From our recent chat with Michelle Jacobs, co-owner of the Melt Cafe on Ambergris Caye in Belize.
At first I thought I just wanted to live here and be on vacation. And then we just said, “No, let’s buy a business. Let’s put in everything we’ve got. Let’s go for broke.”
Now this business is our livelihood. It’s our life. It’s really like another child to us, so we’re training it and we’re grooming it. I think every day is a learning experience.
I’ve learned that we can run a business. We had never run a business before. I was scared. I was very apprehensive, even after the previous owner trained us for two weeks. I had waitressed when I was 16, but that was 34 years ago. But I knew what kind of service to provide. The hardest things for me were employee relations and logistics. How do I know how much to buy? What if I buy too much? I don’t want it to spoil. I don’t want to spend all my money. I want to make some money. But, I want to have fun, too.
Melt is a small café, located inside Exotic Caye Beach Resort on Ambegris Caye in Belize. We are not in the city. We are probably about a mile and a half from town, but to walk it takes about twenty minutes. It’s a beautiful walk in the morning. We bought the business from a younger couple who created the restaurant’s atmosphere and the menu. The staff was already in place. It was turnkey for us. We were cautious at first because we wondered why they would want to leave such a great place. They only had it open for 6 months, which seemed odd. When we met them, we found out that Melt’s founder is a roamer. He likes to start things and then he has to be on his way and do something else. We were the fortunate ones who beat everyone else to it and get a hold of this place. We do grilled cheese sandwiches, hence the name Melt Café.
We haven’t changed the menu at all: Artisan grilled cheese sandwiches–not like the ones you had in your high school cafeteria. They are made fresh-to-order. We use special, home-baked bread from a local baker in Belize City that ships twice a week to us. It’s a baguette that we cut in fourths, then we invert it, grill it, and put all the good stuff inside. It just melts on your plate. It’s not a finger sandwich. It’s a knife and fork kind of sandwich. There are varieties of whatever you like. We have the All-American, which is everybody’s favorite. We have the Pizza Melt. We have Swiss Family Robinson, which is all vegetables. We have a lot of vegetarian options here, and people seem to like that. They see on our sign all of the options we offer, and that brings them in. We also do breakfast. W’eve been told we have the best Huevos Rancheros on the island, so you might have to try those. We have a lot of great salads. The food is always consistent. We make sure of our quality control. I won’t let a sandwich leave the kitchen unless it looks like it’s supposed to look. We don’t skimp on anything. There’s plenty of gooey cheese and vegetables and meat on your sandwich, so you’re going to walk away full.
People today are very health conscious. Even though the grilled cheese portion of it might not seem healthy, the stuff that we put in the grilled cheese is all fresh and locally grown—not in San Pedro or Ambergris key, but in Belize. It gets shipped in everyday. Since everything is fresh, I shop every single day. I have two great vegetable ladies I deal with on a daily basis.
The previous owners were open 6 days a week. They were off on Sunday, and they were only open from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Once we took over, we kept that schedule for a little while, but we found there was a need for more. Closing at two was too early, and it has been very beneficial to be open seven days. We’re training staff now though, so we don’t have to be here 24/7. It’s our baby right now, and we have to make sure that whoever we train does it the same way we do. It’s not all about the food it’s about the experience. As diners in restaurants, we’ve sat on the other side. We’ve had poor service. We knew the kind of service we wanted to provide to our customers. We never wanted their drinks to be empty. We never wanted them to be calling for us. We always wanted to be there for them and they want to know our story. They see that we’ve picked up and moved down here and they want to hear about it. Then you start talking and you learn about their lives, and you realize that a lot of people have the same dream I did. It’s just a matter of how brave you are. I never thought I was brave, but here I am. We’re busy. Right now it’s the slow season, but we’re gearing up for the high season. The second or third week in November, Thanksgiving, is going to be pretty busy. We’ll go through two weeks of non-stop turning tables. Then we’ll have a couple weeks in December when we’ll slow down again. Beginning at Christmas, then from January through April, it is going to be extremely busy. The weather is a lot cooler, the breeze is nicer, the water temperature always stays the same–no matter when you’re here it’s always 82 degrees.
