On the Vineyard, there are a number of people who just continue to amaze me. Whether it’s in their charitable works, their commitment to a cause, or their successful business, they just “wow” you. I think that JB Blau is one of those people. When I was thinking about what I wanted to write about for On Point, I thought it would be fun to find out more about JB, who is surprisingly low-key when it comes to himself.
On Wednesday, I was able to sit down with JB at ChoCo, the nickname for his popular Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co., and find out a little more about the man behind three of the most successful year-round restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard, which is no small feat.
A little background – JB went to college in Maine, and fell in love with the small community feel. However, after graduation he moved to Boston and helped run a buddy’s poster and framing shop. He liked the business but not the big city. He came to Martha’s Vineyard on a whim and fell in love with its small community. Here he also fell in love with a beautiful woman, his now wife of several years, Heidi.
Soon after, in 1997 he opened Jaba’s Gallery in Oak Bluffs (still open). Jabas sold posters which you could also have framed there. Prices were pretty good, and he did very well. In 1998 he opened a Jabas in Vineyard Haven and one in Newport, RI. Having run a similar store in Boston, he knew what he was doing, and he was successful in filling a niche for affordable artwork for visitors and locals.
The success of Jabas allowed JB to do what he had really wanted to do for years, which was to open a restaurant, specifically a taco & burrito restaurant. So, he found a couple of interested partners, and in 2004, Cafe ‘Ole opened its doors on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
Cafe ‘Ole did well, but JB & his wife Heidi, wanted to do something different. Something with sharks, with nod to the whole Jaws thing, but not so obvious. Thus, Sharky’s Cantina was born in July of 2005.
For Sharky’s, JB had a new partner, but the location in OB stayed the same. The place was an immediate success. I think success might be an understatement. It became an Island obsession. There was no place like it. They served delicious, inexpensive Mexican food, and had the most amazing margaritas. The space was small but it was comfortable and both locals and visitors alike made Sharky’s a mainstay.
Soon you saw people rocking “Lime Disease” and other Sharky’s t-shirts all over the Island. It was the hot spot 363 days a year, but there was one drawback, space. Sharky’s OB is intimate but tiny. JB knew it had room to grow. He bought out his partnership, and it was on to new things.
In 2008, Sharky’s Cantina in Edgartown opened its doors. Though people doubted the location he chose, JB did it anyway. It had plenty of space and even plenty of outdoor seating. He had a vision, and once again was a success.
Now he had the space to add a sports bar feel, so we sports enthusiasts could be entertained year round. Those 15 TVs with speakers available for the tables if needed, drew a crowd as soon as the doors opened, since it happened to be during the Celtics playoff. The place was packed every night and earned a regular following.
Also, Sharky’s could now be used for functions and big parties. Large groups could have dinner together without taking up the whole restaurant. Also, JB could now do more philanthropic things like Wingfest, which is a huge success each Fall, raising serious money for the Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club.
They also started dine-to-donate. A brilliant way to raise money for non-profits. It allows Sharky’s to help the non-profits help themselves. Between Wingfest and dine-to-donate, to date, Sharky’s has helped raise over $100,000 for Island non-profits, something JB is very proud of. Also, don’t forget the popular VIP card. I know I love my free chips & salsa – another way of giving back people.
Now with two successful restaurants, why not open a third? Renowned Island Chef, Alex Nagi, who has cooked for notables and celebs for years, was free during the winters since his clients were here during the Summer. JB has been freinds with Alex for quite a while, and Alex helped JB out with a couple of things at Sharky’s. Alex is an amazing chef with a real talent for seafood, and it just so happened that JB & Heidi were toying around with the idea of opening a seafood restaurant. JB was ready to venture back into a partnership.
Once he tried Alex’s clam chowder recipe, he new they would open a restaurant together, and that rockstar chowder would be the foundation for the concept. Welcome Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co. July 2011, The main land has the Cheesecake Factory and we have the Chowder Company or ChoCo as the locals call it. Another successful restaurant open year-round for us to enjoy.
The food and decor of the Chowder Company could not be more different from Sharky’s It was supposed to be more casual initially, like a crab shack, but the space was begging for something with a little more pizazz. Interestingly enough, right before ChoCo, JB was going to open a third Sharky’s but in Falmouth. After months of work, he just walked away. It didn’t feel right.
Opening a restaurant with Alex on the Island felt right. He contacted to Wallace brothers the day he walked away from the Falmouth deal, and they had a loose agreement that night. Clearly this restaurant was meant to happen.
Ok, so now we have three successful restaurants, and let’s keep going. Secretly, JB & Heidi would like to own seven restaurants on the Island, a different concept for everyday of the week. But for now, they are going to open the 5,000 square foot Dreamland space above ChoCo this July. It is going to be the only venue like it on MV with Nectars leaving town. Think concerts, weddings, non-profit events, all in town. Another ninche filled, nicely done!
JB’s company the Year-Round Restaurant Group is committed to making the experience better year-round on the Island. When I asked JB what his secret was, he said “To hire people who are better than you.” The secret to his success besides his personal commitment is the people he hires. The right chef, the right bartenders, the right servers – they all impact the customer’s experience.
He is so involved with this, that at the bottom of the restaurant’s receipts, you’ll find JB’s cell phone number. He gets back to people immediately. It’s important for him and the people he works with to continue to challenge themselves and realize the impact they have on this community.
For JB, having such an impact on the community is so important. He and his family, which include two little Islanders, plan to stay here forever, and he is committed to doing all he can to help make this an even more special place. I wonder what he’ll do next?