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Robert St. John

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


August 15, 2018

If someone is keeping track of honeymoons, mark me down for 23. That might be a lot of honeymoons, though only two are in the typical, “married” sense of the word. The other 21 are associated with restaurant openings.

To get the archetypal two honeymoons out of the way, I first married too young to a girl who was even younger. We were a bad match. I had no money for a honeymoon, but made the huge mistake of booking a trip to Walt Disney World during the most crowded time of the year. To top that off, I got food poisoning. The marriage mercifully ended after 11 months. We both moved on to better situations.

My second honeymoon took place almost a decade later. I was eight years older and 32-years wiser. I married the love of my life, my best friend, and my rock. To this day it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Being slightly cynical after the first marital experience— and slightly down on the entire institution of marriage when the new relationship started— I swore that I would never get married again, and if I did, it would be by a cheesy Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas. That was OK by her, because she stated that she never wanted to get married. Ever. Period.

Cupid eventually changed our minds, and as a testament to my keen powers of persuasion, I convinced the best woman on the planet— my forever wife, Jill— to marry me. On February 6th we were married in a small, simple, but beautiful service officiated by my uncle, an Episcopal priest, surrounded by the stain-glass-lined sanctuary of my youth. A few of our restaurants were open by then and I had some money to throw at a honeymoon. I booked a hotel in Aspen for a week, but before we flew to Aspen, I made a surprise one-night stop in Las Vegas, and 24 hours after our official ceremony, we were married by Norm the Elvis impersonator at the Graceland Wedding Chapel on the Strip.

I went all out and purchased the deluxe edition wedding package, complete with a plastic bouquet of flowers, a boutonniere, sunglasses, a red garter, and four songs. The previous morning I had been in a formal morning coat and she had been in a beautiful wedding dress. For this ceremony we opted for tacky Memphis red. The chapel looked exactly like one would think a Las Vegas wedding chapel— modeled after Graceland’s interiors— would look. Exactly. The entire ceremony was just like one would think a Las Vegas wedding hosted by an Elvis impersonator would be— straight out of central casting. Norm escorted my wife down the aisle while singing “It’s Now or Never,” as I waited for her at the front of the chapel. The house organist stood witness to the union.

My wife and I were there partially as a lark because it had become a running joke during our courtship. But also, because I had kidded about it for so long, I felt like I needed to follow it through to the end. During the service, we smiled at each other, trying hard not to laugh, as we didn’t want to be disrespectful to this man and his profession. Though inside we were laughing the hardy laughs of already married newlyweds. Norm the Elvis impersonator read the feigned joy on our faces as true delight in his performance, and instead of a four-song set during the wedding (the deluxe Graceland package I purchased), he ended up performing his entire nightclub act. The whole thing. We were there for an hour and a half. Our fake smiles were wearing down by the time he reached the processional, “Love Me Tender,” and we headed back to our hotel and flew out to Aspen the next morning.

A restaurant honeymoon occurs during the initial six to eight weeks of business. I have experienced a lot of those type honeymoons in the past 40 years. My first three restaurant honeymoons were in other people’s restaurants as I worked as a part of their opening crews. The other 18 honeymoons were in our restaurants and bars. Two were full-service, casual New Orleans’ themed concepts. Two were fine-dining restaurants, there were three steakhouses, a fish house, two live music clubs, a 20,000 square-foot country and western nightclub, an Army officer’s club, two bars, an Italian restaurant, a burger joint, a donut shop, and now this breakfast and lunch café.

Restaurant honeymoons are all-out, all-hands-on-deck affairs. It takes several weeks for all of the systems to get in place. No matter how well the concepts were thought out, planned, and debated, everything changes once that first ticket hits the printer. No matter how well-trained the staff is, how long they’ve worked in the restaurant business, or how many openings they’ve been a part of, it’s still difficult and stressful.

I am having a blast though. As with all of those openings, I am happy to be part of the all-hands-on-deck crew. In the early days, I was in the kitchen pumping out food in the new concepts. For the past several openings, I’ve been expediting food on the dining room side of the window. The days are long, the stress level is high, and I am loving every minute of it.

When my business partner and I are working both sides of the kitchen pass we are able to make menu changes instantly, and all of the necessary tweaking that needs to take place is done in a timely manner. One of the added benefits of the boots-on-the-ground aspect of restaurant honeymoons is getting to work closely with the staff. We have over 300 employees in our company and I don’t get to work side-by-side with them unless we are opening a new concept.

Being away from my office and temporarily joining the in-house team, always reminds me of how hard this work is on so many levels, and how it takes a special breed of person to live— and to thrive— in a commercial restaurant. It also makes me appreciate everyone, from the dish stewards to the managers and office staff in each of our operations. It takes a lot of people with a lot of different skill sets to pull off a successful restaurant opening.

Restaurant honeymoons usually last six to eight weeks. Everyone is checking the new place out. Some will become fans, others will move on. Some will return several times a week, others will return once a month, still others will never come back, ever. Honeymoon business is typically 25% to 30% more than what shakes out six to eight weeks later.

First-time restaurateurs get drunk on the honeymoon and think that early surge will last. It never lasts. It always drops off, and that’s usually a good thing. Restaurant kitchens and dining rooms are designed and built to handle a certain amount of business. It has been my experience that once the honeymoon is over, and business levels out, the physical plant is exactly what is needed to operate, and then sustain slow, steady growth throughout the lifecycle of the restaurant.

There are a few more honeymoons on the horizon, but only of the restaurant variety. Once you’ve married the love of your life at the Graceland Wedding Chapel, it’s final.

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