well-known fan of the Petite Pump Room is the international comedian, actor and producer Sinbad, who brought his Soul Music Festival to the territory in 1999. He liked the restaurant, liked Michael and Judy, and made it his headquarters for fun. Judy had been instrumental in bringing Sinbad here when she was working in the Tourism Department.
Why t
he Petite Pump Room for Sinbad, with the choice of glamorous hotels to choose from?
Michael smiles, "He just liked us."

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