Posts by Robert

Gratitude

Posted by on Oct 4, 2017

I am feeling blessed today.   There are a lot of benefits to being a restaurant owner for 30 years. The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate the non-monetary perks of restaurant ownership. It’s not always about the money. It can’t be. I’ve made some money in the restaurant business, but I’ve also lost a lot, and have even been on the verge of bankruptcy a couple of times.   As I grow longer in the tooth, I am able to look back on a career in foodservice— seven years as an employee and 30 as an owner— and appreciate things I never thought would be so important to me.   I am very grateful that the restaurant business has provided for me and my family, but I am also proud to have been a job provider. We currently employ over 250 people among four restaurants and two bars, operated by three separate corporations. Since 1987, we have employed more than 3,000 people. Some have worked for us while in college and have moved on to great careers all over the country. Many have gotten their start in foodservice with us, and moved on to bigger and better jobs in larger cities and restaurants.   One of the stats that I am most proud of, is that when we opened in 1987, we hired four managers, and we haven’t hired a manager since. Not one. For 30 years, all of our managers have been promoted from within. Anyone who is currently managing for our company— or has been a manager anytime during the past three decades, save the original four— started out as a busboy, dishwasher, server, or line cook. That’s over one hundred managers who have started at an entry-level position and moved into management careers. All of them.   Many of our managers have moved on to work in other restaurants, many have started non-foodservice businesses of their own, and many have gone on to open their own restaurants. I love that.   Another great thing about being a restaurant owner for 30 years is seeing all of the couples who have met, and later married, while working in our restaurants. I don’t have the numbers to back it up, but I would guess that well over 100 couples have met while working for us, and moved on to long-term relationships or marriage.   We’ve also been able to provide opportunities for our managers to become partners in other businesses we’ve opened. Stacey and Steve Andrews are the trifecta of that example. They met while working as servers at the Purple Parrot. They married, and eventually moved into management for two our companies. Now they are partners and co-owners in our Italian concept, Tabella.   As a restaurant owner in my mid 50s, I am at a point in my life where I appreciate the small, less flashy things most of all. It occurred to me the other day that our restaurants, namely our flagship and oldest-running concept, the Purple Parrot has been a place where several hundreds of people have gotten engaged. That is special. It’s nothing we set out to do from the start, but having a fine-dining concept has made us a place where people want to share important events. We have hidden engagement rings in desserts and floated them in glasses of champagne. We have had Elvis impersonators bust into the dining room for marriage proposals, and counselled many nervous young men who solicited advice on how to pop the question. What a great thing of which to be...

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A Love Letter Home

Posted by on Sep 27, 2017

Mississippi watercolorist, Wyatt Waters and I have just wrapped up the first season of our new television show, “Palate to Palette.” We filmed episodes all across our home state of Mississippi. It was a blast.   We travelled deep into the Mississippi Delta and hung out for a few days in Greenwood with our friend, Martha Foose. We spent a morning in the home kitchen of Oxford chef, John Currence, while he used an old-fashioned pressure cooker to cook— what turned out to be— the best pork roast I have ever eaten. Waters and I milked cows in the Mississippi State University dairy, and the Biscuit Lady in downtown Starkville taught the bachelor artist how to make homemade biscuits. We hung out with the Sonic Boom marching band at Jackson State University, spent time on a shrimp boat in Biloxi, and had a progressive dinner with Brett Favre at four of our restaurants in Hattiesburg.   Now that the season is finished and the final editing of the episodes is winding down, I have been reflecting on the experience and looking back on the whirlwind shooting schedule. I have travelled all over Mississippi my entire life. I have spent time with people in their restaurants and businesses. I’ve met people at book signings and all manner of events and celebrations. Though what really struck me while filming this show, was the fact that the greatest asset in Mississippi is its people.   Mississippians are the best. We are tough and resilient. We have endured a lot over the years. We have seen good times and bad. We have been on the right side of history and the wrong side of it. I believe that we have learned from past mistakes, and we are looking positively toward the future. It’s who we are.   Mississippians are some of the best storytellers on the planet. We meet, eat, and share stories. Ever since our prehistoric forefathers huddled in the open woods around a fire, eating a rack of mastodon ribs, storytelling has been an art. Nowhere is storytelling more treasured and refined as in Mississippi. We tell stories at the dinner table, at the hunting camp, on the road, in the den, at the tailgate, at the corner store, in church, and in bars. We tell stories on top of stories, and we tell stories to top other people’s stories. We also tell stories in song.   Music is one of life’s greatest gifts, and Mississippi is truly the birthplace of America’s music. I first heard that slogan when the state rolled it out on the highway signs at our state borders. It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time in Europe, that I realized that Mississippi is truly the birthplace of America’s music. There is no debate that the blues came from the Mississippi Delta, and if you believe Muddy Waters— and I do—who sang, “The blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock and roll.” Then it doesn’t take a college degree to figure out that the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, came from Tupelo. The grandfather of country music came from Meridian. According to The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (1992), the very first rock and roll note on a recorded record was Blind Roosevelt Graves’ song Dangerous Woman (recorded in my hometown of Hattiesburg). If we were known for nothing else, we could hang our hat and call it a day, just for the fact that we have given the world its best music.   But we are known...

