Skip to content

Robert St. John

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

Lessons Learned

January 16, 2019

Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. One of the most unforeseen and fascinating aspects of life is how— if one lives long enough— the things that seemed so trivial or laborious in our youth wind up becoming applicable and practical in everyday life.

Even though I showed a little bit of promise early on, I wasn’t a fan of English, grammar, or creative writing classes in school. Actually, I wasn’t a fan of any classes or any subjects in school. Yet I use the things I learned in those English classes every day. Even before I started writing for newspapers and publishing books, I employed the lessons I learned in those early English classes. Anyone, in any type of business, needs to be able to use the written word to communicate with others, whether they are customers or co-workers.

I worked as a server while putting myself through college. There weren’t many restaurants in my hometown of Hattiesburg back then, and when that one opened, it was slammed from the start. I was on the opening crew. The money was good, and I loved working in the industry that I hoped to make my fulltime career, though there was one aspect of the job that I despised— making milkshakes.

It always seemed strange to me that the bartenders, or the cooks in the cold station/pantry, weren’t making the milkshakes. It was the thing that every server dreaded hearing a guest say, “I’ll have a milkshake.” The server’s workspace was small and cramped and 10-12 people were always scurrying around making iced tea, soft drinks, and fighting for space in the pass window to tray up food. The entire service area was the size of an average walk-in closet. It was cramped and busy and always looked like a stirred-up fire ant bed during the dinner or lunch rush.

Over in the corner of the service area, there was a small reach-in freezer that held tubs of strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate ice cream. Above the freezer, on a small shelf was a blender. Somewhere in the vicinity was a small cooler that held gallons of milk. In the middle of all of the madness that was daily service, there was always someone jockeying for space in that cramped corner so they could try to make a milkshake— under battlefield conditions— for their customer.

It was full-contact service in that small area, and the last thing any of us wanted to hear from a customer was, “I’ll take a strawberry milkshake.” At the time I had zero experience working in a commercial kitchen, and can remember every time I heard someone order a milkshake, thinking “Isn’t there someone in this building more qualified to do this?”

Vanilla was the easiest of the shakes to make. We just used vanilla ice cream and milk. A chocolate shake was just a little tougher as we had to add chocolate syrup. I can’t remember if we used chocolate ice cream or vanilla for making the chocolate shakes. Decades later I would learn later that chocolate shakes are best when made using vanilla ice cream. The worst thing any server wanted to hear from a customer was, “I’ll have a strawberry milkshake.”

Strawberry milkshakes always required a trip to the bar to ask the bartender for a scoop of frozen strawberries. The last thing the bartender wanted to do was to give the servers a scoop of strawberries. I don’t know what the problem was with the bartenders and strawberries, but it was always a dilemma. So, in addition to dealing with a tight, cramped space where 8-10 servers were playing a fast-paced, frantic, elbow-slinging, hybrid game of human bumper cars and restaurant rugby, we had to tiptoe around the bartender’s attitudes and fight our fellow servers for space at the blender.

Fast forward 30 years into the future, to January of 2016 and we opened a burger joint. It’s not a standard burger joint, but we sell all of the classics one would expect. One thing I knew I wanted on the menu was milkshakes. Every respectable burger joint needs milkshakes. As I was developing the menu, I spent a lot of time on the burgers, the type beef we would use, the bun, the accompaniments, and the mix of all of those things and how they relate to each other on the menu. I also spent time developing appetizers, the salad selections, and even the hot dogs.

I spent zero time on milkshakes. They were always in that we’ll-get-to-them-eventually category in the development and pre-opening phase. Actually, milkshake development kept getting pushed back to the point that we were on the verge of opening the doors for the first trial run and nothing had been done yet. That’s not my typical modus operandi in restaurant openings. I’ve been through 20 openings in my career and every aspect is usually studied and sweated over. Not so with the Ed’s Burger Joint milkshakes.

I don’t know if it was post-traumatic anxiety leftover from my miserable milkshake experience as a server three decades earlier, or just indifference. Nevertheless, I was sitting on a stool at the bar on the morning of the first trial run and I asked my business partner and chief operations officer, “What are you worried about?”

“Milkshakes,” he said. It hadn’t hit me until then that I had mostly neglected the milkshake development phase of the restaurant opening. That lit a fire under me and— with only minutes to go before we would start serving customers for real— I got to work immediately on developing our milkshake recipes.

It was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. It was like riding a bike— albeit a dairy-fueled bike— of chocolate, vanilla, a few mildly crazy flavors, and even strawberry. I had milkshake muscle memory. I was slinging milkshakes right and left, and they were good.

In addition to the standard offerings, I dug deep into my childhood— to the early days, even before I was slinging milkshakes as a server— and made milkshakes with Cap’n Crunch cereals and all sorts of oddly creative combinations. They were a hit.

Wyatt Waters, Brett Favre, and Robert St. John at Ed’s Burger Joint

A few months later, I was sitting at the counter of the burger joint watching one of the servers making milkshakes. They didn’t have any more room than we had 30 years earlier, but they had much better attitudes. They seemed to be happy making shakes and even seemed to be fighting over who got to make the shakes. It was the exact opposite of my early experience.

Sitting there watching that I was inspired, and in a matter of minutes, I started jotting down notes on more milkshakes. I started with the premise— what if there were no limitations on making milkshakes. What if we dream big and just take it into the level of absurdity and go over-the-top? I let my imagination run wild and came up with seven milkshakes that were topped with birthday cake, cinnamon rolls, cotton candy, brownies, and all manner of sweet oddities. They were all hits.

In the end, I learned a valuable lesson— be open to opportunities, be open to learning, one never knows what will come back and pay off in the future. To this day, I have never used algebra or geometry in my work environment, but after 11 books and over 1,000 newspaper columns, I can combine random words to form a readable sentence, and I still make a pretty mean milkshake.

Recent Posts

My Top 25 Cookbooks

The view from my desk is inspirational. I’ve been in the same office for 27 years. There are no windows,…

Read more

Travel Connections

QUEENS, NEW YORK— After 62 years, and millions of miles logged, I have learned that travel is about one thing—…

Read more

A True Magical Mystery Tour

LIVERPOOL— I am midway through a 10-day tour of England and Scotland with a group of 26 Americans. All have…

Read more