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Robert St. John

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


September 20, 2023

Everyone has a personal wonderland. When my brother visits a hardware store, a garden center, or a tackle shop he has hit peak existence as those places are his wonderland. When my wife is in an antique store it’s her little slice of heaven. Years ago, my mother loved art galleries and art supply stores. My friend Anthony’s wonderland is Disneyland (though that seems like cheating). For me it’s restaurant trade shows, and restaurant supply showrooms and stores.

A few weeks ago, I was in New Orleans and dropped by the Restaurant Depot to pick up a couple of items we needed at the bakery. For those who aren’t familiar with Restaurant Depot, just think Sam’s Club or Costco with wholesale prices— equipment, small wares, supplies, and a lot of food— exclusively for restaurateurs. My supposed 15 minute visit to shop for a couple of items turned into a two-hour browsing and purchasing session. Welcome to my Wonderland.

When I was a little kid, I could spend an hour on the small toy aisle in the Ben Franklin Five and Dime store. It probably consisted of three shelves and 12 linear feet. That was my five-year-old wonderland. Any type of restaurant supply store that has a showroom is going to grab my attention for several hours these days, and the National Restaurant Association trade show that I attend every year in Chicago captures my attention and sparks my imagination for several days.

I got to the Restaurant Depot that morning just after it opened and dozens of small independent restaurant operators from across the city were scampering through the aisles buying groceries and small wares to get them through the Sunday brunch/lunch service. It took me back to the early days when I was in the kitchen full time, and we were a struggling upstart restaurant doing everything we could to survive. It was 1987 and I was working 90 hours a week, living in a one-room apartment above a garage, paying myself $250.00 a week and loving every minute of it. Those are still some of the fondest days of my career.

As I passed the independents who were shopping for that day’s supplies it took me back to simpler times. Don’t get me wrong. I love where I am today. The volume we do wouldn’t allow anyone to go to the grocery store with any frequency anymore, and I’m grateful for that. Very grateful. But I also understand that— in those early days— I was the guy walking around the grocery store picking up supplemental products to make it through lunch to get to this point. I had to be that guy. Truthfully, I loved being that guy.

There’s joy in building a business and growing it from an idea, concept, simple thought, or a notion sketched on a cocktail napkin. The process of turning those thoughts and ideas into an actual brick-and-mortar concepts is my dream job. It’s what I have always done. It’s what I still do. I have a drawer full of notebooks and cocktail napkins with current, former, and future restaurants mapped out on them. It’s the most satisfying and gratifying part of my job.

Walking the aisles of the Restaurant Depot I wanted to pull every one of those restaurateurs aside— many of whom looked frustrated and stressed— and tell them, “These are the ‘good ‘ol days.’ You may not be able to see it now, but this was your dream and it’s come true. This is what you fought for. This what you saved money to do. You are doing it. You are living it. Trust me, one day you’re going to look back on the times you were just getting started— and were having to go to the store to buy your groceries for the day because you didn’t have enough money in the bank to put together a large order with one of the mainline suppliers— and remember them fondly. Just hang in there. It’s tough, but if it was easy everyone would do it, and everyone can’t do it. It’s the restaurant business. We have one of the highest mortality rates of all businesses. 80% of all independent restaurants close after the third year. But you’re still here. You’re doing it. Just keep following your passion. Do what it takes— whatever it takes— to make your restaurant successful. Give it all you’ve got. Change when you need to change, never stand still, and follow your passion because success always follows passion. Get a little bit better every day, and when you take a few steps backward just wake up the next day and keep pressing forward. Don’t worry about the criticism. You’ll never be criticized by someone doing more than you. You’ll only be criticized by someone doing less. Keep moving ever onward.”

But I didn’t pull anyone aside and say that. I wanted to, but I didn’t, because that would be weird and creepy, and most young restaurateurs can’t see the forest for the trees at this stage anyway. It’s not until one comes out on the other side of those early days that they realize how blessed they were to be able to start something from scratch and build it into a viable business that is creating jobs and opportunities for others.

It’s not brain surgery. I’ve learned if you put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, and dedicate yourself to a mission of quality and consistency great things happen. Will there be problems? Definitely. Almost daily. But business is problems. A successful business is problems well handled. If you can’t handle problems, it’s time to get out of business.

It’s not always a success. I’ve had failures. Plenty of them. But I’ve learned from every one of them. The expensive mistakes are the ones I’ve learned most from and have rarely repeated. I don’t consider myself a winner. I’m just a loser who’s never given up. Occasionally, you hit it on something and if you can keep a positive cashflow then everything works out and the world spins in greased grooves for a while.

If you are a restaurateur early in your career, keep your head down and keep moving forward. Treat people well and always try to do the right thing in every situation, whether it be life or business. Prioritize your spiritual self and your family before your business, but when it’s needed, hunker down, and do what it takes to make it through the challenging times. You’ve got this. And if you see me, wide-eyed and smiling while walking around a restaurant show, a wholesale warehouse. or a showroom, pull me aside. Let’s talk shop. You’ll be able to teach me something, too. After 42 years in this business, I’m learning new things every day.


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