“I was the first food truck,” she remarked playfully. The truth is, Sue Walcott did begin her career as a restaurateur selling food from her car.
Back then she operated with a meagre budget, starting in the “nice kitchen” of a rented house on the beach at Worthing. She did fish fries and a buffet once a week and guests from her parents’ Woodville Apartment hotel were the main patrons. Next she decided to venture outside, taking her food to auction sites where that band of people for whom auctions are a pastime would spend the entire day.
“I would cook, pack up my car and go to the auctions and buy all the antique furniture when I was not selling food.” In a year and a half doing this she collected the selected pieces of antique furniture adorning the tastefully decorated Waterfront Café.
On a busy day, Sue is seen weaving her way among the tables, meeting and greeting patrons with that infectious and accommodating grin. She is a natural at this, one of the reasons many who support her business believe the Waterfront Café remains open while other Bridgetown eateries are closing their doors.
She mimics the hostess techniques of her late mother, who together with Sue’s dad was a hotelier. Classic but simple in her own style of dress, Sue has memories of a fussy, classy mother who exuded style, always well-coiffed and fashionably dressed, often hosting teas and cocktail parties.
But young Sue’s interest was different: “I enjoyed the kitchen side of things, while my parents used to put on the endless cocktail parties and the tea parties.”
“I started planning my first restaurant when I was 13. It was just in my mind and I just created menus.”
She studied tourism in Bournemouth “because I really did not know what I wanted to do” and coming back to Barbados, represented a tour company for three seasons, managing its entire Barbados operation. Next she “dabbled” in graphic design sales before turning to to the hotel industry, which she confessed did not capture her imagination.
“I really did not care for it. I don’t know, I am not an hotelier. That aspect of tourism does not appeal to me,” she remarked candidly.
Cooking was her thing, and there was one time when, for all of three days, she journeyed to a small Bridgetown establishment, food loaded up in her car, with the hope of attracting patrons of that business. “Every day I carried back home all the food” and it took those three days for her to decide it was not worth it.
The day she spotted the deserted building across the placid water of the wharf, its façade showing the telltale signs of a fire, “Something in my heart said to me this is the place, this is the foot traffic I need”.
But seasoned hoteliers as they were, operating in the more appealing area of Worthing, Christ Church, the Walcott elders did not have the same vision. “My parents said, ‘You are mad, you can’t go down there’.”
The year was 1984 and Barbados was experiencing a recession, but Sue took the plunge. Opening the restaurant proved to be “a bit of a struggle”. Banks did not rush forward to lend her the money she needed, but “a little help” from her parents set her on her way.
She had already acquired some of the things she would have needed for the restaurant business – cutlery, crockery, “lovely pieces of China” bought at auctions.
Sue was bent on creating the kind of facility on Barbados’ waterfront similar to the cafes in Paris where she had once spent many days lazing over a pot of tea.
“I thought the café scene would be fabulous” she said, and part of it had to be the music, just as she had observed musicians and other artistes in places like Saint-Germain putting their talent on public display.
In Barbados she had met legends like trumpeter Ernie Small and pianist Keith Campbell and she believed they were ideal for what she had in mind. She invited them to play at her new establishment. Through the years, the Waterfront Café has earned a reputation for some of the best music in town, with artistes such as pianist Ebe Gilkes, late drummer Vere Miller and late pianist Adrian Clarke playing there.
By day, with many more cruise ships calling at the Bridgetown Port, the lines of the lunch time traffic were long, almost reaching the Charles Duncan O’Neale Bridge.
The time did come however when it was difficult to get a seat at the Waterfront Café on a Friday night. Bridgetown business people would be there for happy hour and many just went for the after-work lime. Others were there for dinner and some people would still be found happily lingering long past midnight.
Sue’s concept proved to be very popular. Her personality was a drawing card. As she put it “The good fun lasted for a long time.”
In recent times, like others in Bridgetown, Sue has seen her business suffer the effects of waning interest in doing business in Bridgetown, resulting in several business places relocating or closing. She admits Waterfront Café has lost some element of the working crowd that once frequented the place.
She was forced to cancel the live entertainment and only recently reintroduced the Thursday night live music. It is a feature which appeals especially to patrons from overseas who have over the years made the Waterfront experience an integral of their Barbados holiday. Many of them are here for three months and are from that age when the big band sound was popular. This is where they find the kind of music that draws them to the dance floor after dinner.
There are also the faithful Barbadian patrons.
Yet there is a hint of hopelessness and a suggestion of frustration in Sue’s words when she looks down the road, and ponders the future of her business in a Bridgetown that does not seem to be getting the injection of new life it so desperately needs.
In the meantime, she continues to do what she loves – provide good food in a congenial atmosphere in a place on which she has put her own definitive stamp and personality.