ST. THOMAS — “It’s time for something new, something younger, a newer vision and I think it’s our time. We ‘80s babies, it’s time for us to step up and take over and take back a piece of our beautiful island.” That’s the call to action from the owner of the new Shama’s Specialties Caribbean and Seafood Restaurant on Back Street.
Mashama Bobb-Duberry is a Virgin Islander through and through. Born on St. Croix and raised on St. Thomas, she graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in 2002 and studied business at UVI before getting an associate’s degree from Penn Foster online. She worked on Main Street with various retailers and was an engineering coordinator and Economic Development Commission coordinator with Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef Beach Resort for four years before moving to Baker Magras and Associates to work in insurance.
Pregnancy often gives way to strange cravings, and strangely, it was a craving for cake that put Bobb-Duberry on her current career path.
While pregnant with her daughter, Bobb-Duberry said she “just wanted to bake.”
She added, “It just came out of nowhere. I just wanted to smell it, I wanted to eat it hot, and I just got into it from there.”
The more she baked, the better she got, and her cakes were a real hit. She’s been baking for 10 years now and has never looked back. Her little cottage industry hobby got bigger and bigger, until she decided to take a chance and open her own cake shop in 2017, just off of Back Street. Two years later, when her landlord offered her the front portion of the building on Back Street, formerly Crabby’s, she decided to expand her horizons with Shama’s Specialties Caribbean and Seafood Restaurant. She took some time to learn the ropes and is now officially opening during Miracle on Main Street on Friday.
“When tourists come from Main Street, they want local food. They want a taste of the V.I. and that’s why I’m here now. I’m the new era of the Virgin Islands. I am young, I am fresh and I want to give the tourists a taste of what they should have been tasting of the Caribbean.”
Shama’s Specialties is also catering to locals who have few options downtown to eat island favorites in a warm, welcoming atmosphere, something Bobb-Duberry believes starts with a local owner.
“Everybody comes from a different island and a different culture but what do we have from here? So many people are coming in and hiring our own, but it’s not us,” she said. “That’s a whole different feel. I have a spot for us now. I am here to give you a well put together place, with beautiful customer service and some of your grandmother’s cooking. Locals like it because they feel good that they can come back downtown and have a great place to enjoy local food, where they can actually walk in and say they know the owner. It’s more welcoming and it’s a more comfortable feel.”
Bobb-Duberry feels there needs to be a change in our tourism industry, and local culture is at the heart of its success or failure. For her, Main Street is too much of the same thing, jewelry, jewelry, jewelry.
“Why don’t we have our own restaurants out there? Why don’t we have our own sweets shops? There is growth here, we’ve just got to find it. We have to find what is needed from our generation to revive it, bring it back to what it used to be, but bring it back in our era and our style,” she said.
Business is a challenge for Bobb-Duberry. Although Main Street has now opened up to traffic, Shama’s Specialties is located on Back Street across from a side street with continued construction, leaving little access for tourists to see her restaurant, let alone reach it. Although most Main Street merchants disagree with the concept of solicitors, her promoter on Main Street is crucial to her business. The road connecting Shama’s to Main Street will be under construction until sometime in 2020 and she is taking a loss every day because of it, not an easy thing for a new business to contend with. She believes that if they are going to get rid of the promoters, a screen with a list of all downtown businesses should be prominently displayed. It shouldn’t just be about Main Street. It should be about downtown, period.
Bringing more locally owned businesses downtown should be a top priority, she said.
It shouldn’t be just about the money; it has to be about the culture and the local feel. However, the high rents on Main Street make it prohibitive for locals to take the chance. Locals, she said, should be given more of a role in the plan to revive Main Street and the downtown area.
“This is our home and we need to be a part of the plan. We are your culture and we are your people. I’ve worked on Main Street coming up and I’ve seen a lot of things that need to be changed, but if no one of my era wants to speak up… but I have a business now and I feel a lot of it, so I speak up. We have to have faith in this place, and if we don’t keep the faith and push to keep what’s ours, we’re going to lose it,” she said.
Shama’s Specialties encourages people participating in Miracle on Main Street to stop in for a show of support. Call 340-777-4262 for more information.