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Robert St. John

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

50 Shades of Foodservice

October 30, 2019

masochist | ˈmazəkəst, ˈmasəkəst | noun. (in general use) a person who enjoys an activity that appears to be painful or tedious: what kind of masochist would take part in such an industry?

The restaurant business is a harsh mistress. I’ve made that statement for years. I was probably a little naive back in 1981 when I got my first restaurant job. But before I figured out how brutal the business could be, I had already been bitten by the restaurant bug.

When that bug bit me, it grabbed hold of my body with eight hairy legs and sunk its gnarly fangs in deep to the bone. Almost from the first hour of the first shift of the first day I worked in a restaurant, it’s all I wanted to do going forward. Period. End of story.

When I speak to kids and school groups, I always talk about passion and how when one is passionate about their career then it doesn’t seem like work. It’s true. There are times that I don’t feel like I chose the restaurant business, but that the restaurant business chose me. It’s where my passion lies.

Bankers hate most restaurants. It’s true. They might not tell you that, but they do. And who can blame them? Over 60% of new independent restaurants fail within the first year. Who but a masochist would subject themselves to such disparaging odds? That would be me. Yours truly, and proudly so. It’s my life, and no matter how tortuous it may seem at times, I love every second of it. The restaurants that bankers love most, are the restaurants that are financed by their competition.

The problem is that the restaurant business is romanticized in many forms of media. I have encountered a myriad of students over the years who have seen a freshly polished version of the restaurant business on the Food Network or in movies or on television shows that showcase one side of the restaurant business— the shiny side. As soon as those students graduate from college and start working in the industry, they learn that it’s filled with long hours, late nights, and more challenges than they could have ever imagined.

One of the main reasons bankers aren’t fond of most restaurants is that every Joe, Bob, and Billy thinks he can open and operate a restaurant. Picture if you will, the case of Joe. Joe loves grilling steaks in his backyard. Joe’s friends love to come over to Joe’s house to eat the steaks Joe grills in his backyard. Joe’s friends tell Joe, “Hey Joe, these steaks are great, you should open up a restaurant.” Joe’s ego is stroked. Joe dreams of being able to sit at his corner booth on Friday nights and bask in the glow of his adoring customers. Joe sinks his savings into Joe’s Steakhouse. Joe is shocked when— on his first Friday night open— the dishwasher didn’t show up and Joe is washing dishes during the dinner rush and taking out greasy mats to be washed on the back dock at midnight. Don’t be like Joe.

There is more to the restaurant business than being able to grill a steak. Much more. Actually, being able to grill a steak might be 2% of what one needs to know to open a restaurant. Though the restaurant business is one of the only businesses where people just decide to jump in headfirst with all of their savings. No one is sitting around saying, “Harold, you are good with numbers, you ought to open an accounting firm.” Or, “Betty, you made a great point in that discussion the other day. You should be a lawyer.” Bankers love accountants and lawyers.

I have known people— actually, several people over the years— who thought they had a good name for a restaurant, and opened a concept based solely on the cute name they dreamed up one night. True story. Unfortunately, none of those concepts made it past the second year. No one sits at home and dreams of a great name for an accounting firm or a law firm and opens one up because they like the name. I can safely say that has never happened once.

I fell backwards into the restaurant business when I flunked out of college on the first try. My first job immediately after flunking out of college was in a restaurant and I was instantly bitten. I knew— almost immediately— that I wanted to open a restaurant one day. I eventually went back to school and majored in what they now call Hospitality Management. I worked full time in restaurants and went to school full time studying restaurants. After class I was in the university library’s periodical section thumbing through the restaurant trade magazines for hours, and after my shifts at the restaurant I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning designing potential restaurant floorplans and menus.

When I opened my first restaurant, I worked 90 hours a week for the first four years and paid myself $12,000.00 per year for the first two years. That was a 50% cut from what I had been making as a waiter putting myself through college. The dirty secret is, that if I would have had any money at all I would have paid someone just for the privilege of owning a restaurant and working for myself. It takes sacrifices. I lived in a one-room garage apartment until I was 30-years old, but it didn’t really matter because I was in the restaurant all of the time.

Someone asked me recently, “What are your hobbies?”

“Restaurants,” I said, quickly. The question caught me off guard and that’s all I could think of in the moment. But it’s true. Given a little time I would have added, “Movies, music, and football.” But I still live, eat, sleep, and breathe the restaurant business. My family plans our trips— not around activities in other cities, but— around restaurant reservations. We talk about where we are going to eat dinner while we are having lunch. I’m afraid this restaurant obsession has infected my entire family and I am the carrier.

It takes a 30-yard dumpster full of passion and perseverance, with a few five-gallon buckets of humility thrown in to endure in this crazy world of foodservice. But I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, ever.

View this week’s recipe: Pickled Zucchini

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