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Robert St. John

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

Back In the Saddle

February 6, 2019

The restaurant business is a harsh mistress. She is brutal on your mental and physical health, and very demanding of your time and resources. Yet I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I love what I do.

We opened our first restaurant, The Purple Parrot, in 1987. I worked 90 hours a week in the kitchen for the first four years and paid myself $12,000 per year (half of what I had been earning as a waiter in other restaurants). The dirty little secret is that— had I had any money— I would have paid someone for the privilege of letting me own and operate my own restaurant. I loved it that much.

I didn’t have any money. None. I was 26-years old and living in a one-room apartment above my grandmother’s garage. I had sold a small piece of rural land my grandfather willed to me for $25,000. That was everything I owned and was my initial stake in the restaurant. I had a negative net worth, and couldn’t have been happier, because my lifelong dream had come true. I was a restaurant owner.

The workload in the early days was heavy. Those 90 hours a week in the first four years were spent behind the line in the kitchen. For the next four years, I dropped to 70 hours each week, mostly in the kitchen. I was obsessed with the restaurants and the restaurant business. When I got home at night, I would spend a few hours designing new menus, researching recipes, designing new concepts, menus, and layouts.

Back then my girlfriend, the woman who eventually became my wife, was “all in” on the restaurant business. She knew that one day the early commitment to establishing the business would pay off. She never complained about the long hours, and she never minded that I lived in that one-room garage apartment until I was 30-years old. She believed in me.

My mentors in the restaurant business were true foodservice workhorses. They got to work at 5:00 a.m. and didn’t leave until after midnight. I admired that and spent the late 1980s through the mid-1990s emulating them. It paid off. Business grew. Though around the time my wife became pregnant with our first child (it wasn’t all work, all of the time), I began to hear from my restaurant colleagues around the state who I had made contact with through the board of the Mississippi Restaurant Association. Many of them shared the regret they had by missing their children’s childhood and teen years. There was a distinct sadness and a seemingly permanent sorrow-filled tone of regret in their voices as they relayed their experiences.  Many had missed their children growing up, and it had a profound effect on me.

I made a vow to my wife just before our daughter was born that I was going to prioritize fatherhood over my restaurant career. I had a lot of job titles at that time, though I knew that “dad” was going to be the most important (and most impactful) job I would ever have. That was 1997, and from that point on I vowed not to work nights if at all possible, so I could be an active and engaged father. Despite my passion for the restaurant business, it might have been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

That was over 20 years ago. I worked a few nights over those two decades, mostly when we were opening new concepts, or I was out of town giving speeches or demonstrations. But I never take for granted how blessed I have been to have had so many talented people around me to pick up the slack.

This past December, we had a few internal issues in the company, and I needed to be in the restaurants for several nights. I spent my time visiting with tables like I had done in the early days after my stint in the kitchen. It was such a joy to be out of the corporate office and on the dining room floor again— and not just because the restaurant was new. I enjoyed it so much I went back the next night, and the next, and the next. I now spend every night I am in town making the rounds in our restaurants. It has been a blast. It feels like the early restaurant days again.

My daughter moved off to college four years ago and my son is now a senior in high school. In his mind, he has already graduated, the diploma is just a formality. The time is perfect for me to engage in the lives of my other children— the six restaurants and two bars we own and operate. I am still obsessed with, and passionate about, the restaurants and the restaurant business. Maybe more so today than any time in my past.

I don’t regret the decision I made to be an engaged father during my children’s formative years. It was the right thing to do. To my core, I am a restaurant guy. I love this business and I love serving people. I’m back, and I’m loving it. What I have learned, however, is that the customers didn’t really miss me during that time away. It was I that missed them. It was my loss.


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