There’s plenty of sidewalk traffic here, but a lot of people said they didn’t know about before we took over. The previous owners spent a lot of time here, but I don’t know how people didn’t know about it because it was such great food. My husband and I, we socialize a lot. We loved to gab. Every time we see somebody, we say, “Stop by the Melt. Stop by the Melt.” So they stop by the Melt and then they’re hooked.
The transition really wasn’t that difficult. It was kind of easy. We got here, and we moved into our condo. We took over the restaurant. It wasn’t hard to go from living in the big city to living here. It was calming.
When we bought this business, we had a realtor who managed the deal between the previous owners and us. A lot of the information we needed came from them. He was a great source of information. I had never been here before, never lived here before, never lived in the Caribbean before. It’s a lot of learn as you go. If you don’t know something, there are 4,000 expats on the island that know things like how to go about setting up your utilities and where to pay. We were fortunate to rent a condo, and we pay utilities with that. We pay social security for our employees. If there is anything that we need to know, we either go back to our realtor or ask one of the many people that have been here 20 or 30 years. They are vast wealth of knowledge. We had to learn our vendors, and how you order from the vendors in Belize City. We also had to learn how to get our purchases here: Some things come on by air, some come by barge.
The similarities between the US and Belize are impressive. Some people think of Belize as a third world country, but it is far from third world. Belize’s banking system is amazing. Just the way they do business is so much like the United States.
We spend all our day at work and sometimes you see people on vacation and you’re like, “You know I wanted to retire and be on vacation but I knew I couldn’t be on vacation because I get bored.” You just kind of find a balance where you can still work to make a living and you can still enjoy living here in paradise.
We’ve gained a lot of friends and acquaintances that keep in touch with us. We put business cards in all of our bills at the end of the meal and probably 99% of the time, the card is gone. I’m hoping that they want to tell their friends when they go back home, to wherever home is, that they should stop by the Melt because it was a great experience. We’ve had several people spend their whole vacation eating here. That’s very rewarding. Our staff is awesome. We have wonderful cooks, preppers, and dishwashers. It’s a small staff and we’re like family. I love my girls. They’re great. They will do anything you ask. Customers come in here and they might want something crazy. We may be back in the kitchen laughing, but we’ll make it because that’s what the customer wants. There was a couple that wanted a sandwich, but they didn’t want the bread. They just wanted the insides, which was odd. But when I brought it out to them, it looked beautiful. The staff made it look like it was supposed to be that way. There are a lot of things we offer that aren’t on the menu. We like accommodating our customers because it makes us feel good.
I haven’t really told too many people that we’ve moved down here. Just family, really. I had a boss in Vegas for four years and he still doesn’t know we’re here. We’re busy. I don’t have a lot of time to go back, and I’m more in the moment. If I went to a reunion–I have my 40-year high school reunion coming up in the next few years–it would be interesting to tell people, “Yeah, I live in Belize. We have a cafe.” People would probably say, “Oh, wow. How did you do that? Wow, that’s great.” Because that’s what I would have said if someone told me that they lived in Belize. I would have been jealous.
I’ll be honest, there are days that I think to myself, “Was it really a business that I wanted or was it a vacation I wanted?” And everyday I wake up and I come to the restaurant and we do the same thing every morning and every night. We have a routine. We build the tables up in the morning and then we break them down at night. Then we go to Crazy Canuck’s and have a couple beers with our friends. I smile and I laugh everyday. Even though I’m not laying in the sun or diving or snorkeling or just reading a book, I’m still happy and content with the way life is right now for us. It might not be a forever thing. Who knows? I want it to be a forever thing.
In another segment of our wide-ranging chat, Michelle described how she and her husband have managed their transition from the Untied States to Belize. Click here to read “How We Moved to Belize and Made It Work” at escapeartist.com.