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Steve the Rooster

Posted by on Sep 27, 2017

How much does a rooster cost? Seriously, think about it. The king of the barnyard animals, the master of the roost, the cock of the walk, the one male bird among all of the hens. How much would such an animal cost? If you would have asked me that question several years ago, I probably would have answered, “60 or 70 dollars.” I would have been way, way off.   A rooster costs $8.   I know that because I once bought a rooster.   Some reading this would say, “Listen to that St. John, he’s such a city boy. We buy roosters all of the time at our place. Of course, they are $8.” It’s true, I was raised in the city and haven’t spent a lot of time on a farm, but several years ago I was at a book signing in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and saw a rooster roaming the neighborhood near the bookstore where I was signing.   It was a nice, brisk, fall day, and the owner of the shop placed my signing table on the front porch. I kept seeing a rooster walking up and down the sidewalk and weaving in and out of back yards, and remarked to one of the book-buying locals, “There’s a wild rooster over there.” “Yep, that’s mine,” he said, like it was a normal thing to have a rooster roaming a neighborhood. The longer I stayed there, and the more the rooster kept walking up and down the sidewalk, the more I fell in love with the idea of having a pet rooster. What I really wanted was to hear a rooster crow in the morning. There is something that is very appealing to me in a rooster’s crow. Those of you who grew up on a farm, might think that is a silly thing, but to a guy who grew up in a subdivision all of his life, it’s a very foreign and exotic concept.   The next day, I asked my bookkeeper (who owns chickens) if she knew of anyone who might have a rooster for sale, and she said that there was a man down the road from her who had some. I called the man up, he invited me out to his place, and so I grabbed my son, hopped in my truck, and drove into the country where I purchased a brown rooster with a bright red comb for $8.   On the way home we named him Steve, because he looked like a Steve.   We put a pan of water out in our carport and spread some corn on the concrete, and— as soon as we let him out of his cage— he flew up and roosted on a bicycle that was hanging upside down in the carport. He stayed roosted on that bike all night. The next morning, I set my alarm early so I would make sure and be awake when Steve crowed. My wife commented, “Do you know how ridiculous it is to buy a rooster, and then set an alarm to wake up before the rooster? Isn’t that the purpose of the rooster, to wake people up?” OK, so maybe my wife didn’t understand the rooster thing. That’s alright. I just didn’t want to miss Steve’s first crowing at our house.   I laid awake in bed for a few hours that morning, waiting. Nothing. Not even one little cluck. I was worried that I had bought some type of variety of rooster that didn’t crow. I knew there were dogs that didn’t bark. Maybe there are...

