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Robert St. John

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

Community Cafes

August 22, 2018

Community cafes and diners are a dying breed. Years ago, people gathered for breakfast in small cafes in downtown areas. They talked politics, sports, and religion over cups of strong coffee, eggs, and grits. At lunch they often returned to the same café and ate fried chicken, country fried steak, meatloaf and chicken and dumplings while resolving the unanswered questions left over from that morning’s breakfast.

As Mississippians moved from the original downtown retail centers to the suburbs, and then to the next county, or next small community, those original small cafes disappeared. A few were able to stay open through the years. Some are still open and should be applauded – and faithfully supported— for sticking in there through financial hardships and neighborhood migratory trends. The restaurant business is already brutal, the complexities multiply when everyone is moving out of town.

More than anything, the influx of chain restaurants is responsible for the death of the small community café across our country.

Note: This is not going be a column filled with disdain for chain restaurants. I eat at one or two on occasion. It’s just the reality of the situation. The late, great Anthony Bourdain called them TGI McFunsters— cookie cutter restaurant concepts that are exactly the same from town to town, creating homogenized communities.

A restaurant that looks the same and offers the same menu as the same restaurant at the interstate off-ramp 90 miles down the road, and the next, and the next, which also looks like the same exact restaurant with the same exact menu four states over, and then four states over from that, tells us nothing about a specific community or its people. Small town cafes are— to my thinking— the best PR/marketing tool a local chamber of commerce has in its arsenal. Especially the old ones. They tell the story of a town, its history, and its people

Hattiesburg has The Coney Island Café. Jackson has the Mayflower and Elite. There are dozens in towns— large and small— all across Mississippi. Unfortunately, there used to be hundreds throughout the state. Our need for close proximity to bedroom communities, boneless wings, and jalapeno poppers shuttered their doors.

For the past 40 years I have been eating, sleeping, and breathing restaurants. When I was studying the hospitality business in college, I spent all of my spare time in the university library neck deep in all of the restaurant trade magazines in the periodicals section. I wanted anything I could get my hands on that focused on restaurants and that could teach me about restaurants. In the three decades since I have been a restaurant owner, enough trade magazines have filled my post office box to re-forest several South Mississippi 40-acre pine plantations. In all of those issues, in all of those publications, over all of those years, I have never read an article that touted the return, comeback, or renaissance of the local, community café.

Yet I just opened one.

Maybe I’m the dumbest guy in the business. Maybe. But I couldn’t be happier.

I am a breakfast guy. I always have been. It’s my favorite meal of the day. I never miss breakfast. I am also a lover of southern cuisine and meat-and-three diners. Developing a breakfast place has been on our company’s radar for 10 years. It’s been in solid development for five years, and— even though we just opened four weeks ago— we signed the lease over two years ago and have been working on menu items that entire time.

Mississippi still has a few old-line breakfast joints in operation, and we should do everything we can to keep them in business. Mississippi is also blessed with a few good, new-era, independent breakfast joints across the state. Two of my good friends have thrived opening during the first daypart. Restaurateur, Jeff Good and his chef/partner Dan Blumenthal opened Broad Street Bakery in Jackson in 1998. It has been my morning go-to in that city from day one. I enjoy the freshly baked breads and the atmosphere, but what has struck me most— as a restaurateur— is the diversity in the clientele. Good and his team were able to get high school kids to come in and eat before class. I love that.

Ten years later, in 2008, John Currence opened Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford. It gave morning meals a hip factor and attitude, and brought a chef’s touch to a meal period typically reserved for blue-collar, workmanlike short-order cooks.

Another 10 years later, we took a different direction. We wanted to create the most “Hattiesburg” restaurant that ever existed in Hattiesburg. We wanted to create a restaurant that looked like the community. We wanted it to “feel” like the community. The new concept doesn’t bake fresh croissants and pastries like Broad Street, but we do fry donuts for the small-batch donut shop next door. There’s nothing hip about the atmosphere. The room is filled with over 500 images of old, historic Hattiesburg. The menu covers the classics. At breakfast its eggs, bacon, and biscuit-heavy and lunch lives in the wonderful world of meat-and-three.

Last week I was working the expo window traying food for the servers. We were packed, and it was busy. In a momentary break in the action, I turned around and had a complete view of the dining room. The room was abuzz with conversation. I smiled the biggest smile I have smiled in a long time. Through all of the hustle and bustle, I saw the community. The entire community. In one room. I’m not talking about the photos on the wall, or just the people at the community table, but the people in the seats. They were all there— young, old, black, white, yellow, brown, rich, poor, doctors, nurses, neckties, work shirts, tennis ladies, and babies in high chairs, working men with their names on their chest, and college kids with the Greek alphabet on their shirts. They were all in one room, at one time, and they were all happy.

Years from now, when I am old and sitting in a rocker on the front porch, if someone ever asks me what my proudest moment in the restaurant business was, that moment might be my answer.


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