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@Work: Dottie's Front Porch

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Jan. 15, 2006 — During Christmas week, Dottie's Front Porch beacons like a lighthouse in the Compass Point complex on the island's East End.
Unlike a lighthouse, the minuscule restaurant — it seats about 30 at tables — is filled with warmth, conviviality and, of course, the indomitable Dottie Daugherty, chief cook and bottle washer. She is a pert 86-year old with a ready smile and youthful bangs.
"We don't have music, we have conversation," she says. And she entertains a few more unorthodox business practices — no reservations, no phone and no credit cards — with a remarkable degree of success.
Daugherty has welcomed folks to her unique little eatery for the past 25 years. The cooking is down home. Corn bread is served with meals.
The porch is surrounded by white latticework, gaily covered in Christmas lights and decorations — all red, white and green. A little fountain bubbles in a tiny rock garden in the background. A minuscule bar is tucked between the garden and the kitchen, which is all open, lending to the homelike atmosphere.
Some nights she gets assistance from her daughter, Kathy Easterday, but Daugherty mostly handles things single-handedly, as she has for the past couple decades. You could say the place is an institution, but Daugherty herself is an institution of sorts.
On a cold Detroit day in 1969, Daugherty was walking to the hospital where she had worked as a nurse for the past 25 years. "We'd had 17 days of bitter rain, and I asked myself, 'What the hell am I doing in this weather with my arthritis?'" she recalls. "I went right in and handed in my resignation. I told them, 'I'll give you two weeks to take over my floor.'
"They looked at me like I was nuts," she says. "They told me to think it over. I told them no; I couldn't hack the cold weather anymore. I had an eight-room house I was rattling around in. I'd served my 25-year apprenticeship, nursing and raising my kids on my own." Daugherty has two grown children, Kathy and Tommy.
"I'd been thinking about a move for the last five years," she says. "My daughter, Kathy, had already moved here."
Daugherty laughs, recalling how that happened. "Kathy was tending bar in a hotel, and I stopped in after work for a drink, and we met this fellow who told us about St. Thomas. He gave us some tourist stuff to look over and said, 'Why don't you visit?' So, we did.
"Kathy came down for 10 days, came back to get her stuff, and moved."
They came without plans.
"I didn't know what I'd do when I moved here," Daugherty says, "but it didn't matter because I knew I'd have a finger in some pie. (The actual homemade pies didn't come until 10 years later.)
When an opportunity to cook on a 107-foot private yacht arose, Daugherty grabbed it. "I cooked on the boat for about four years until it was sold to people who turned it into a charter yacht," she says, "and I won't work on a charter yacht."
Daugherty then turned another career corner, going into business with Dea Murray in a little shop in the Pisarro building called The Kitchen.
"It was the only shop like it on the island at the time," Daugherty says. "We sold all sorts of kitchen items, and we started making jams and jellies. There was no place to get indigenous products then. It was fun, and I used the profits from that to open the Front Porch."
It began rather inauspiciously. "I was sitting with friends who owned The Drunken Shrimp at Compass Point, and I told them I had to find something to do," Daugherty says. "They knew I like to cook, and love to bake, and they pointed to a nearby building. They told me to look into a building which they said nobody had dibs on."
And she did, opening for business in November 1979.
"For the first eight years, I was totally by myself," she says. "No waitress, and a maid on Thursdays. I made my own bread, and served a continental breakfast and light lunch and dinner. The place looked like a lean-to. I had four tables, eight plates, an Igloo cooler I used as a bar, a horrible used refrigerator and stove.
"Oh," she adds, "I had beautiful hanging baskets of flowers, too."
Then Mother Nature stepped in.
"It grew like topsy until Hurricane Hugo came and leveled the porch," Daugherty says. "It wiped out all the equipment and I had to rebuild. I wanted it to be like one of the early old West Indian dining rooms outside, with a little front porch. When I first came here in the '60s, every building had that. It was so quaint, and I decided I just wanted to keep it that way."
And she more or less has, along with her faithful clientele. "I have to get a new batch of customers," she laughs, "because they're all dying off."
Time has not been especially kind to Daugherty, either, though you won't hear her complain. She has suffered a couple of physical setbacks, which she simply accepts as part of life's rich pattern. She had glaucoma in 2002, and went through a procedure which she says, "screwed up my peripheral vision."
And, after that, she took a spill in the restaurant, resulting in the loss of an eye. To top that off, she subsequently broke her hip, but recovered successfully. "When you have to work and you have no other income, you just go ahead and do it," she says.
Her policy of no reservations, no phone and no music works out very well. "The art of conversation has been basically lost," she says, "and I've tried to keep it alive." It works — the restaurant is filled with chatter and laughter.
"As for reservations," she says, "lots of people complain, but you can put a note on my door, and I'll call you to confirm. As far as every day, you never have to wait very long."
While she does have some help waiting tables or tending bar on an informal basis, Daugherty won't allow anyone else in the kitchen. "If my hands aren't in it," she says, "it doesn't get served."
And she will remember her customers' preferences: "If you didn't like the broccoli last time, you don't get it again. And if you loved the blackberry cobbler, there'll be a big piece for you."
The years haven't diminished Daugherty's love for what she does. It's at the heart of things –good, comforting food, everything made from scratch.
"My father instilled the art of cooking in me," she says. "He was not afraid to experiment, not afraid to close the book and do his own thing."
How long will the 86-year old keep running her Front Porch? "I don't know," she says. "I listen to gossip to find out what I'm going to do. Gossip doesn't hurt anybody here; it's a way of life."
The restaurant is open every night except Thursday from December through August.
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