Our Community - Stephen "Papi" Manuel - "Pleasing Palates in Paradise"

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 13, No. 15            April 24, 2003

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Stephen "Papi" Manuel

Many resort towns feature a variety of international cuisine but the great flavor of Belizean dishes is a prime reason why tourists enjoy dining in San Pedro. Although the most famous Belizean fare is rice and beans, Stephen "Papi" Manuel from Papi's Diner takes pride in serving a variety of tasty dishes to tourists and residents alike, making it one of the best-rated restaurants in San Pedro.

    Papi was born to parents Fidelia Rodriguez and Charles Manuel, on October 10th, 1956, in Belize City. The only male child in a family of two older  and two younger sisters, Papi was only a year old when his father fell ill and was hospitalized, leaving his mother to raise five children alone. Fidelia and her children lived in Belize City for another five years, until Hurricane Haiti slammed the city in 1961.

    That same year Papi's mother died and this proved to be a most difficult time for Papi and his sisters. The children were forced to rely on an aunt, who graciously took them to live on her farm on the Old Maskal Road, 24 miles north of Belize City. Papi, only five years old at the time, worked on the farm along with his four sisters, caring for the cows and chickens and tending the garden for the next seven years.

    Papi also attended New Hope Primary School part of the time, but the combination of school and work proved too difficult for the young boy. So, at the age of 12, Papi moved back to Belize City, where he stayed with uncles and started his first job, selling snow cones and oranges in front of St. Catherine's Academy. He remained employed there for the next two years, until he went to work for an ESSO oil company filling trucks and doing other small chores. Four years later, in 1972, one of Papi's friends, a man named Mr. Daniel Dawson from San Pedro, suffered a stroke and asked Papi to help pump oil for the power station in San Pedro Town. They also offered him a place to live.

    Papi jumped at the idea to help his friend and hopped on a boat. He instantly fell in love with the small island, that he found "so free and laid back." Papi reflected, "Those were the days when you could sleep with your door open, kick off your shoes, and even occasionally fall asleep on the beach."

    While he felt like a member of the Dawson family, Papi felt he needed to take on more responsibility. During this eight-year stay with the Dawsons, he applied for a job as a bartender at Paradise Hotel. This commenced a 25-year career as a mixologist for some of San Pedro's finest establishments. For the next 10 years he worked at Milo's Hotel and Ambergris Lodge (what is now the Mayan Princess). When he tired of working at bars, he took a job with San Pedro Distributors working for Barry Bowen as a driver, for seven years. In 1991, Papi realized that his true talent was working in public relations and returned to his career as a bartender. He displayed his abilities for the next nine years at the Purple Parrot 1 (Ramon's Village), Purple Parrot II (Fido's), and Holiday Hotel. During his last year as a bartender (2000) he began to build his restaurant, Papi's Diner, in Boca del Rio.

    Papi's Diner has now been serving the community for three years, having recently celebrated its anniversary on April 1st, 2003. Papi is proud to say that among other local dishes, he serves fresh whole snapper daily, and cooks succulent lobster (in season). Papi's Diner also boasts scrumptious homemade honey mustard, and tropical pineapple sauces for chicken or beef. His wife of 23 years, Vicenta, and their five beautiful children (three girls and two boys): Kainie (22), Stephanie (19), Stephen (17), Natalie (16), and Ian (15) have all taken an active role in the restaurant. While Papi's sister-in-law, Irene Vasquez cooks the mouthwatering food during the day, his wife Vicenta cooks the scrumptious food served out of their kitchen during the evening.

    Papi's business continues to thrive under his careful guidance, but there are no immediate plans to expand. Papi and his family are kept busy from 6:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. most every evening. You might ask yourself, when does this enterprising man get the chance to relax? The answer is almost never. Papi is almost constantly working but he sometimes pauses a few minutes to shoot a game of pool (his favorite pastime). Although he has been a member of the San Pedro Lions Club for the last 19 years, he is not as active as he would like to be on this small island that has been his home for 31 years.

    Papi's business is more to him that just putting food on his family's table. He wants to give his children opportunities that he did not have - primarily an education. "The business is theirs, not mine. I am working for their benefit," Papi claimed. Apparently, he is on the right track; Papi's two oldest children have now graduated from San Pedro High School, and the other three are almost finished.

    Papi's advice to others in San Pedro - "Anyone who wants to do anything can do it, they need only put their mind to it." Stephen "Papi" Manuel is one individual who is not only catering to the tourists, but is also making himself happy providing finer food at diner prices for the local residents in "Our Community."

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