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Robert St. John

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

Restaurant People

January 11, 2023

It is my belief that some people are born with their life’s mission already implanted deep in their DNA. Just as we are wired at birth to like certain foods, musical styles, and activities, I am of the school that believes that careers and interests are hardwired from the start. It’s better that way. We’d all be boring clones and mindless robots if we all liked the same exact things to the same exact degree. The 18th century poet, William Cowper, said, “Variety is the spice of life,” and that’s back when there weren’t many spices that were even available to the general populace.

It’s the uniqueness of people that separates us. That’s what makes life and interpersonal relationships interesting. Never is this more apparent than with restaurant people.

Restaurant people are a unique breed. We truly are. Sure, there are other careers that set people a breed apart— but many of those are professions take a great amount of learned skill and formal education. Most people who rise in the restaurant industry did so from the bottom up. Some industries have the mail room. We have the dish pit and the busser station. Most of us started in, or around, one of those positions.

That is part of what makes us unique. Though there are many other components that go into that formula. There is nothing nine-to-five about the restaurant industry. We don’t take weekends off. That’s when the real work begins for us. While others are shedding their heels and neckties looking forward to a relaxing two days off, we’re suiting up and getting ready to make hay for the three best shifts of the week.

Nine to five? You’re kidding, right? Someone is in one of our facilities at 4:00 a.m. and many times another is locking the back door at 2:00 a.m. That’s not unusual. We knew it when we signed up. It fits our lifestyle. Most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bill Murray’s character, John Winger, in the movie Stripes was referring to soldiers in his late-night motivational speech to his platoon, but he could have just as well been speaking about restaurant peeps. “We’re all very different people… We are the wretched refuse. We are the underdog. We’re mutts! But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more loveable than the mutt… we’re all very, very different!” Even people who haven’t worked in a restaurant for decades still consider themselves restaurant people.

Restaurants are brick-and-mortar hatcheries for the American dream. There aren’t too many professions where one can start at the absolute bottom and rise to the pinnacle of ownership. I am certainly an example of that, as 40 years ago I fell backwards into this industry when I flunked out of college. My business partner at our Italian concept in Hattiesburg, Steve Andrews, started as a prep cook at my first restaurant in 1987. He met his wife Stacey, who was a hostess in that restaurant, they married, both got into management, and now own 1/3 of Tabella.

Jarred Patterson, started as a busboy during college. He now owns 50% of our Italian restaurant in Ridgeland Ms. There aren’t too many Good Will Huntings out there who started as a janitor and became a tenured professor, the top producer in a law firm, a managing partner in an accounting office, or the chief of surgery in a hospital. But the restaurant industry is filled— seriously loaded— with those success stories.

We are also, many times, the entry level into the workplace for the nation’s workforce. How many top executives and business have you heard who speak about bussing tables or slinging fries in a fast-food joint as their first job? When people are first able to get off government assistance and hop into the workforce, where are they doing that? With us. We are always hiring. Always.

It hit me almost on the first day of the first shift of the first restaurant I ever worked. I was smitten and bitten. I knew— probably within a week— that this is what I want to do. No, this is what I was born to do. It’s hardwired into my inner being.

I grew up without a father. That sets one apart as well. There aren’t a lot of positives one can draw from losing a father, but one thing I didn’t grow up with was any preconceived expectation of what I should do with my professional life.

My mom wanted me to be an architect. But there were no expectancies tied to her dream. I had friends whose dads were doctors or lawyers who expected their sons to be doctors or lawyers. Some of them became doctors and lawyers. Some were hardwired at birth to be brilliant and successful doctors and lawyers. A few are miserable being doctors and lawyers. Some are no longer doctors or lawyers. I might have made a pretty good architect, but I would have missed my calling and the thing I believe I was meant to do.

As soon as I started working in restaurants, I was hooked. I went back to college and loaded up on classes while working towards a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management. I spent my spare time between classes in the library reading restaurant trade magazines in the periodical section. After my shifts waiting tables, I stayed up till three in the morning designing future menus and kitchen layouts. I couldn’t get enough of it. I still can’t get enough of it. I love it.

There’s an old saying that if you love what you do for a living you will never work a day in your life. That seemed like a cheesy motivational poster saying to me until a few years ago when I realized that I’m a living example of that premise. My son was probably 13 years old, and we were riding down the road when he said, “Dad what do you think I ought to do for a career one day?”

I said, “Son, whatever it is, don’t chase the money.” And then, not really thinking about what I was saying, I said, “Here’s the deal, son. I opened that first restaurant several decades ago and never, seriously never, have I ever gotten up in the morning and told myself, ‘Man, I don’t want to go to work today.’ Not once. That is what I want for you.” I had never realized it myself until I heard the words coming out of my mouth. It was true. It is still true. I’m a restaurateur.

It’s not like my restaurant career has been a breeze. Far from it. This business is brutal. But I have loved every minute of it and the hard times have turned out to be excellent lessons in life and in business. The best lessons are often the most expensive. Business is problems. A successful business is problems well handled.

I’m a restaurateur. My son is currently in culinary school studying to be a chef. It’s a choice he made on his own. These days we ride in my truck and talk about the restaurant business. Is his desire and commitment as deep as mine? He’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, I will keep doing what I do for as long as I can do it. My mother often asks, “When are you going to retire?” The answer is never. Why would I? I don’t hunt or fish much. I don’t play golf. I do what I love to do every day. My work is my hobby and a large part of my happiness. Why would I ever walk away from that?


Thsi week’s recipe: Lobster and Brie Bisque

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