Casa Marina Hotel Maître D’ Sterling Joyce takes tremendous pride in his job and love where he works. We met in the events center where he covers occasions of all sorts; weddings, conventions, parties, you name it. His main goal is to put a smile on a person’s face. It’s hard not to smile when you visit with Sterling. He is charming and radiates warmth. He knows special events can be stressful so he goes out of his way to put people at ease. He’ll take a bride aside and assure her that everything is going to be fine. Sterling’s “daddy” sparked his interest in hospitality, Sterling Joyce Sr. He started working in the catering business during high school summer breaks and he’s “been enjoying it ever since. I love meeting people.” The events venue had been boarded up for ten years when Sterling started at the Casa Marina in 2004. It was the hotel’s restaurant in earlier times. The hotel used to house 60 guest rooms. Renovations have trimmed that number to 23. At one time the rooms were rented out as apartments with no heat or air conditioning. “This old girl has been through it all and stood here proud.” Perhaps the hotel’s most special event is Sterling’s birthday party each December. Rather than having guests bring him gifts, he uses the event to collect toys, canned and books for BEAM, Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry in Jacksonville Beach. That’s the kind of guy Sterling is. In recent years upwards of 650 guests have attended his birthday party, with a different theme each year. “Mi casa, su casa. You’re always welcome” says Sterling and he means it from the bottom of his huge heart.
Executive Chef Aaron Webb has been a fixture since 2001 preparing what he calls “new beach” cuisine. He wanted to mix things up a bit and separate the Casa Marina apart from what all the other places were doing. His focus is on fresh and local, food he grew up with, with a twist. Citrus lime shrimp and duck confit tacos are two items that show off his talents. His Sunday brunch is legendary featuring a prime rib carving station and a whole snapper station. Chef Aaron started in the kitchen as a dishwasher at age 15. The lady who ran the kitchen was a culinary teacher from Cornell and he learned a lot from her. He credits her with most of the skills he has today. “It’s a great place here” he says with pride. “I can see the water from the kitchen.” In addition to the tapas and luches served in the Penthouse Lounge, he oversees weddings and banquets, striving to exceed guests’ every expectations. Where a lot of chef have the reputation for being “bad ass”, Aaron prefers to treat his team with kindness and respect. It seems to be working very well indeed.
General Manager Mark Vandeloo has been at the Casa Marina for ten years now. When I asked him to describe what the hotel was like when he started there he described it as a shell. All the elements were there, he says, the work just needed to be done. He describes it as desolate, that there was many a night he and chef Aaron were the only people there. Mark started at the hotel as a bartender. How did he make the transition from bartender to GM? “It just took me over.” It became a personal challenge to get business. He had a huge learning curve, both on the hotel side and the banquet side, but because business was so slow he had plenty of time. When guests did start coming back, they brought plenty of memories with them… of weddings, birthday parties and other special occasions. The hotel hosted 15 – 20 weddings a year ten years ago. Today it runs 115 to 120. When he started at the Casa Marina, random photographs of seagulls and beach scenes adorned the walls. Now the walls are living history with photos of Jacksonville Beach’s rich past. It’s not uncommon for guests to spend 45 minutes or more strolling the halls and soaking up yesterday. He gives a lot of credit to guests who send in a multitude of photos and to the Beaches Museum & History Park. With only 23 room, Mark wants his staff to know every guest by their first name and give them personal attention and unique service. He wants each member of his staff to ask themselves at the end of the day “what have I done to make my property better?” Plans to expand are in the works. They own the adjacent lot to the south and hope to break ground this spring for a bigger and better open air lounge/hotel beachfront bar.
Casa Marina Hotel – One of The Historic Hotels of America – 691 First Street North, Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250 – (904) 270-0025