Opening Caveat: Longtime readers of this column know that I typically go to great lengths not to mention my restaurants by name. I always hope to focus on other restaurants avoiding the blatant marketing and/or promotion of businesses owned by my company and me. With that being said, today’s column is 100% about the Purple Parrot Café which I opened on December 27th, 1987.
The waitress had just taken my family’s order at our favorite Mexican restaurant and she was walking away, when I noticed a chair across the room. It didn’t register at first but, after a minute, and a few subsequent glances, I recognized the chair. It was one of the first purchases I made in my restaurant career— the dining room chair for The Purple Parrot Café.
The the fall of 1987 was a blur. The opening of a restaurant was a new endeavor for me and I had no clue— seriously, absolutely no clue— as to what I was doing. My original business partner, Dean Owens, and I had created a menu and chosen all of the kitchen equipment that would be needed to prepare that menu. The only item remaining on our pre-opening checklist was to choose the dining room furniture.
Owens and I had been living in the Florida Panhandle in the months prior to our opening and I guess some of the beach influence made its way into the design of the dining room (and the name). There was nothing “beachy” about our concept, but the chairs we chose had just a hint of tropical flair. The chairs had recently been discounted and the special price fit our budget, so I guess that had more to do with why they were chosen than the style.
Seeing the chairs in the Mexican restaurant brought back a warm feeling of contentment. I must have been zoned out and sitting in a blank stupor when my wife asked, “What are you thinking about?”
“Those are the original chairs from the Parrot over there,” I said.
“I remember them,” she said. “How did they get here?”
“I sold them to Frank [the owner] years ago.”
I had completely forgotten about selling the chairs to the Mexican restaurant. I remodeled The Purple Parrot after a few years and sold the chairs. Though there was something about being in another restaurant looking at chairs that I had purchased almost 30 years ago that put me into a reflective mood. I am not sure what the exact emotion was but there seemed to be a bit of pride and satisfaction with a touch of melancholy mixed in for good measure.
As my family ate I began to think back over the decades to all of the employees that have come through the doors of our business. At any given time, there are 150 people on the payroll. Over 28 years, given average restaurant turnover, there have been thousands of co-workers in that building. For hundreds of those people it was their first introduction to the job market. I love that. Our employees have moved on to culinary school and positions in restaurants from New York to San Francisco. Some are in the restaurant business to this day, others have started other careers.
We have had dozens of couples meet while they worked for us. Many got married while they were employed, and dozens of others were married in the subsequent years after they moved on. To have been a small part of that process is a very cool thing.
I began to think back to all of the customers— literally hundreds— who got engaged in the Purple Parrot Café over the years. We have hidden rings in desserts and in champagne glasses, had Elvis impersonators drop to one knee and all manner of creative ways to propose marriage. Many return annually on their anniversary. To have played a role in those momentous occasions is a privilege and an honor that we have never taken lightly.
That small dining room on Hardy Street in my hometown of Hattiesburg has been the site of many rehearsal dinners (including my own), and thousands— maybe tens of thousands— of birthday celebrations (including many of my relatives, some of whom are long departed). Some people believe rooms and spaces have an energy of their own. If that is the case, there is a lot of positive energy in that space.
That is why I love the restaurant business. It’s more than just feeding people. It’s participating in the lives of your friends, neighbors, and family. As we finished our meal, my mood had turned from to reflective to grateful. All of the guests who have let us feed their family over the years have made it possible for us to feed our families.
During this holiday season I feel appreciative and indebted for the privilege of serving others for 28 years. More importantly, I look forward to 28 more years of birthdays, proposals, and special-occasion celebrations in that small dining room. I look forward to working alongside some of the greatest people I have known. There are two employees that have been with us from day one. The average tenure of our lunch crew is over 15 years. That is amazing in a business known for a high turnover rate. The benefit is that we get to know each other’s families, and we are there for each other through weddings, graduations, and funerals. When done right, business becomes an extended family under one roof.
There are hundreds of restaurants in this state. Each has thousands of stories like ours. On behalf of all of those establishments I say thank you for letting us be a part of your lives.
Carpetbagger Steaks with Andouille Stuffing
6 New York Strip Steaks, 8-10 ounces each
2 Tbl Steak Seasoning
Let the steaks sit at room temperature for 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle both sides of the steaks with the steak seasoning. Grill over direct high heat until desired doneness is reached, approximately 8-10 minutes for medium rare. Remove steaks from the grill and allow to rest five minutes. Using a sharp knife, butterfly the steak from the outer edge along the center forming a pocket. Fill the pocket with the andouille stuffing allowing some to spill out onto the plate. Serve immediately.
1 Tbl bacon fat (or canola oil)
3/4 lb. andouille sausage, medium dice
1 cup onion, small dice
1/2 cup bell peppers, medium dice
1/4 cup red bell pepper, small dice
1 Tbl minced garlic
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup Veal demi glace
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut in to cubes
2 tsp kosher salt
Melt the bacon fat in a large sauté pan over high heat. Brown the andouille sausage and drain most of the excess fat. Lower heat to medium and add the onion, red and green peppers and garlic and cook 6-7 minutes more. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and demi glace. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Begin adding the butter cubes, a few at a time, stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Once all the butter has been incorporated, add the salt and remove the stuffing from the heat. Hold in a warm place until ready to fill steaks.