Last week was one of the most surreal, yet rewarding, weeks I have spent in my 38-year restaurant career. Tuesday through Saturday nights we said farewell to a dear friend— the first restaurant concept I ever opened, the flagship of our company, the place where so many life events have been celebrated with my family, and with other families throughout the region and across the country— The Purple Parrot.
In any other time, the shuttering of this restaurant would seem erroneous, tragic, and possibly just a case of bad timing. Even after 32 years in this market most would feel that the Purple Parrot was gone too soon. Though we are not in any other time. We are living through a once-in-a-hundred-years global pandemic that has changed the business landscape in ways no one who was sitting around in February plotting their business future could have ever imagined. These are strange days and we have no choice but to accept them.
In March, when it became apparent that the restaurant business was going to take the major brunt of this pandemic and be the first to close and the last to reopen, I was the owner of six restaurants and two bars with 300 employees and several projects in the works for the future. Years of sweat, inspiration, money, and passion— and help from thousands of others— had gone into creating and growing the New South Restaurant Group.
Today we are walking around a little lighter. We have four restaurants and one bar. Of the three closures so far, the Purple Parrot hits me the deepest. It was the first restaurant I opened in 1987. I was a 26-year-old, immature kid with a head full of dreams, boundless energy, and a deep-set passion to open my own restaurant. That’s about all I brought to the table. That, and $25,000 which came from the sale of a small piece of land my grandfather left me in his will. That was my stake in getting my restaurant dream kicked off and running.
In March, before the shutdown, we served our final meal in the Purple Parrot, not knowing it was going to be our final meal, ever. Over the course of the shutdown, it became apparent that the business model for that specific concept would not be able to survive going forward in the post-COVID business climate. Instead of just shutting the doors in March and re-concepting the space to something new, our team felt that we needed closure and we wanted to offer the community— that has so fervently supported us throughout the years— closure as well.
I came up with the idea that we would have a farewell dinner for five nights. Our executive chef, Linda Roderick, created an excellent menu. Chief Operating Officer and Purple Parrot Sommelier, Jerred Patterson, took care of the wine pairings. The menu was 100% pure Purple Parrot. We made the announcement, and within a day all seatings for all days were booked. Two days in it was apparent— from all of the phone calls we were still receiving— that many longstanding guests who wanted to help send us off in an appropriate manner weren’t able to get on the books. In one of the easiest decisions I have ever made in my 38-year restaurant career, I added two more nights to the farewell dinners.
Whatever I could have imagined those final nights in that dining room to be— even if I allowed my imagination to run wild into the deepest depths of the right side of my brain— I never would have imagined such a wonderful, positive, and rewarding five-night stand, as people, who have meant so much to us, came together in this place that has meant so much to them, all to bid our old girl, farewell.
People drove from six states. One couple drove from Dallas to have their final meal in the Parrot. Many drove from Jackson and the Gulf Coast, the Delta and Corinth. Some drove from Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida. Many brought gifts. I have two bottles of homemade jam sitting in my home kitchen that won’t last long. I have photographs from the old days. People brought banana bread and other food items. Those were all nice. Though I’m most grateful that they brought themselves and that they sat in that room that was originally built as a dress shop in 1975 and that has served this community as a restaurant since 1987.
There was no despair hanging in the air throughout the room. There was just an overwhelming feeling of celebration. It was almost like one of those cool funerals where no one is sad about the decedents passing because everyone is sharing happy stories and fond remembrances about the deceased while recalling what a joyful life they shared together. I experienced no feelings of sadness or melancholy. I visited with every guest who dined with us during those five nights. I approached— and left— each table with a deep sense of gratitude. Possibly the deepest feeling of gratitude I have ever experienced in that room.
The guests dining in that room— and hundreds of thousands of others like them— have given me a life of which I never could have dreamed. In the fall of 1987, had someone handed me a sheet of paper and a pen and said “Write down what you think your life as a restaurateur could be 30 years from now. Dream big. Think of all the things you would want it to be, and then dream even bigger. Then fold that piece of paper up and put it in a drawer and go to work. Keep your head down and do what you do and run that restaurant.”
I would love to have that piece of paper today. Not for sentimental value or as a piece of memorabilia I could frame and put on the walls of my office. No. I would love to have that sheet of paper because I know that I would have so undershot what this restaurant, in that space— over the past three decades— has given to me, and the community.
My early musings on that fictitious piece of paper would have focused on things such as money, big houses, big cars, vacation homes, lots of awards, and a long list of material and worldly things such as that. The materialistic fantasies of a wide-eyed 26-years old. Though the truth is what the Purple Parrot has given me for the past 32 years has nothing to do with financial, material, or worldly things.
The Purple Parrot has given me a 32-year outlet for the creative passion I have always had burning deep down inside of me. That flame still burns strong, but it burns strong but because it was lit by the Purple Parrot. The Purple Parrot has made it possible for me to feed my children, and to feed the thousands of other children of the people who have worked in that building. The Parrot has given me a sense of purpose. There are many times in my life where I took a rocky path, the wrong path, and the most dangerous path. The Purple Parrot took me down a road of self-fulfillment and turned me into a person who once was selfish and self-seeking into a man who somehow became compassionate and grateful.
Extra Table, the charity I founded 11 years ago sitting at a table in the Purple Parrot, is now shipping over 35 tons of healthy food to over 40 different agencies across the Mississippi each month. To be clear, I am not doing that. The people who donate to Extra Table and the talented women who run Extra Table are making that happen. But the inspiration came at table five in the Purple Parrot as did many other ideas and concepts over the past three decades.
I had initially reserved table four in the corner of the dining room for the last seating, on the last night, for the last meal ever served in the Purple Parrot. I invited my wife, my daughter, and my son to join me as the four of us would share the final meal served in this 32-year institution. I planned to write about that experience in today’s column. However, when I added two more nights that pushed our final dinner past my newspaper deadline. Maybe it’s better that way. Maybe that final experience is something more personal. One that I should just keep to myself, savor in my mind’s eye, and store in the recesses of my brain to occasionally pull out and remember when I am sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch in my mid-80s. So be it.