by Keiyia J. George
In the quiet village of Cane Garden Bay, situated almost directly across the road from the beach, sits a boutique type restaurant with just enough ambiance to make you feel like you are in elegance but small enough to ensure you will never be overlooked. Bananas Bar and Grill is its name and Al Henley, the Director, is its owner. But this feature isn’t about Bananas Bar and Grill. Well, it’s not directly about the boutique restaurant. It’s more geared towards its Director, Mr. Henley, who is more than just the banana brand.
Mr. Henley grew up cooking with his mother, Ms. Daisy Henley. Ms. Henley would often have him in the kitchen with her as she prepared meals for the family. Mr. Henley took a keen liking to spending this time with his mother and learned to prepare meals himself. At the young age of 15, he got his very first opportunity to be a chef.
“When I was in high school, “ he recalled, “The Cane Garden Bay Beach Cottage had some German clients come down to stay. They needed someone to come prepare dinner for them for two weeks. Somehow, my mother heard about it and told them ‘Al can cook, so he will be interested in doing it.’ I went down in the evenings after school and produced their dinners for them. I got the lobster from Janero ‘Pouie’ Callwood and we remained friends at least 20 years after. That was my first commercial experience. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t intimidated. I felt unusually comfortable because I had a lot of cooking skills at that time just cooking with my mom.”
His parents were always involved in hospitality, which is where he got his start. His grandfather and then his father ran a bar and offered local dishes during Cane Garden Bay Harvest. His brother took over from his father. His mother, who is 82 now, is well-known for her baking skills. Mr. Henley beamed with pride as he shared, “My mother is an excellent cook. I was always her right hand in the kitchen. That’s where a lot of my techniques on the local side came from. She is a hell of a pastry chef. She is one of the best tart makers the Virgin Islands has seen. When she is on island, at Christmas time, she gets orders for up to 800 plates. She has baking down to a science. She has her little routine with her set up and just pushes them out.” This was one skill Mr. Henley did not pick up from his mom. He disclosed that he could barely bake recognizable banana bread but when he did, he would give them to the school children at Ivan Dawson Primary School. He has since given up trying to bake and has stuck with cooking and management.
Mr. Henley originally ran Big Banana for 18 years. In 2003, they finally closed down. With a keen love for the hospitality field, Mr. Henley decided to open Bananas Bar and Grill. He has stayed with the themed name ‘Banana’ because as he explained, “Banana is one of the locally grown fruits in the Territory. When people visit, they prefer products that are original to the island. We tend to try to utilize bananas in as many ways as possible.”
Mr. Henley shared that he gets most of his bananas locally and even grows some around the restaurant. “I have plantain, purple fig, the regular fig, and the regular cooking banana. I just cut a hand today. We normally use the fig banana for our cocktails and desserts. One of our signature desserts here is the banana cheesecake. You can’t get it anywhere else. People tend to rave about it. We use the figs in the cheesecake.”
Mr. Henley said hospitality is in his blood. “My background and training,” he shared, “is in hospitality and management. From the early 80s, I started at the Treasure Isle Hotel as a Junior Manager and I worked my way up until we eventually acquired it in the 90s. I was involved in the management of Moorings for about six years in the hotel, restaurant, provisioning, and guest services for them.”
Mr. Henley indicated that being in the hospitality field just came naturally to him. When the financial services industry was just starting to peak, he found he only wanted to provide service to this industry rather than join it. He, instead, went to a three-year management development program that included stints at Cornell University in New York. He later would attend the University of Michigan and work in London and Barbados with the management development program he was part of. You can say the program prepared him to return home and hit the grown running. And that’s exactly what he did. He was first Junior Manager at Treasure Isle, then Food and Beverage Manager, later Deputy Manager, and finally General Manager of Treasure Isle Hotel.
Reminiscing, Mr. Henley recalled his first supervisor at Treasure Isle Hotel, General Manager Peter Winbush. “He was very rigid but very sharp. He was sharp on service and sharp on delivering customer service. He was very bottom-line oriented. I think I learned quite a bit from him.”
When Mr. Henley was at the helm, he passed on all he learned to his team. There are several notable names in the industry that remained in the industry. Others left for the financial services industry, but the teaching training Mr. Henley passed on remains with them.
Mr. Henley spent a few years outside of the traditional non-hospitality role at Port Authority, two years Deputy Managing Director and almost two years as Acting Managing Director, but treated the role with a similar approach. “I found it no different than managing hotels,” Mr. Henley said. “We had customers on both sides: internally and externally. We provided a vital service for the Virgin Islands for port users, importers, and vessel owners. Instead of being seen as rigid tax collectors, I saw it as being a service provider and I tried to shape the mindset of the people at Port that we are in the service business. We aren’t just tax collectors. We are providing a service and we happen to collect tax on behalf of the government.”
Today, Mr. Henley doesn’t currently have anyone shadowing him, unless you include his 16-year-old son. Chad knows his way around the kitchen. There’s almost no dish he can’t whip up, but he hasn’t yet shown an interest in going into the hospitality business with his father yet. Maybe in a few years, his love for cooking will reel him in, but for now, Chad is your typical teenager who just happens to be around his father who shares his love for cooking.
Mr. Henley’s oldest son, Shakeem, knows his way around the kitchen as well. His forté is salmon and creamy pasta dishes. Maybe he will one day open his own Italian restaurant.
“This is a beautiful industry to be in with no boundaries or limitations. The sky is the limit. You could create and once you put out good service and a good product and do your marketing, people will find you.”
Just like his first customers from Germany has done upon every visit to these Virgin Islands. “He has come back to the island year after year and always seek me out. When Big Bananas was there, he came. He hasn’t come to this location (Bananas Bar and Grill) but I have made meals for him at my house.”
Today, Mr. Henley struggles to decide on a favorite dish to cook but shared that he loves cooking seafood, especially Anegada Conch and Lobster. He beamed that he could cook anything but said Bananas sautéed Anegada Conch is probably his signature dish.
For reservation or more information, Bananas Bar and Grill can be found across the street from the park in Cane Garden Bay. You can also reach them by phone at 284-495-9052 or 284-440-3252.