Donkey Diner Dreamers

Posted on: Sunday, January 11th, 2009
Posted in: Work/Life Hacking, Blog | Leave a comment

One Mission for this Breakaway is to seek out work/life hackers—inspirational role models making up their own rules. Like Sue and Sean, proprietors of the delightful Donkey Diner on St. John. He excelled in molecular biology; she found her fortune in financial services. They walked away to faraway Coral Bay to cook up brand new lives.


Now, some might think of this as trading down to trade up.  After all, for nearly 20 years, they worked their way up corporate food chain…only to wind up bringing home the bacon by flipping pancakes and peddling pizzas.    



But in their eyes, this is THE vision. “I can’t even imagine that stuff used to be my life!” declares Sean.  And they’ve discovered new definitions of success:  “We sold out of pizza last night—had our best night ever,” beams Sue.

Riding the Donkey to the new dream has had some ups and downs.  

  • One upside was, after quitting their jobs, taking a one-year travel Sabbatical to search 10 islands and the internet for the right restaurant.  

“We became traveling, professional foodies,” admits Sean.  In the end, they found the Donkey on Craig’s List.

As negotiations began, they learned quickly that “you must be willing to do things differently,” they say in harmony.  Leases? They barely exist.  Lawyers?  Make others suspicious.  Papers?  They only wilt in salt air and blow away in the breeze.  As one player in their process put it, “We are all adults here.” “We had to meet half-way over and over,” reflects Sue.  “There are a lot of cultural nuances to get used to as a business owner,” admits Sean, the other recovering executive.

dsc_0839Other things that take some getting used to: Cooks that “call in sail” (skip work because the wind suggests it’s a perfect sailing day); procurement problems (“We’ve had to ferry over to St. Thomas just to buy spinach”); customers who make asses of themselves (“One dude blew up last night because we were down to our last 2 pizzas.”) Can they handle the many Donkey messes?  Sean only laughs,

“Hey, I’ve done million-dollar negotiations; I can handle a complaint about $2 home fries!”  

Anyway, after only one month as owners, they now know that their big-city work ethic will trump “Island Time” most any time. Plus, “99% of the customers are just happy to be here,” they agree. Says Sue, “Those last two pizzas last night?  They were call-in no-shows, so the ingredients were already on them.  Right after the New Yorker blew up and left in a huff, another customer came in and was ecstatic to buy them—said it was his lucky day.” Sean and Sue feel lucky, too. But besides luck, what drove them to such extreme work/life hacking?  

“It’s about not working for The Man anymore, yet not letting go of the pursuit of quality,” asserts Sean.  “That, and we always dreamed of having a cool Jeep,” smiles Sue.  

That Jeep, by the way, is a typical St. John model, loaded with bumper stickers, dings, and character. For all that, they sold two fancier vehicles, a 3-story penthouse with a rooftop deck and view of Boston harbor, and many now-unnecessary possessions.

Sean takes a puff of a post-Sunday-brunch-rush stogie, rests his bare feet on a picnic table, and laughs, “People back home are still shell-shocked we actually did it!” Together, they reply, “We’re not!”

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