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Game-Day Breakfasts

Posted by on Sep 26, 2017

The streak is over and it’s hard for me not to feel personally responsible.   Last year my son’s high-school football team finished the regular season undefeated. During that time, he and I ate breakfast together on game-day Fridays before school. We were a few games into the season when we realized we had been sitting at the same table, at the same time, at the same place, and eating the same thing every game day. Neither of us is typically superstitious, but we wanted to keep the streak alive and so we kept it going through the rest of the season.   This might sound silly to some, but it became serious to us. It became so serious that I got up at 4:00a.m., one morning while out of town, to get back to Hattiesburg in time to have game-day breakfast with my son. Neither of us wanted to jinx the streak.   In the post season, we lost a playoff game and the undefeated run ended. Though our regular season streak was still alive going into this year.   This year is my son’s junior season. The bakery we ate all of our game-day breakfasts last year closed just as the season was getting started. We had several talks about where to move our game-day breakfasts. Then I received a text message from one of the fathers of a teammate stating that he and another father-son team wanted to eat breakfast with us on game days.   We had to move the venue since the bakery closed, but we met on a Friday in August, at 7:00a.m. on the morning of the first game. We won that night. The next week all six of us sat in the same chairs, and ate the same things, at the same place. Superstitions were never discussed, but no one wanted to jinx the new streak.   The night before the third game, business took me to the Mississippi Delta. It was an overnight trip. Again, I woke up at 4:00a.m., to make sure to get to the game-day restaurant by 7:00a.m. I did. We won.   Enter U2. I have had tickets to see the rock band U2 in the Superdome in New Orleans for months. The show was last week on a Thursday night. The original plan was to take my wife, daughter, and son to the show. The day of the show, my son backed out, worried that he wouldn’t get enough sleep the night before a game. My wife, daughter, and a friend went to the show and spent the night in the Crescent City.   I debated on getting up early, but had three others with me. We would have had to leave at 5:00a.m. and I didn’t press the issue with my traveling companions. We arrived back home at 10:30a.m. long after the game-day breakfast crew had disbanded. I considered just going to the restaurant and having a late meal, sitting at the same table, and eating the same thing by myself, but I got busy at work and I had already eaten at my favorite bakery in New Orleans. Big mistake. Big, big mistake.   We lost the game that night.   I can’t blame it on my wife and daughter and I can’t blame it on Bono and The Edge. There were on-the-field reasons, and enough blame to go around among the team mates. The coach took responsibility in his post-game speech at midfield after the game. But as he was consoling his team— a group of young men who hadn’t lost a...

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For the Love of Cheese

Posted by on Sep 12, 2017

I defend America’s reputation at every turn. I have encountered rude Europeans over the years who have made snide remarks against our country. Nothing gets my blood boiling more than that. I am a very non-confrontational person, but if you criticize my family, my hometown, my home state, or my country, I usually take passionate, vocal exception.   Most of the criticism is unfounded or based on false information or misrepresentations. Though one area where we earn the criticism is with our cheese.   There is a scene in the outtakes of the movie Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Borat character, is talking to a grocery store manager in the cheese section. He is moving slowly, item by item, asking, “What is this?”   Each time the store manager replies, “Cheese.” This continues, over and over, for probably three dozen times. Maybe more. That is the current state of the American grocery store cheese section— a lot of very mediocre and subpar cheese, pre-shredded in plastic bags, with a couple of quality products scattered throughout.   We Americans love cheese, we just don’t love the good cheese enough.   I don’t eat a lot of fast food these days, and when I do, I do my best to make it slightly healthy and leave off the cheese. I’ll issue a challenge to the reader that will be a prime exhibit in my case that we have gone cheese crazy in this country. Try ordering a burger in a fast food drive through and have them leave off the cheese. They can’t do it. It’s so ingrained in them that every burger must be a cheeseburger. It’s been my experience that almost 50% of the time, they are going to put cheese on your sandwich even if you stressed over and over, “NO CHEESE, PLEASE!”   It doesn’t matter if it’s a burger place or Taco Bell. Some have an innate need to use cheese. That’s why I take 90% my occasional fast food business to Popeye’s— awesome dark meat spicy chicken, 0% chance that they are going to put cheese on anything I order.   I am a HUGE fan of nachos, seriously, I really, really love nachos. Though I only like real cheese on nachos. Not that stadium chemistry experiment, gloppy, yellow stuff they call “nacho cheese,” and not even— pause for a Deep South Cardinal sin food comment— Velveeta. Nope. Given my choice, I like individual chip nachos with some type of protein (preferably beef or steak), jalapenos, a little pico de gallo, and melted sharp cheddar cheese or some type of Mexican cheese like Manchego or Oaxaca.   I am not a cheese snob. I’ll occasionally have a burger, or a grilled cheese sandwich, with American cheese. But that is usually for nostalgic reasons. They remind me of my childhood.   I like my cheese to come from a cow, goat, sheep or an Italian Water Buffalo, not a chemistry lab. Remember: Real cheese doesn’t squeeze.   My editor in New York has a simple rule to maintain a healthy and fit lifestyle. He says, “I only eat meat, bread, or cheese that is of the best quality.” That might sound like Upper East Side snobbery, but it’s not. I get it. It’s sound reasoning. What he’s basically saying is that if he is going to indulge and spend calories on meat, bread, or cheese, he’s not going to waste those calories on cheap processed foods. I get that, and I can appreciate that. He eats freshly baked breads from bakeries and not sliced...

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