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Opinion

Robert St. John: I love this business

Robert St. John is one of the most known restaurateurs in Mississippi

In the 1985 Ron Howard movie, “Cocoon,” a group of senior citizens from a retirement home break into an abandoned indoor swimming pool filled with alien pods. The energy radiated from the pods at the bottom of the pool gives the seniors bucketloads of youthful vigor and renewed energy.

I haven’t been swimming in a pool of extra-terrestrial objects, but I have hit some type of professional resurgence in my career and life lately in which I feel an amazing amount of renewed commitment and passion for the restaurant business and my career.

After 43 years in this industry and only three years away from the age when the government thinks people should retire, I feel as energetic and passionate as I did in my twenties when I first got into this business.

There hasn’t been a lot of time lately for me to sit down and self-analyze where this rebirth has come from, but I also don’t want to question it too closely for fear it may go away.

It’s been an interesting journey to get to this point.

In 1981, I flunked out of college and moved back home, embarrassed and aimless. I was 20 years old and lost. Two ladies were in the process of opening a delicatessen. They were new to the restaurant business, which is evident because they hired me as the manager. I fell in love with restaurant work immediately. I couldn’t get enough of it. I managed the deli during the day and got a second job waiting tables at night. I set my sights on opening my own restaurant one day.

Looking back, I was a terrible manager as I was as clueless as anyone could be in a leadership role. On top of that, I was a 20-year-old with a full-blown alcohol and drug addiction. The owner of the restaurant had to come wake me up at my apartment on several occasions, just to get me to come to work. As a 43-year veteran of this industry, it embarrasses me to have written the previous sentence, I am fortunate that the owners didn’t know enough best practices to have fired me immediately. Had they done so, I might have gone back into the radio business and never found my true calling.

After a few more jobs in other restaurants, I ended up in an alcohol and drug rehab center on May 25, 1983. It saved my life and future career. I have been clean and sober ever since.

Then — with a clear mind— the dream of opening my own restaurant one day was stronger than ever. I put my life on a fast track. I re-enrolled in college at the University of Southern Mississippi and got a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration. I worked 40 hours a week waiting tables to support myself. All my spare hours were spent either in a restaurant or working towards opening a future restaurant. In between classes, I went to the library and read the restaurant trade magazines. At night, I stayed up until two and three in the morning designing future restaurants and creating menus. I was obsessed.

My goal in those days was just to open one restaurant so I could wear shorts and t-shirts to work every day. That’s it. Nothing more. That dream came true on December 28, 1987, when we opened The Purple Parrot Café. I paid myself $250.00 a week which was half of what I was making as a server in other restaurants. But the truth is — had I had any money — I would have paid someone for the privilege of owning my own restaurant. I loved it. I had a blast. I was working 90 hours a week cooking in the kitchen for the first four years, and the only reason I wasn’t putting in more hours is because there was nothing left to do at the end of the day. So, I went home and stayed up late designing future restaurants and menus in my one-room garage apartment.

In the following years, many of those restaurants I dreamed of, and designed late at night, came to fruition. Some were a hit. Others weren’t. More opened. Others closed. Luckily, the successes outweighed the failures. No matter what the problems and issues were I never lost my passion for the industry. Good or bad, I was having a blast.

When Covid hit, things changed. It seemed like the end had come, for me, for our restaurants, and for the industry at large. I never lost my passion; I just went into survival mode and only had to close a couple of the concepts. But now, far removed from the carnage that pandemic had on everything, I can see that it not only forever changed this industry, but we struggled to survive way more than we realized at the time.

It made us stronger.

Years ago at a seminar, I heard Danny Meyer — one of the country’s preeminent restaurateurs — say, “Business is problems. A successful business is problems well handled. If you can’t handle problems, get out of business.”

Sometimes out of bad things come better things. That is the case for us. We opened a couple of concepts in the post-Covid world, and the challenges were greater than ever. But being in survival mode made us leaner and more streamlined. I reached out for help in ways I had never done before.

Eighteen months ago, we partnered with a multi-integrated restaurant management software company called Restaurant Systems Pro which was one of the wisest moves I have ever made. It made such a difference in our business that I invested in the company. I began reading more industry-related business books. I hired an executive coach, then I hired that same coach for our executive team and our leadership team. We began building a corporate infrastructure to handle the growth. My personal restaurant revival and rebirth was underway.

This resurgence was based on results. And the more positive results we experienced, the more committed I became. I shored up our company’s mission statement: “We give our guests exceptional experiences through fanatical, wall-to-wall hospitality.” I began communicating our company’s core values — hospitality, quality, consistency, cleanliness, and community — and started basing all our management decisions on whether they fell in line with those values. We have made amazing progress, yet still have a lot of room to grow.

Wilford Brimley was 11 years younger than I am now when he played senior citizen Ben Luckett in “Cocoon.” Though I feel as if I am just hitting my stride, I love my work. Actually, it has never felt like work. I will never retire. I don’t know what I would do. I don’t hunt, fish, or play golf. Restaurants are my hobby.

I’ve got a 22-year-old son who is a few years away from joining the team. These days, I am as excited about this industry, and our company’s future as I was in my mid-twenties when I was dreaming all this stuff up.

Onward.

Miniature Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits became popular in southern restaurants in the late 1980s. This is a preparation that allows them to be hand held.

  • 1/4 cup quick grits
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp creole seasoning

Combine grits, cream and seasoning in a small covered baking dish and cook in a 300 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove and cool slightly.

Grit Biscuits
  • 1 1/2  cups flour
  • 1 tbl sugar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1 recipe grits
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg

Combine all dry ingredients and using a fork, blend shortening into the dry mixture. Whip together the egg, buttermilk and grits. Fold wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and blend well. Do not overmix. Roll out biscuits to 1/2-inch thickness and cut 2-inch circles. Bake at 375 degrees for 18 minutes. Top each biscuit with one piece of the BBQ shrimp and serve

Yield: 16-20 grit cakes

BBQ Shrimp
  • 2 tbl clarified butter
  • 20 large shrimp, peeled and split in half lengthwise
  • 1 tsp cracked black peppercorns
  • 3/4 cup BBQ Shrimp Stock

Melt clarified butter in a skillet and add shrimp. Sauté for two minutes Add cracked black peppercorns and BBQ Shrimp Stock and cook until shrimp are just done. Make sure the cold BBQ shrimp stock is stirred vigorously before adding to skillet.

BBQ Shrimp Stock
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 cup shrimp stock
  • 2 tbl Creole Seasoning
  • 1 1/2 tbl Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 tbl lemon juice
  • 3 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp liquid crab boil
  • 2 Tbl creole mustard
  • 1 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp Crescent City Grill Hot Sauce

Bring all ingredients to a boil, immediately remove from heat and cool (can be made 2–3 days ahead of time). adding it to the skillet.

Yield: 2 cups

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