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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

RSJ’s Lessons Learned in the Restaurant Biz

April 4, 2017

The restaurant business is a cruel mistress. She has swallowed and spit out more entrepreneurial dreamers than anyone cares to count. Professional foodservice can be a merciless line of work. I have survived over 38 years— 30 as an owner— due to a large amount of luck, good timing, willingness to work hard and do what it takes, the assistance of several friends along the way who stepped in to help when times were tight, the support, hard work, passion, and dedication of great managers and employees, and a sizable bucketload of God’s grace.

I have learned a lot over the years. Today we continue with RSJ’s Lessons Learned in the Restaurant Biz:

32.) Lock the Beer Cooler— In 1987, I had spent seven years through a very long college career waiting tables. When we opened The Purple Parrot (the first restaurant), I hired my co-workers and fellow servers to join me in the front-of-the-house. The chef came from Florida. He was a legend down there.

He had earned every chapter of that legend. Not only was he an excellent cook, but he was a party animal. We hired him under one condition, that he not drink. He didn’t. He got to work developing the recipes on the opening menu, and I trained the servers.

The not-drinking pledge was important. I was risking everything. I had no money and was living rent free in a garage apartment behind my grandmother’s house. I sold a small piece of land my grandfather willed to me for $25,000.00 and that was my stake in opening the business.

Opening night, cracking under pressure, the chef drank a case of beer out of the walk-in cooler. He was fired, and I ended up in the kitchen. What seemed like the worst thing that could have ever happened at the time, turned out to be a blessing, because it forced me to learn how to cook. Nevertheless, we still lock the beer cooler, today.

33.) Outdoor Events Are Always Unpredictable— We have hosted huge wine events over the years. At our largest event we bring in 30 winemakers from all over the globe. In the early days before our most recent expansion, we had to set up a huge tent in the parking lot just outside the restaurant. The first year we experienced a deluge like we had never seen. That is when we learned that tents might keep your head and shoulders dry, but if it is set up on a slight grade, people’s ankles and feet will be soaked as water rushed through the tent all evening. We somehow made it through the wine tasting that soggy first year.

It was the second year under the big tent in the parking lot that forced us to eventually move the event inside. It was warmer than normal that March and we rented a portable air-conditioning unit to help cool the tent. Unfortunately, the person who set up the unit placed the air intake directly over a sewer manhole. 

When wine experts talk about how important the olfactory senses are when tasting wine, please know that they say that for a reason. BY the time we discovered the source of the funk— and believe me it was a stinky, stanky funk— the tent was already packed, and the choice then was to be hot or smelly. We chose hot, but the smell lingered and never went away. We are fortunate that the winemakers still come to that event every year, though they have never let us forget that smelly evening.

34.) Always Check the Off-Premise Kitchen Before Agreeing to Cater An Event— This is important for you budding restaurateurs. Everyone’s idea of a “kitchen” is different. What might serve as a great employee break room with a sink, microwave, and refrigerator, might work well for coffee and snack cakes, but with no oven, range, or ice maker, you’ll have a hard time cooking and serving a fine-dining dinner for 150 people. Trust me, we learned the hard way.

35.) When You Undertake A $1mm Expansion, Make Sure You Have Construction Insurance— During the renovation and expansion that became our new kitchen, bar, and private dining space, a F4 tornado blew through town a few hundred feet south of our building. When I commented to our contractor the next morning, ”That was a close one, I’m glad you’ve got insurance.” He replied, “I thought you had insurance.”

Had that tornado shifted 300 yards to the north, I’d be cooking the late shift at the Waffle House right now.

36.) Never Use A Portable Oven To Transport Butane Canisters— We were catering a very big and very expensive formal wedding at a very nice home. Since the inside kitchen was being used as one of the food rooms, we set up a portable kitchen in the carport and did all of our baking in a small portable convection out there.

Guests were just starting to arrive at the reception when we turned on the oven to pre-heat it before baking. After 10 minutes, I was making salads with another chef, “Whats that smell?” I asked

“What’s that hissing noise?” he replied. A few minutes later someone was looking for the large compressed aerosol butane cans to fuel the burners for the chef station when someone realized that six of them had been stored inside the oven for transportation purposes. The oven had now reached 400 degrees.

I don’t know how close we actually were to blowing up the house, all of our servers, chefs, guests, family, and the bride and groom, but I would feel comfortable in saying that we were seconds away from a disaster that would have made the national news. One brave chef, Jeremy Noffke— risking life and limb— unplugged the oven, grabbed it with both hands, and ran out into the yard (passing incoming wedding guests along the way), and threw it as far as he could. The butane canisters rolled out into the yard without exploding, and the wedding was a success. Everyone lived to cater another day.

New York restaurateur, Danny Meyer, once said, “Business is problems. A successful business is problems well handled. If you can’t handle problems, get out of business.” Truer words have never been spoken.

View today’s recipe: Curried Crab Dip with Vegetable Fritters

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