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Robert St. John

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

The Panhandle in the Pandemic

July 22, 2020

WATERCOLOR, FLA— When one reaches a certain age it’s easy to look back on life and see where periods of time— even moments in a day— were impactful and made a difference in his or her life going forward. I have almost six decades from which to draw life experiences and impactful moments. If there’s one thing that’s nice about getting older it’s the fact that I have a head full of memories from which to draw. Some experiences were challenging, some tragic, but for the most part life has been wonderful.

I don’t believe I could have had a better childhood. Even growing up without a father, I have nothing but the fondest memories of my first 17 years. In the fall of 1979, I went off to college and the uniqueness and newfound independence of that experience was singular. It was sometime during the next four years that life got off of the rails for me. Whenever I return to the Florida Panhandle I’m reminded of both sides of the rails.

In 1983, I moved to Destin for the first time. I just been fired from a job at a restaurant in my hometown and I came down here to work in another restaurant. In those days my life was filled with wild nights and late, fuzzy mornings, with a lot of irresponsibility thrown in for bad measure. Consequently, after getting fired from the new job in Destin I moved back home and within a couple of months was in alcohol and drug rehab. I was 21-years old, and the sad truth is that— at that time— I didn’t expect to make it to 30-years old. Though, actually, at the rate I was going, I probably wouldn’t have lived to see 25. Life got brighter after that. Much brighter.

I went back to college in my hometown and got rehired at a restaurant I had been fired from earlier, and put my life in the fast lane (the healthy fast lane). I had a one-track mind and singular thinking. All I wanted to do was open a restaurant.

In the winter of 1987, I moved back to Destin. This time with a clear head as I was four years clean and sober. I got a job working at a restaurant called Harbor Docks. I’m not sure if I’ve ever known what salad days are, but I believe those might have been my salad days. I had the stress level of a beach towel. I used to wake up about 10:00 AM head to the shoreline, take a walk on the beach to a place called June’s Dunes and have a late breakfast. Then I would lie on the beach until about 4:00 PM until it was time to work the dinner shift. Harbor Docks was swamped in those days. I waited tables and took home excellent money. I usually got off around 10:00 PM and went out on the town. Every day was a rinse, wash, repeat for six months.

I have such fond memories from that era. It was the exact opposite of my experience four years earlier when I was in the throes of alcoholism and drug addiction. In the late 80s I had the world by the tail. I had no money, and barely any material possessions. But I possessed a dream. I wanted to open a restaurant. After six months at the beach for hopefully what would be the last time I ever had to wait tables, I moved back to my hometown of Hattiesburg and started the work involved in opening the Purple Parrot.

My family and I visit The Florida Panhandle once a year. It’s a trip that I have typically provided for our kids and their friends so they could have some beach time. I don’t do beach time. Actually, I don’t even do downtime. Even during vacations I’m moving at 90-miles an hour researching restaurants, doing work, and compiling as much research as I need to take back home and implement in our restaurants. I like it that way. This one is different.

Several weeks ago, I told my wife that I had never looked so forward to time off in my life. She looked shocked when I told her. It’s just something that that I don’t do. I don’t sit still very well. I don’t relax very well. My ADD is so severe that it’s hard to even read a book that’s not an audio version. I like work, and I like restaurant work, and that’s what I do.

This trip has been different. I needed some downtime more than ever before. It’s hard to realize when you’re in the middle of the battle but this pandemic had obviously taken a toll. I had never once stopped to check my mental and emotional health after the shutdown began. I put myself in emergency mode and began to do everything I could to take care of our 300 employees, their wellbeing, and our business. That has been the sole focus at home. Nationally I’ve been working with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and Senator Roger Wicker’s office on drafting legislation to help the nation’s 500,000 independent restaurants and their 10 million employees survive and stay afloat until we reach the other side of this pandemic. Both responsibilities had been all consuming. I needed this time off. It’s only a week, but I’ve only taken more than a week off once, and I was miserable the entire time.

So, I am here in my old stomping grounds. Things have changed. The early Destin days of my 1983 stopover, in the salad days of my 1987 stay are long gone. Not much remains from over three decades ago. Though Harbor Docks is still there. And Charles Morgan is still the owner. He and I had breakfast and talked about old times and new challenges. He witnessed, in person, that small fishing village turn into a and major vacation destination spot with limited infrastructure to handle the influx.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the Gulf of Mexico and the sugar-white sand beaches, the fresh seafood, and the people. It’s always the people. Wherever I go no matter how beautiful the scenery, no matter how historic the architecture, it’s always the people that draw me to a place. It’s why I love Tuscany and return often. And it’s why I love Destin and why I have returned yearly for my entire life. It’s not the other tourists. It’s the locals. The fish heads. The fisherman, the restaurant workers, the shop owners, there is a certain vibe that runs through a community that survives on seasonal business. It’s a lot like the restaurant business. You only have a few hours a day to make hay and so you have to make those hours/days the most productive they can be.

This place made such an impact on me.

When I return to this area, I have the fondest memories. They aren’t of my first stint down here working in a barbeque/pizza joint through the kindness of a friend. Those were the final days of the madness. No. My memories are drawn from a time when this area was still relatively undiscovered to developers. A small group of condos were here, but the beach motels and cottages— like the Silver Beach— were, too. Seaside has just opened on 30A and no one went to Grayton Beach unless they owned a small cottage there, or took a wrong turn. As I drive— bumper to bumper— through the oceans of concrete and retail, I still feel like it’s the old place I knew. My kids have an entirely different experience. They never knew the sleepy fishing village.

It’s OK. I don’t live in the past. I don’t spend any time lamenting the fact that things aren’t how they used to be, because I have my memories, and they are clear-headed memories. And I still have friends down here, and the buildings and roads may have changed, but the people are still the same. For that I am grateful. For a week’s rest, I am grateful. There is much work ahead in the coming weeks when I return. I look forward to that work. In the meantime, I’m going to do something extremely out of character, and take a nap.


This week’s recipe: Harbor Docks Smoked Yellowfin Tuna Dip

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