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Robert St. John

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

Eat Local

January 20, 2021

Whenever I am visiting a new town, for business or pleasure, I always go down to the front desk of the hotel in the early morning and ask, “Where is the best local breakfast joint? I want to go to the place where the old guys are reading the newspaper and arguing over politics and sports.” It never fails that every time I visit “that” place in a town, I get the “feel and character” of the town.

Breakfast and lunch cafes tell us more about a place and its people more than the finest Chamber of Commerce brochure or the slickest city government marketing campaign ever could.

There is a world of difference between locally owned restaurant concepts and national chains. Chain restaurants are cookie-cutter concepts developed by a corporate team of designers and executives in some faraway city, most of whom have never visited— and will never visit— that particular city or small town. The chain restaurant at the interstate off-ramp in my hometown looks, feels, and tastes exactly like the chain restaurant just off of the interstate off-ramp in the next town, and the next, and the next, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and all points in between.

We are becoming a nation of homogenous and characterless cookie-cutter concepts that serve food on the level of the lowest common denominator because they have national buying power and have to answer to stockholders at an annual meeting in New York, Chicago, or Dallas. Most could care less about locally sourced ingredients from farmers and fishermen in the backyards of the towns and cities in which they are located. National chains are like seed-packet retail. It’s as if someone flew over an interstate exchange that is located near the newest part of town and threw out a bunch of corporate-chain seeds, and the same stores that sprout up in other cities group together and start sprouting up there.

There’s nothing original there. There’s nothing specific to that town and its people, unless there are a few photos on the wall awkwardly trying to relay local color.

At one time, in the not-too-distant past, all we had in local towns and cities were locally owned and independent cafes and diners. They were owned by people that lived in our neighborhoods and operated by more people that lived in our neighborhoods. They assumed the character and personality of the city or town in which they were located.

No one is opening a local café these days. It’s sad. Community diners disappeared and we barely noticed. We all got enticed by the shiny theme restaurants with national advertising and studio photography that looks nothing like the end result that winds up at the table. We have become a seed-packet society that wishes for the next hot national chain to come to town. When it does, we realize that it doesn’t have the charm and character of the local places. But— without access to the capital available to the national chains— the locally-owned restaurants begin to close.

National chain restaurants do not make a city better and more livable. Locally owned, independent restaurants do, almost every time.

I love owning a breakfast cafe and meat-and-three joint almost as much as I love dining in them. If I am at home, I am sitting in the same chair, at the same table every morning. There is something about mornings that foster routines.

Before I opened The Midtowner, I frequented a bakery across the street from my office every morning. Before that I hung out at the bagel shop downtown. They were both locally owned. The three things that make me appreciate living in small-town America are our local Christmas parade, pancake breakfast fundraisers, and being a morning regular in a breakfast cafe.

When I was designing The Midtowner, I told my wife, “I want this restaurant to be the most ‘Hattiesburg’ restaurant ever in Hattiesburg. It should feel like it’s been here since 1948.” I feel like we accomplished that goal.

I also told her, “I want this to be ‘Hattiesburg’s restaurant,’ and ‘a restaurant for the entire community— young, old, rich, poor, black, white, doctors, nurses, working guys with their names stitched on their shirts, and sorority girls from the university across the street with Greek letters stitched to their hoodies. Doctors, nurses, professors, and students.” One of the proudest moments of my 40-year restaurant career occurred a few weeks after we opened. I was working the pass and turned around to check on the dining room. We were packed. From that vantage point, I could see the entire room, and there it was— the entire community, sitting down and sharing a meal together.

I love being a part of a group of “regulars” in the morning. I realize that I am now the old guy sitting in the breakfast cafe arguing over sports and politics. My friends and I have become the guys the person at the front desk of the local hotel is in search of when looking for authenticity in my town. But that’s a role I’ll proudly own if I get to be a small part of the 45,953 people who make up the character of my small town.

Character matters, not only in people but in towns and cities. Please support your locally-owned restaurants and businesses. Now, more than ever, Eat local. Shop local. Live local. It matters.


This week’s recipe: Pompano in a Bag

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