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Robert St. John

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

The Parrot at Thirty

January 19, 2018

When measuring events in history, 30 years is a long time. Wars rarely last that long. Presidential terms are only four years, and even with re-election, they are capped at eight years. Senatorial terms are seven years, house terms are two.

The average lifespan of an independent restaurant is short. Most fail within the first year. For those who make it through that first year, 70% fail in the next three to five years. The foodservice business is a harsh mistress, but for those of us crazy enough to be passionate and obsessed with it, we can’t see ourselves doing anything else. And wouldn’t.

In 1987, a gallon of gas cost 89 cents, the average price for a new car was just over $10,000.00, the very first Simpsons cartoon aired, Good Morning, Viet Nam and The Untouchables were hits at the box office, U2 had just released The Joshua Tree, Reagan delivered his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, and— on December 27th, as that year came to a close— I opened the Purple Parrot Café at 3810 Hardy Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The wall being torn down signaled the end of the worldwide spread of communism. It was one of the most impactful events of the 20th Century and had worldwide significance. On the other hand, the opening of a tiny restaurant in a small Southern town, wasn’t even a blip in the statewide newspaper. But to me, it was the most monumental and impactful event in my life to that time (and still ranks in the top five all these years later).

I was 26-years old and had fallen in love with the restaurant business six years earlier. From the first time I punched a clock in a restaurant and began working a shift, I knew that owning a restaurant was what I would do one day. Actually, the feeling was deeper. It hit me so hard it felt like what I was supposed to do.

My mother begged me not to open a restaurant. “You’ll ruin the family name,” she said. My track record at the time wasn’t stellar, and her concerns were valid. But I was determined and wouldn’t be dissuaded.

In 1987, Hattiesburg only had a couple of independent restaurants. We wanted to open a fine-dining restaurant, figuring it was the best opportunity to fill a void in the market. What we ended up doing— for no other reason than an extra  door was available in front of the building— was open two entirely different restaurant concepts that worked out of one kitchen, a novel idea at the time.

We opted for a soft opening at The Purple Parrot Café. That didn’t happen. We were packed from the first minute we opened the doors. A week later, we opened another restaurant next door, The Purple Parrot Grill (which, after a concept revision, became the Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar a few years later).

I loved owning a business so much that I lived in a one-room apartment over my grandmother’s garage the first four years we were open. I paid myself $12,000.00 a year (a 50% pay cut from what I was making waiting tables as a student) and worked a minimum of 90 hours a week. It wasn’t “work” to me. I loved every minute of it. I loved it so much that, had I had any money, I would have paid someone to let me do it.

A lot happens in a restaurant over a 30-year span. We have grown and expanded. We have had extreme highs and vaulted to heights I never dreamed of, and we have been on the verge of bankruptcy a couple of times. That’s business. The highs are great, the lows are challenging, but both are fleeting. It’s the time spent in the middle— in the day-to-day grind— that makes a long-lasting and fulfilling business existence. Ultimately, it’s the people.

Hospitality textbooks explain the keys to restaurant success in three words, “Location, location, location.” I couldn’t disagree more. The keys to success in the restaurant business are “Management, management, management.” Good management can overcome a bad location, but poor management will wreck a good location, every time. It’s people. And it’s not only the managers, it’s the entire team.

I still love owning my own business. My passion and obsession for the restaurant business hasn’t waned. It’s grown and flourished. We are in the process of opening up four new concepts over the next couple of years. It’s what I do. It’s what I love. It’s what I will always do. Some restaurateurs dream of retirement in their mid 50s, I dream of owning and operating restaurants with my son and grandchildren.

From day one, hour one, all of our corporate goals and plans have focused on one thing— being in business 30 years from now, and doing whatever it takes to be in business 30 years from now. It’s always been a part of our decision-making process, and it filters through every goal and objective we set for ourselves and the company, even today. We have always been in it for the long term, not the quick buck.

A heartfelt thanks to all of our customers for blessing us with your support for the past 30 years. But most of all, thanks to the thousands of people who have drawn a check from our company over the past three decades, and the 150 people who are currently a part of our team. Well done, all.

Thirty years is a long time, but I love what I do for a living. It’s not work to me. It never has been. I get to do my hobby every day and get paid for it.

I have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams. On December 27th, 1987, had you asked me to sit down and make a list of the things I hope to gain from owning a restaurant— and even if I had dreamed really, really big— I would have grossly undershot what this business has given me. I’m not talking about monetary possessions and material stuff. I’m talking about self-fulfillment, personal growth, a sense of self-worth, friendships with guests and co-workers, the ability to offer co-workers opportunities to grow in their careers and professions, and the chance to help others in the community and around the state.

The Purple Parrot has been in existence for more than half of my life. I plan to make it grow and thrive the rest of my life.

So, happy 30th birthday, old friend.


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