Sweet anticipation on the Vineyard

With the president expected, shops and cafes get set

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / August 18, 2011

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OAK BLUFFS - All guests at the Sweet Life Café are treated like VIPs, but there is one who has come in three of the last four summers who is truly a very important person. And this year, if he dines here, the staff wants to be ready, musing they should draw straws to determine who will serve the president of the United States.

But owner Susan Guerin is having none of that. She wants only her best server waiting on Barack Obama and his guests if they should dine at the cream-colored Victorian that has been converted into one of Martha’s Vineyard’s best restaurants.

“I don’t want to take it for granted,’’ Guerin said yesterday, the day before Obama was scheduled to begin his annual summer sojourn on one of New England’s island gems. “You don’t want to jinx it.’’

Circuit Avenue - a narrow street sprinkled with Sweet Life and other restaurants, boutiques, and ice cream shops - has hosted the first family for years. By now, the shopkeepers and chefs know the drill: Blocked traffic and throngs of people, their camera phones in hand and eyes trained in the same direction, all mean the president is afoot and customers cannot get through.

“They kill business,’’ Roger Schilling, owner of C’est la Vie , said as he rang up the sale of a gray T-shirt with “For Obama then, For Obama now’’ on the back, as well as a black hat with Obama emblazoned in shiny rhinestones. “We don’t mind, but they kill business for sure.’’

The boutique is several doors down from Sweet Life and near the end of Circuit Avenue, which is partially closed while the president dines. Although patrons cannot reach the street, those already there might be in for the rare chance to see the head of state, albeit from afar.

“Everyone is right here, saying, ‘Where is the president?’ ’’ Schilling recalled with a whisper of a French accent. “So it’s great.’’

Guerin said she eagerly anticipates, but does not expect, to receive a mysterious phone call seeking reservations in late August. One year, a group of girls were desperate for a birthday party, even coming in to scout the place and the privacy of the back room. Another year, a young man wanted to propose with both sets of parents bearing witness. Oblivious, Guerin asked for a credit card to secure the reservation because the party had more than six.

It was all a ruse, she said, perpetrated by President Obama’s security force, designed to snag a reservation without disclosing the true identify of the guest.

“And I totally fell for it,’’ Guerin recalled, with a laugh.

The Secret Service always arrives ahead of the president’s party to secure the premises, which includes getting copies of the reservation list. No one is kicked out, and no customers with reservations are turned away while the commander in chief is there, as long as they are already on the list. But once inside, you cannot leave. Do not even think of trying to make a last-minute reservation after hearing that the Obamas are enjoying surf and turf and ribs and steak.

“We try to keep all the guests in their seats,’’ Guerin said. “You want the experience to be as normal as possible. You want to be blasé, but you can’t be blasé because it’s the president of the United States.’’

There are no stealthy phone calls to the Game Room in the middle of Circuit Avenue before Obama’s daughters visit, said Melissa Kalagher, a manager at the arcade and adjoining Seasons restaurant. Usually, it’s just Sasha, Malia, and their Secret Service detail inside the bright-blue arcade filled with flashing lights and ringing bells that sound just before a game machine spits out redeemable red tickets.

“It’s really just kind of nonchalant,’’ Kalagher said of the reaction from the other gamers and staff inside the arcade, where the girls visit several times each trip. “You’d expect a little bit more, but it’s just kind of, whatever.’’

But that ambivalence only applies to the outward reaction to the first daughters’ presence. Inwardly, the staff - and the buzz from the streets - thinks it’s pretty cool. “I mean, it’s the president of the United States’ daughters,’’ Kalagher said.

Several doors down Circuit Avenue and across the street, Jake Gifford sits in his shop, The Lazy Frog, a bright-green wonder emporium filled with kites, Frisbees, board games, and, of course, frogs, wishing the first family would stop for a visit. That will not happen, he said, because of the store’s location in the middle and not near the ends of Circuit Avenue.

“The first year he came, Secret Service would come in, and a couple of them would buy stuff for their kids,’’ Gifford said. “But he’s never coming in or the kids, they say.’’

Secret Service agents once told him the shop’s position and proximity to neighboring shops make the buildings too hard to secure, he lamented.

“And,’’ he moaned, “we have got the funniest stuff.’’

The Secret Garden, a souvenir shop housed in one of the Vineyard’s quintessential gingerbread houses, is another place that pines for a presidential visit, even as some customers openly grumble about Obama’s substantial entourage locking them out of their favorite Vineyard respite, the Wesley Hotel.

“I would love to just be able to see him walking down the street,’’ Bree MacLean said between customers. Then again, she mused, maybe it is the seclusion of Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark that keeps the Obamas coming back to the rock 7 miles off the Massachusetts coast.

Much of the Vineyard is, after all, off the beaten track.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at