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Robert St. John

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

In the Beginning

April 4, 2018

Over the 19 years that this weekly column has been in existence, there have been thousands of column inches spent covering my early years in the restaurant business and how I got my start. Though in all of those columns, I don’t think I ever really focused on my very first restaurant job.

As with most things in my life, the restaurant business kind of just “happened” to me. I fell into it in one of the most embarrassing ways possible— by flunking out of college. All throughout high school I worked full-time as a disc jockey at a local radio station. When the time came to declare a major, just before my freshman year of college, I wrote “communications” on the form. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but it was all I knew at the time.

While “enrolled” in college classes (but not necessarily “attending” with the regularity required), I got a job in a bar. For me, at the time, it was the perfect job. I was spending a lot of time in that particular bar as a customer, and when I found out that they let the “beertenders” drink for free (a terrible business decision, by the way, and one I have never allowed in our businesses), it made for an easy decision. My logic at the time— I am here in the bar, all of my friends are here in the bar, a lot of pretty college girls are here in the bar. If I get a job here, they will pay me to be in the place I was going to be anyway. They will also let me drink free beer, which will allow me to keep more money. Easy decision. Where do I sign up?

What seemed like a dream job at the time, turned out to be a curse. I just bought more beer with the “extra” saved money, during my time off. I also learned a valuable college-student lesson at that point: The amount of beer a college student drinks is directly proportional to the amount of hours of class he or she will skip. After two years, Mississippi State University decided they no longer needed my services, and rightfully so.

At 19, I felt like a total failure. I had flunked out of college after two years. I wasn’t interested in the radio business, I had no prospects for a job in my immediate future, I was broke, and the long-term outlook seemed bleak. I moved back to my hometown of Hattiesburg with my tail tucked between my legs and my head hung low.

Then fate took a big, beautiful swan dive into my life in the names of Marcia and Sandy— two unlikely candidates who would change my life forever.

In those days, Hattiesburg only had two or three independent restaurants. Marcia Cooke and Sandy Kopp were two sisters-in-law who decided they’d like to give the restaurant business a shot. The two ladies had never been in the restaurant business before, which was clearly evident because they hired me— another person with zero experience in the restaurant business, and a hard-partying college drop-out— to manage their soon-to-be-opened delicatessen.

None of us knew what we were doing, but it worked. We were one of the only shows in town, the sandwiches were good, the staff was dedicated, and we were busy (volume cures all). Marcia and Sandy’s deli was swamped from then second we opened the doors. The lunch rush hit us every day with a fury and lines were out the door. It was maddening. It was crazy. It was exhilarating. There was pressure, and confusion, and different people ordering different food at different times every day, and I fell in love with every single stress-filled minute of it.

Something about the restaurant business “clicked” with me, and— almost immediately— I felt like foodservice in some form or fashion was what I “wanted” to do for the rest of my life. Actually, if I’m being truthful, I felt like the restaurant business what I was “supposed” to do for the rest of my life. That gut feeling turned out to be spot-on.

I fell hard for the restaurant business. So hard that, in addition to my day job as the floor manager of Epicure Unlimited Delicatessen, I took a job waiting tables at another restaurant at night. I couldn’t get enough. A year or so later— May 25, 1983, to be exact— I stopped drinking altogether. What had seemed so important those first two years of college, was now getting in the way of a future career. Some people can drink successfully and lead a fruitful, happy, and productive life. I am not one of those people.

The next year I started classes at the University of Southern Mississippi and, in short order— taking 18 and 21 hours a semester, and going to summer school, while working in restaurants full time, I— received a BS degree in Hospitality Management.

The past 36 years have been one big learning experience. I was so ignorant when I started, I didn’t even know what the word “Epicure” meant. I can’t remember if I asked Marcia and Sandy when I interviewed for the job, or if I looked it up in someone’s dictionary (I didn’t own one at the time)

As of today, I am still sober. I own a few restaurants and a couple of bars. We have a few restaurants in the works. I am blessed to have found my passion and, not only, what I WANT to do for a living, but what I LOVE to do for a living. I opened the first restaurant in 1987 and paid myself $12,000.00 a year while spending the first four years working 90 hours a week in the kitchen. The dirty little secret is that— had I had the money— I would have paid someone to let me work in my own business. I love it, and I have Marcia and Sandy to thank for it.

I don’t know what became of Sandy, but I see Marcia occasionally, and I hope I have expressed my gratitude to her over the years, for giving a once-hard-drinking 19-year old college drop-out a chance and introducing me to one of the longest-running “loves” of my life. After 37 years in the business (30 as an owner), and out of the thousands of employees, there have been hundreds of servers, cooks, and managers that have continued on with a restaurant career after getting their start with us. Many have become managers and owners themselves. At this point there is even an next generation— beyond the first group— that have gone into the restaurant business. Until now, none of them knew that they, like me, are all “foodservice descendants” of Marcia Cooke and Sandy Kopp. It’s time they learned.

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