Skip to content

Robert St. John

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

The Community Council

October 28, 2020

The corporate vision statement of the New South Restaurant Group states, “We exist to support our co-workers, delight our guests, and serve our community.” That is the vein that runs through the core of our business. All of the decisions we make are based within that context. Will it be beneficial to our team members, our guests, and our community? It has been my experience that if we prioritize our values in this manner, the business— and the personal lives of all involved— will be better.

The statement has morphed a little throughout the years. In its original form it stated, “We are committed to our customers, staff, and community.” We put the customer first in the early days. I started business in the “customer is always right” era of the 1980s. Sometime in the mid-1990s that attitude morphed into, “The customer isn’t always right, but we damn well better make them think they are.”

In the early 2000s we started prioritizing our team members over our customers. We learned that if we take care of the people we work with first— and prioritize things such as their work environment and overall well-being— that they will do a better job taking care of our guests.

We have always been community-minded. That’s one thing I learned while working for someone else. I had a job as a server in college and the owner of that restaurant didn’t do anything for the community. He even bragged about not doing anything for the community. It was all take, take, take, no give. Sometimes one learns what not to do while working for someone else as much as one learns what to do. So, when I opened our first restaurant, I knew I wanted to plug into the community and plug in in a big way. Afterall, it’s my community. I grew up four blocks behind our restaurants.

That’s why I started the New South Restaurant Group Community Council. The group was very active until the pandemic shutdown hit us back in March. We’re back on track now.

The New South Restaurant Group Community Council is an all-volunteer group of representatives from each restaurant. The general managers pick two team members to serve on the council. The 12-member council is an autonomous group who elect their own officers and decide which causes they want to support in our community.

Early on, I suggested we take a strong role in the elementary school that is in our neighborhood just a few blocks from our restaurants. Thames Elementary is my alma mater. I went there in the 2nd through the 5th grade, and don’t live too far from there today.

One of the things I appreciate in our Millennial workforce is that they are so community-focused and community-minded. Whenever we ask for volunteers to work on projects that help those in need, they step up to the plate in large numbers. That is something my generation lacked. We were more self-focused when we were in our twenties.

Over the years Thames Elementary had become a D-rated school. They needed help badly. 100% of their kids were on the school lunch program and a few came from families that were homeless. Several people in the community had been working with them for a few years when we came along. The team members of the NSRG Community Council dove into their work headfirst. Working with the fully engaged and enthusiastic school counselor, Heidi Hackbarth, they began volunteering to read in classrooms and assist teachers. We fed the teachers breakfast on their last days of school and treated the kids at our burger concept when they made the honor roll. They collected toys at Christmas and the teachers gave them to families who might not be able to provide much on Christmas morning. We also collected candy at Halloween and helped pass it out (in costume). Our team members loved every minute of it.

Earlier this year, just before the shutdown, the NSRG Community Council received the 2020 Governor’s Award for Partnership from the Mississippi Association for Partnerships in Education. We attended a nice statewide luncheon and picked up a certificate. It was meaningful to me because the members of the council got to see their efforts recognized. That was on March 5th. Everything shut down a few weeks later, including the school.

Shutting down a school such as that creates its own problems, especially when so many depend on the school for breakfast and lunch every day. This pandemic has been tough on the kids on several fronts.

Seeing the NSRG Community Council at work is one of the most rewarding parts of my day. Due to the dedicated staff and administration at Thames Elementary— and the hard work of the students who scored well on their state tests— the school rose from a D-rated school to a B-rated school, an accomplishment that many in the district told them would be impossible.

The NSRG Community Council probably didn’t factor into raising school scores too much. All of that recognition should go to the teachers and administration. But we sure played a part in the celebration of that feat as we hosted and fed 76 of the kids who scored “advanced” or “proficient” on their tests at our burger concept.

It’s my belief that every business in every town should adopt a school. Seriously, if you own a business and have not partnered with a school in your neighborhood you are missing out on one of the most rewarding honors available to a business owner. It’s not always about money and giving. Often, it’s nothing more than time spent with the kids, and helping the teachers, staff, and administration know that they are appreciated by the community for their hard, challenging— and often thankless— work.

There’s no better way to invest in the future of one’s community than to partner with a school. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the volunteer team members of the NSRG Community Council for their hard work and dedication. In the coming days they will be gathering candy for Halloween, feeding teachers, and collecting Christmas gifts for the students at Thames Elementary. I love my city.


This week’s recipe: Sesame Cheese Straws

Recent Posts

My Kind Of Town

CHICAGO— No one would ever accuse me of being a creature of habit. Other than my morning breakfast routine, I…

Read more

My Top 25 Cookbooks

The view from my desk is inspirational. I’ve been in the same office for 27 years. There are no windows,…

Read more

Travel Connections

QUEENS, NEW YORK— After 62 years, and millions of miles logged, I have learned that travel is about one thing—…

Read more