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Robert St. John

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

It’s the People

January 9, 2019

There are hundreds of reasons why love the restaurant business. Seriously, if asked I believe I could sit down and list hundreds of reasons in a matter of minutes. Towards the top of that list would be guest interaction. The rapport that occurs between restaurant people— whether they work in the front-of-the-house or the back— and restaurant guests might have been what attracted me to this business from day one.

My mother was widowed when I was six-years-old. As a single mom, she raised my brother and me on an art teacher’s salary. If I was going to have any money for a car, or gas, or a date, I was going to have to work. So I started working full-time when I was 15-years old. It was no big deal, I have always loved what I have done to earn a living.

So, for four years, beginning when I was 15, I was a radio station disc jockey. That period of my life still holds many of my fondest memories. In the mid to late seventies radio was still king in the music world, and in addition to food and football, music has been one of my life’s great passions. The only problem with radio is that it is a lonely job. I worked the 7:00 p.m. to midnight shift all through high school, and there was no one else in the building but me, the vinyl, two turntables, and a telephone.

When it was time to go off to college, I was asked to declare a major. I chose communications because the radio business was all I knew at that point. I don’t remember studying anything having to do with communications those first two years. Actually, I don’t remember studying anything at all, and that would be the main reason I flunked out of college on my first try.

I returned home after two years of higher education with nothing to show for it. It was a low point in my early days. I was ashamed and embarrassed. My friends were starting to talk about the end of their college careers and the beginnings of their professional lives, and I was at square one. Actually, I was a few miles behind square one.

There were two ladies who were opening up a delicatessen in my hometown of Hattiesburg, who had no idea about the restaurant business. This was clearly evident because they hired me as the manager. That one move changed my life. I fell in love with the restaurant business instantly. The deli was hectic and fast-paced at the peak meal periods, and different people were coming in all of the time. It was a 180-degree departure from the work I had known at the radio station where I sat in a room all by myself for four hours. At 19-years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life— I wanted to own a restaurant.

I loved the restaurant business so much that when I left the delicatessen in the afternoons, I would go to another restaurant and wait tables for the evening shift. Holding down two jobs was a lot of work, but I loved it. I began to devour the restaurant trade magazines at the library during my spare time and would stay up until two and three in the morning designing menus and restaurant dining room and kitchen floorplans. It was a bug that bit me hard and hasn’t let go since.

After a year or so I straightened my life out, stopped drinking and partaking in other recreational activities altogether, went back to college, and— in quick order— finished a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration.

The things that attracted me to the restaurant business early on are the things that still appeal to me almost 40 years later. It’s the people. We restaurant people are a different breed. I love working with people who like to work in restaurants, and I love working for people who like to eat in restaurants. Unlike the radio business, the scenery— names and faces— change hourly.

Last week I was making the rounds in one of our dining rooms visiting with guests and making sure that we were taking good care of them when it struck me how much the restaurants have been a part of people’s lives. I had never thought of it that way before. I have always reflected on how important other people have been in the lives of our restaurants. Two of our concepts have been open for more than 30 years, and I have met so many people in those two dining rooms who have made such a positive impact on my life, that it is humbling once I really grasp the scope of it from the other side.

It was around that time that I stopped by a table where a family of five was having dinner. I had never met them before. They were midway through their entrees and were happy with their guest experience to that point. I learned that they were from out of town and had driven 90 miles to eat with us. After a little more conversation, I learned that the couple had met in a bar I owned in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1990s. They didn’t know I had owned the bar, and I certainly didn’t know they had met there before I walked up to the table. But as I stood there visiting with the couple and their children, I began to appreciate this business even more. Restaurant owners get to be a part of people’s lives, good times and bad.

Restaurants bring people together to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, we are there when nervous young men pop the question, and we sometimes cater the wedding. We also man the bar for those who get divorced, as well as those who celebrate a business or sports victory. And we love it when they bring their children back in for a visit.

I owe so much to Marcia and Sandy, the two ladies who started that delicatessen. When I walked through the doors of that soon-to-be-opened sandwich shop, there is no way they could have ever known how they were impacting the life of a recent college flunkie and his future. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


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