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Robert St. John: Good morning, Hattiesburg

The Midtowner in Hattiesburg (Photo courtesy of Robert St. John)

A few weeks ago, an interviewer asked, “Give me a typical day in the life of Robert St. John.”

I had never thought about it and so my knee-jerk reaction was, “Every day is different.” That’s true. But there is a certain structure to how my day typically begins.

When I’m working out, the day starts at 5:30 a.m. in the gym three days a week. Other than that, every day starts the same when I’m in town. I typically pop into the bakery between 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. to check on the morning’s bake and then head to the Midtowner for breakfast. I make a point to say “Good morning,” to everyone working in the kitchen and on the floor and then take my seat at table 19.

One can learn a lot in that initial 60 seconds of entering a restaurant in the early morning. If I receive an enthusiastic “good morning” in return, I know we’re getting everything set and ready for breakfast service in a smooth manner. If a morning welcome is half-hearted, I usually check up on that person to see if everything’s ok with their position at that moment and if there is anything they may need help with in their personal life or at home.

It’s rare that a return “good morning” is delivered in a downbeat manner at The Midtowner. That has been one of the great surprises with this breakfast-lunch concept I opened several years ago. Before we opened, I wondered if we were going to be able to retain a team that could wake up at 5:00 a.m. and make it to work on time.

If you’re not a restaurant person, then you should know that a large percentage of the food service world — especially in a college town — likes to have a good time after work. I’m not talking about a rousing game of Scrabble or milk and cookies and a few rounds of charades. Restaurant people are party people. It’s always been that way, or at least during the time I’ve been doing this since 1981. The hours are long, the pace is fast, and the pressure is sometimes intense. It’s not The Bear-level intense, but many times it gets hairy, and young people are going to do what young people do.

I was part of that post-work release madness for my first couple of years in this industry until I got clean and sober.

I spent 10 years thinking about opening a breakfast joint before I ever opened a breakfast joint. I knew my hometown of Hattiesburg would respond positively to a locally owned independent breakfast place that also served good, old-fashioned southern home-cooking for lunch. I knew our location was perfect for what we wanted to do. My biggest concern was if our team members would consistently be able to show up to work on time. A couple of our other concepts sometimes had trouble getting people to an 11:00 a.m. lunch shift in a timely manner. It’s never been a problem at The Midtowner.

This concept has been such a pleasure to own and operate. I love all my concepts. They’re like one’s children. One day, one of them is dealing with an issue while the other is perfectly fine. The Midtowner has been a steady presence in the New South Restaurant Group fold. My early fears of team members not being able to get up early and get to work were unfounded.

All restaurants have a certain energy and vibe. The vibe at The Midtowner is always upbeat and positive. I wanted to create a restaurant that felt like it had been in operation since the late 1940s, a true local community café. Back in those days, that’s pretty much all that existed — small cafés or fine dining restaurants with French chefs. There weren’t any theme restaurants or national chains littering the landscape. It was all local.

I wanted to create a place where the entire community could get together and share a meal — young, old, black, white, rich, poor, guys with their names stitched to their work shirts, and sorority girls with Greek letters on their sweatshirts. It was one of the proudest moments of my restaurant career when — two weeks into our initial run — I turned around while working the window and looked out into the dining room, and that’s what I saw — all ages, all walks of life, all occupations, all sharing a meal. I wanted to create the most Hattiesburg restaurant that had ever existed in Hattiesburg, and I felt as if I had done that. It still feels that way.

One of the greatest compliments I receive is when someone is surprised when I tell them that we’ve only been open a little over five years. “But it looks like it’s been here since the fifties.” That was the plan.

I am wired for a breakfast joint — to own one and to be in one. It just fits my lifestyle and personality, and I feel overly blessed to own one and have such a positive team running it every day. When my “day in the life” starts at a breakfast joint — whether it’s mine or someone else’s — it sets a positive, productive tone for the rest of my day.

Onward.

Sweet Potato Pancakes

Yield: 10-14 pancakes

Preheat oven to 200 degrees for holding pancakes

  • 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp Kosher salt
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 ½ cups cooked and mashed sweet potato (approximately two medium sweet potatoes)
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • Melted butter or non-stick spray for cooking

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon in a medium-sized bowl. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the sweet potato puree, eggs, sour cream, milk, maple syrup, melted butter, and vanilla extract. Whisk the sweet potato mixture into the flour mixture, do not overmix. A few lumps are fine.

Allow batter to sit for 10-15 minutes before cooking pancakes.

To cook the pancakes, heat a non-stick griddle to 325-350 degrees (models vary, so test your griddle with a small bit of batter to ensure you have the heat adjusted correctly). Brush the griddle with melted butter or spray with non-stick spray. Form pancakes by using a one-third cup measuring cup. Cook until the surface of the pancakes has some bubbles and a few have burst, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip the pancakes and cook for an additional two minutes. If holding pancakes in the oven before serving, place them on a wire rack in a preheated oven.

Serve with warm Cinnamon Cream Syrup

Cinnamon Cream Syrup

Yield: approximately 2 cups

  • 1-14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • ¼ cup + 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

Set up a small sauce pot to act as a double boiler. Combine all ingredients in a small stainless-steel bowl and place over a double boiler on medium-high heat. Cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and serve.

The cooled syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for one week.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.

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