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Robert St. John

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

A Match Made in the Restaurant

October 21, 2020

My Twitter bio reads, “dad, husband, citizen, restaurateur, 70% water (10% gravy), enthusiastic traveler, world-class eater, and a lover of movies, music, football, and food.” That sums me up rather accurately. Though it should because I wrote it.

For the past 23 years, I have felt that— no matter what the title, acclaim, or accolade— the most important job I would ever have is being a father. I love being a dad. Being a husband is easy because I married the best friend I will ever have. You’ll have to talk to my wife about whether I’m a good husband, or not. But I’m honest and faithful, and a pretty good provider so that’s got to count for something. I feel like I am a good citizen and 32+ years surviving in the restaurant business is certainly proof that I am, at least, a competent restaurateur.

I am a self-proclaimed world-class eater. That’s been in various bios of mine for decades. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek but it’s also true. I can eat. I originally put that in my bio as a joke, but I have always felt I am a better feeder than a cook. I haven’t worked a line shift in any of my restaurants in a couple of decades, so I never use the term “chef” when referring to myself.

I don’t have any hobbies such as golf, but I do love movies. Some people leave the office at 3:00 p.m. to go play the back nine. I sometimes leave the office to go see the afternoon matinee. Music has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. Most of my world revolves around one or more mixed playlists I have created. I can tolerate basketball and baseball, and the play on the college level can hold my interest. But football is my love. When it comes to football, I could watch a pee wee game in which I knew none of the players, as easily as a heavily contested Super Bowl.

One job title that is not in my bio is, “matchmaker.” But I’ve come to realize that I’ve done a pretty good job at that over the years. Not with friends and acquaintances in my personal life, but in my business career. I wish I had kept a list of all of the people who have met while working in one of my restaurants, began dating, became engaged, and then married. After 32+ years the list would be quite long.

Stacey and Steve Andrews, who are my business partners in our Italian concept, Tabella, met 30 years ago. He started out as a prep cook and she was a hostess. They worked their way up through management, married, raised a family, and are still together running Tabella.

There are many things I wanted to accomplish when I set out to open the first restaurant. Being Cupid is not one of them. But I love that it is turned out that way. If I had to guess I would think that there have been well over 100 couples who met while working at the restaurant. I would also guess that a substantial number of them are still together. I love that.

Restaurant work is hard the hours are long. The environment is set up to be one where people meet. It’s the policy at most companies that managers can’t date employees. That’s probably a good idea in theory. But in a restaurant, with the long and odd hours, it would be hard to meet someone otherwise. I’ve never worried about that, and we have had several couples marry who were in the manager-employee situation. Some are still married.

It’s not only the employees who meet and marry while working in the restaurant, but thousands of our guests have met while hanging out in the bar or at tables in the restaurants. We have also hosted thousands of first dates, marriage proposals, wedding anniversaries, engagement parties, and all manner of celebrations such as those.

We have recently hired a husband and wife chef team to head up our new Tex Mex concept, and to oversee the fine dining pop-ups that will begin in January. Jessica and Craig Shields met each other while working in our kitchen a decade ago. She worked the pantry station, he worked on the line in the Purple Parrot. They started dating, and eventually went to culinary school at the “Harvard of all cooking schools,” The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park NY. They then worked at various restaurants in New York and across the country, got married in the process, and eventually moved to Jackson. We brought them to Hattiesburg recently and are very excited that they are back in the fold.

They also have a sweet, beautiful little eight-month-old baby girl. I take just a little bit of personal pride in that too. There are hundreds of kids out there— many now grown— who are in this world because their parents met while working at one of our restaurants. That’s a cool byproduct of what I do. Actually, that may be the coolest. I never even thought of that aspect of the business until I started writing this column.

I actually met my wife as a result of that first restaurant. She attended our very first Christmas party as the guest of a guest. As soon as I saw her across the room, I was instantly smitten. We struck up a conversation, had our first date a few weeks later, and have been together ever since. So, I guess, in the end, my two children are a result of that restaurant, too.

When I was 26-years old, I told my mother I was going to open a restaurant of my own. She cried and begged me not to do it. She was worried I would fail. “You’ll ruin the family name,” she said.

I replied, “Mom, the family name wasn’t that great to start with.” As I sit here and type I am glad that I didn’t listen to that warning (which was actually probably good advice at the time because I had no clue as to what I was doing, or how to run a restaurant). But today, there are hundreds of happy couples and hundreds of kids who are walking around because I decided to take a chance and fulfill a dream.

I believe that, in the end, if one’s aim is true— and one’s motives are pure— that success will follow. It’s not always the kind of success that can be measured on a balance sheet. Many times, it’s ancillary success, which can actually find its way to the baby registry.


This week’s recipe: Scampi

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