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Robert St. John

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

The TV and the Meal Ticket

September 18, 2019

The only thing stronger than the appetite of a teenage boy is the appetite of several teenage boys. In my son’s last few years of high school, our house was the place where he and his friends met and hung out. It could have been because the layout in his bedroom was conducive to the video game setup. My wife and I would like to think that they hung out at our house because we were the cool parents— cool, not lenient or permissive. Though likely the boys were there because of the easy access to copious amounts of food and the access to the kitchen inventories of several restaurants.

Those high school days were one thing. Now that they’re in college, their appetites seem to have intensified. I have spent the last three weekends with my college freshman son and his friends. Something has cranked those teenage appetites up into a higher gear. It probably has something to do with not having 24-7 access to a fully stocked kitchen. Even his friends who barely ate at all during high school are devouring the spreads we have put out on these football gamedays.

Yesterday, while watching my son and his new friend from Nashville scarf down a late breakfast, I thought back to my college days. My situation was different than my son’s. I was dead-broke most of the time and had to work throughout a very long and storied college career.

Times were tough, but none more challenging than my sophomore year of college. My grades during my first two semesters were dismal and I had to do a lot of convincing and conniving to even talk my mother into allowing me to go back to college. I was taking full advantage of the social opportunities the new lifestyle away from home was affording me and had little interest in the reason I was there in the first place— to get an education.

One of the conditions in my going back to school was that I would need to purchase a meal ticket and eat in the college cafeteria to save money. I agreed. My mother called the university to find out how much a semester’s tuition with a meal plan was going to cost and handed me a check for the exact amount.

College registration in 1980 was a much different process than the computerized college registration that my kids have experienced. Today, class schedules and payments are all done online. In my day, we went to the coliseum on campus and waited in long lines to collect punch cards for each course that was needed. At the end of registration there was a long line to pay the semester’s fees. I arrived at the table where all of the fees were to be paid and handed them the check my mother had written for the exact amount owed for tuition and meals.

“This check is too much,” the lady at the table said.

“Well my mom called and was given this amount to cover the cost of tuition and a meal ticket.”

“We don’t do the meal tickets at this table. You have to go over there,” she said pointing to a table with a long line, about 50 feet away.

“But all I have is this one check,” I said.

“That’s OK,” she said. “We’ll take care of that,” and she reached into some type of lock box under the table and counted out five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills into my open palm. “Just take this money over to that table and tell them that you want a meal ticket for the semester.” My eyes lit up, $500.00! I had never held that much money in my hand.

I was a little dazed and cash-drunk with the newfound riches that I held in my hand. As I started the slow walk over to the meal ticket table with that $500.00, I began to have an internal conflict. The food at the cafeteria is probably not that good, I told myself. I looked down at the money in my hand and then over to the table. I could go to the grocery store for the next three months and spread this money out over the course of the semester. Afterall, frozen chicken pot pies were three for a dollar. I could load up on those and cereal, down at the money, over to the table. I worked at a bar at night and they let us drink all of the free beer we wanted while we worked (a terrible business decision by the way), and they let us eat some of the bar snacks on occasion.

Five hundred dollars is still a lot of money. But in 1980, $500.00 was a WHOLE LOT OF MONEY. I stopped halfway to the meal ticket table and took one final look down at the money in my hand and then looked up at the line waiting to buy a meal ticket. Deep down I knew it would be a mistake to walk away, but I was in the middle of a three-year period where I made tons of bad mistakes. What was one more going to hurt? The lure of cash-in-hand finally got to me, and I walked out of the building.

The internal battle continued after I left the registration process. Within two hours, I had talked myself into a new plan. And in a championship-level moment of rationalization and justification, I convinced myself that purchasing a new $500.00 Curtis Mathis television was a wiser move than spending all of that money on food for the rest of the semester. Those chicken pot pies are filled with all sorts of bad ingredients, anyway.

The company is no longer in business, but at the time, Curtis Mathis was the top of the line, and had the best color picture of all. Who needed food? I had a really nice color tv.

My current girth might belie the fact that I was once a starving college student, but it is true. It was never truer than the three months that followed the purchase of that TV.

I consider myself a fairly creative person, but never have I been more creative than in those subsequent months. I always slept late and missed breakfast (unfortunately, I also missed class). But I usually ate lunch. In those days there was a cafeteria-style steakhouse concept called Bonanza that offered kid’s meals for a dollar. I ate the one-dollar kid’s meal at Bonanza almost every day for lunch. At night I worked in the bar and drank free beer and ate chips.

When I got off of work, I was always hungry. I had met a woman who worked at a local hamburger franchise. At midnight, at the end of her shift, she was supposed to throw all of the old sandwiches and fries into the garbage. This is standard operating procedure for restaurants— and as someone who has been in the business for almost 40 years— and it is a good business practice. Otherwise, people might prepare more food than is actually needed.

As a current owner, it embarrasses me to say that I actually did this, as I would fire someone today for doing the same thing. However, as one who purchased a television over a meal ticket, the decision-making section of my brain was obviously not fully developed at this point. So, I would leave beer in this girl’s car and then I would drive to the window and order a small soft drink just as they closed. She would hand me a bag of food that was headed to the trash can minutes earlier— no condiments, no selection, just a random grab bag of what was left at the end of the day.

Kid’s meals, beer, chips, and leftover late-night fast food, that is how I lived for an entire semester. My son doesn’t know how good he’s got it. Then again, my son is a much better decision-maker than I was at that age. The TV ended up in a pawn shop somewhere. I wound up flunking out of college, which turned out to be a blessing because I started working in restaurants and fell in love with the business.

A few years later, I stopped all of the partying and quit drinking altogether, I went back to college and got a degree and opened my first restaurant just a little over six years after I made the decision to buy a television instead of eating. I have made mistakes over the past 32 years, but probably none as idiotic as the TV-for-food decision.

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