Neatly tucked along the Philipsburg beachfront in Sint Maarten, Sky Vogue’s blue signpost catches the eye. An arc of green climbing plants covers the alley that leads to the restaurant’s front door, giving an ambience of privacy and relaxation. Owner and manager Jovanka Horsford welcomes customers with a smile.
“I grew up in this industry. My father was a regional trainer for restaurants and hotels in the Caribbean—these were my playgrounds. We would go from island to island, setting up restaurants for companies. Even while in college in Florida, I managed my father’s restaurants,” says Jovanka.
Jovanka always had an entrepreneurial spirit, opening her own boutique selling gourmet foods like specialty popcorn, chocolates, and champagne. After Hurricane Irma devastated Sint Maarten in September 2017, she was forced to close. Undeterred, in 2019, she went back to her roots, opening a gourmet popcorn and waffle lounge that quickly became popular, attracting a huge local clientele who came out every Saturday night for karaoke. “People were just having an enjoyable time singing, eating, and drinking,” says Jovanka. Five months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The lockdown lasted longer than expected. Unable to operate, she couldn’t pay her bills, and was forced to close. “I stopped doing anything for a while.”
Later, a friend working at the National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) suggested she look into the Enterprise Support Project (ESP), changing her life.
Creating Strong Small Businesses
The ESP is one of the projects funded by the Sint Maarten Trust Fund and implemented by the NRPB. It aims to strengthen and increase the recovery and resilience of micro, small, and medium-sized businesses (MSMEs) through direct financial assistance. This support contributes to the restoration of economic activity in Sint Maarten, with a special focus on empowering women-owned businesses.
As a new business owner, local to Sint Maarten and with a reputation for reliability, Jovanka was a prime candidate to qualify for the program.
The project has three components. The first provides direct financial support through grants and loans to MSMEs for things like investment in equipment and repairs to existing assets, as well as loans to sustain working capital. This directly complements the second component, aimed at exploring financial solutions for improved disaster resilience. The third component helps build capacity among local businesses, providing training and tools to ensure participants can continue to operate sustainably.
Rebuilding and Succeeding
Jovanka downloaded and filled out the relevant forms. “Since I was in business, I knew how to make a business plan.” She submitted the forms and was soon invited for an interview. “They said the only thing I needed was to have a lease before I could get the loan.” This was necessary so that once she received the money, it would be used immediately. So, she took a lease for a location that would soon become Sky Vogue.
Jovanka’s new location had been closed for three years because of Hurricane Irma. On closer inspection of the property, the structural damage to the premises was more than she expected with no electricity in the building and water coming up in the floor. There were multiple challenges that would require more money and a longer construction schedule than anticipated. As a result, Jovanka used her own finances to complete the additional items. “We didn’t get to complete everything that we wanted but it was enough to start,” she says.
Acquiring additional financing and finding—and keeping—reliable workers have been her two biggest challenges, but she is keen to continue her business. The restaurant currently hosts book launches and birthday parties. Regular customers and visitors compliment her services and are repeat visitors when they are in the area.
Jovanka’s goal is to have the restaurant on the ground floor and a lounge upstairs with desserts, cocktails, and a boutique. She also wants to incorporate different specialty food makers to create unique "made-in Sint Maarten" gift baskets. Jovanka does her own marketing, with advertisements in the media, on Facebook, and on the radio.
Jovanka says, “I am grateful, because without the help of the World Bank, without the ESP and NRPB, I wouldn’t have done this.”