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Robert St. John

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

The Year of the Independent

January 2, 2019

Let’s make 2019 the year of the independent.

For the past three years, I have worn a homemade pin on my shirt, jacket, or suit coat that simply states, “Eat Local.” It’s an everyday thing. Whether I am in town or traveling, I want there to be no doubt where I stand on the “local” issue.

To my core, I believe that everyone should eat locally, drink locally, and shop locally. It was small independent businesses—or businesses that started as small independent businesses—that built this country into what it is. Immediately after World War II, the nation boomed as people came home from the war and created businesses using their sweat, determination, and imagination. Many started in their garage or the spare bedroom in their house. American ideas and ingenuity built this country into a commerce mecca the likes of which the world had never seen, and while they did, the lives of its citizens were improved.

Though over the past several decades, monster big-box retailers and chains have started to change the local business landscape. It’s the small locally owned businesses that define a community and make up the character of a town or a place. For the past four decades, when I am staying out of town, I always go down to the front desk of the hotel in the morning and ask, “Where is the local breakfast joint? Where is the place where the old guys are sitting around talking politics and sports while drinking coffee and eating eggs?” That is where I want to be in the morning. That is the place that is going to tell me about that place and its people.

It seems like we have been overrun by seed-packet retail stores (seed-packet retail are stores that appear like someone flew over with a helicopter and threw out a packet of seeds of the same exact retailers, and the same chain stores popped up, making every town look exactly the same). Chain stores tell me nothing about a community and its people. It’s the same store, with the same look, at the same-looking interstate exit in the town just up the road.

Last year in my hometown of Hattiesburg, we saw an influx of chain store openings. Look, it’s a free country, and I am 100% for open, competitive, and free markets. But I am also—to my core—in favor of supporting local businesses owned and operated by local citizens.

I’m proud our restaurants and bars made it through 2018, and its unprecedented onslaught of restaurant openings. There were 19 total restaurant openings in our town on the year, and 10 restaurant openings in a four-month period, which is an occurrence without equal in my 40 years in this business as an employee or as an owner.

We survived, and I’m also proud that we have never laid anyone off in our 31 years in business. Another thing I am proud of is that, when we opened in 1987, we hired three managers and haven’t hired a manager since. Not one. We have always promoted from within. Always. Every one of our 22 current managers in our six restaurants and two bars started as servers, hostesses, fry cooks, and dishwashers. Two team members—one originally a prep cook and the other a hostess—now own 33% of one of our businesses. Another, who got his start as a server, has an ownership deal in two of our concepts. That’s what you get when you support local restaurants. You are helping people and their families build better lives for themselves as business owners, and they do it right there in your town.

We have over 300 team members who work alongside each other in our businesses. They feed their families here, educate their children here, buy groceries, and clothes for their loved ones here, worship here, and donate to local charities here.

Always remember, 100% of the money spent in local, independently owned restaurants and bars stays right here at home, where it folds back into the local economy several times over. Chain businesses, or businesses with out-of-town ownership, send most of their money back to corporate headquarters.

It’s not just our business that I am rallying support for, but all independent restaurants, bars, and retailers. I’ll take this opportunity to congratulate fellow independent restaurateurs, bar owners, booksellers, clothing retailers, grocers, and local gift shop owners—who are still on the frontlines, and down in the trenches with us—for making it thus far while battling big box chain and online retailers.

Keep it local, folks. It’s vital to the character of our communities. Whether it’s one of our businesses or another locally owned retail establishment- EAT LOCAL, DRINK LOCAL, SHOP LOCAL. Always.

Let’s make 2019 the year of the independents.


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