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Robert St. John

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


July 14, 2021

Inspiration sometimes comes from the strangest places. I can watch a movie and pick up on one three-minute scene that reveals to me exactly why that writer or director was driven to make the movie. It was obviously a scene that had been rolling around in the director/screenwriter’s head and an entire plot and cast of characters evolved around it.

Cameron Crowe directed my favorite movie of all time, Almost Famous. A couple of years later he wrote and directed “Elizabethtown,” Which seemed like a vehicle that was created from one concept—making a cross-country mixed tape— and everything that led up to that point seemed to be there to push the story towards that moment.

This is not meant as a slight to Crowe. I have been a fan of his since the mid-1970s and would watch an industrial instructional training video if he wrote and directed it. This also happens in music when a concept album is molded around one idea or song. In the end, we take inspiration where we can get it.

In the restaurant business, I have seen first-time restaurateurs open a business because they came up with a catchy name. Of the 1000 reasons to open a restaurant, a catchy name doesn’t even make the list. Just another example as to why there is such a high mortality rate in the restaurant business.

My restaurant inspiration has come— at least in the last 30 years— from my travels. When we started the research and development phase of our newest Tex-Mex concept, I spent a lot of time in Texas, the birthplace of the genre. I worked with several managers of successful Tex-Mex restaurants and was advised by a couple of the top chefs in the field. We certainly did our due diligence when it comes to R&D.

When visiting so many restaurants, one never knows which ones are going to be the ones that set the creative wheels in motion and make the most impactful lasting impressions.

One month into the global pandemic of 2020, I stood out in the parking lot of our first restaurant, The Purple Parrot, and wondered what the future held. At the time it looked grim and dark. I knew that I needed to close that fine-dining concept and the upscale cocktail bar adjacent to it, but it was a hard thing to do because, after 32 years, it was like one of my children.

I had been working on the Tex-Mex concept for a couple of years and was planning to build it at another location in town, one with a lot of outside space for plenty of open-air dining and drinking. Standing there in the parking lot in early April of 2020, I thought, “Why not just do the Tex-Mex concept here in this building I already own?” The problem was that the previous location I was looking into had a lot of old-growth trees and other vegetation. This was a parking lot.

I knew what the inside of the restaurant would be, but I didn’t know how I was going to create a lush, fun environment out of a 3,000-square foot slab of asphalt, 10-feet away from the busiest street in town. I sketched out a rough diagram of what I thought the patio could be and then sat with it for a few weeks.

In May I started working with an architect friend, Jamie Weir, on a design. My goal was to have the patio space open by Christmas. I just laughed out loud as I typed the previous sentence (at this writing the patio is still not open). We created a 10-foot wall that would seal the space off from the outside world, and then started to go to work. At every stage, I asked myself, “If I include this component, will it add to the fun, enjoyment, and delight of our guests?” If the answer was “yes” and we could afford it, then it went into the design.

The changeover from the Purple Parrot and Branch dining rooms to the interior El Rayo spaces was relatively quick and painless. I knew what I wanted. Most of the décor ideas had been swimming around in my head for a few years. Though I kept asking myself, “What can I do with this ceiling, or that wall, to make this place more fun?” What I hoped I was creating on the inside was an escape from the outside world, and a place one could go to relax, share a meal, and forget about life for a minute.

We developed recipes in the middle of what was the worst labor crisis I have experienced in my 40+ years in this business. On January 5th, we opened the inside dining room for limited service, with half of the kitchen staff we needed to pull off a successful opening. The prep crew was dangerously depleted. Food prep— making salsas, beans, picadillo, soup, sauces, frying chips— is THE key component to Tex Mex restaurants. The key is in the execution of the recipes. On the production line it mostly comes down to putting those prepped components together in the manner in which the recipe dictates.

I’ll be honest with you, the first three months were a nightmare. Opening in the middle of a global pandemic with a once-in-a-100-year labor shortage is hard. We had many rough shifts, not because we weren’t prepared, or the recipes weren’t good, it’s just that we didn’t have the people to execute our plan. Though it makes me appreciate those who fought so hard in the trenches in those first few months, many of whom are still with us today. They are forever on my list of champions.

Let’s circle back to inspiration. At the end of August last year, I needed a short break from all of the COVID situation and just a general break from the stress and anxiety. I grabbed the wife, hopped in the truck, took Greeley’s advice, and drove west.

Again, one can find inspiration in the strangest of places. We were staying in a very fine five-star hotel along the Rocky Mountain Range that served the typical fare that one encounters in that area, elk, bison, trout, but they also had a queso on the menu. We were still in recipe development, so I ordered it, and it was the absolute best queso I had ever tried. It was perfect. The chef was originally from France, and he and I visited the next day to discuss his version of queso. Our white queso comes from that conversation.

Towards the end of that trip, we found ourselves in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. We had several excellent Tex Mex meals, but my greatest inspiration from that visit wasn’t a food item. Joe T. Garcia’s in Ft. Worth has been around for over 80 years. We pulled up on a hot afternoon and the parking lot was overflowing. There were two lines waiting to get in and eat. One line, the shorter one, led to a small door on an old white clapboard building that wouldn’t look out of place in a New Orleans neighborhood.

There was a second line of people that was much longer, stretching for as far as I could see down a sidewalk. I made the choice to go with the short line and we took our place in it. Though through the entire wait to get inside I kept looking at the other long line of people standing in the heat to wait and sit outside. Once we were seated, I kept asking my wife, “I wonder what it is about the outside that people are willing to wait that long?”

“Just walk out there and see,” she said. I did and walked into a lush, old-growth, tropical garden that covered an entire city block. It seemed to go on forever. It was beautiful. At that moment I started making changes in my head to our outdoor patio plans.

We started construction on the patio in early January. At the time, it hadn’t rained for weeks. As soon as we removed the asphalt, it rained for two solid weeks. Our biggest nemesis on this project hasn’t been the labor shortage or even the material costs, but Mother Nature. Hattiesburg receives 54 inches of rainfall on average each year. To date, halfway through the year we are sitting at 47 inches.

But we are close. Ever so close. We will open this week. And this idea that was born while standing in an empty parking lot during a global pandemic and sketching out a crude drawing on a sheet of notebook paper will be— we hope— a fun, lush, escape for the citizens of Hattiesburg for many years to come.


This week’s recipe: Black-Eyed Pea Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Aioli

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