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Robert St. John

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

It’s All Lessons All the Time

October 18, 2023

It’s funny how at different ages I have assumed I had life completely figured out.

When I was 19 no one could tell me anything. I thought I knew it all. The truth is I was clueless and wandering aimlessly down a dangerous path. By 21 I was clean and sober and starting a life of recovery, re-enrolling in college, and living with tunnel vision as I had one singular goal in life— to open and operate my own restaurant.

In my mid thirties my career was in full swing as I opened more restaurants, I was young and cocky and believed that I had the restaurant business down pat. During that period, I probably looked back on my early twenties and realized that I had been clueless about so much I thought I had figured out. I was confident that I had this life thing solved in my thirties. Nope.

My daughter was born when I was 36 and my son when I was 40. My values and priorities changed instantly, and I’m certain that I assumed I had it all figured out by then. Wrong.

As my kids were growing, I prioritized family over work and knew that was the correct thing to do. After a few years of fatherhood, I discovered that I didn’t have the whole parenthood thing solved, either. Despite my best efforts and dedication to being a dad, I was still learning at every stage of parenthood.

After 25 years in the restaurant business, I was still learning about that industry, too. I opened more restaurants, closed a few— some because I had to and some because I wanted to. There was never a bankruptcy, though I’ve been on the verge a couple of times over the years. It’s a brutal business. But I never walked away from a closed business owing anyone money, no matter how much or how long it took to pay them back, and I have never missed a payroll. For that I patted myself on the back, arrogantly assuming that I finally had it all figured out. I was mistaken.

Luckily, successes came more often than failures and other business opportunities arose— books, television, more restaurants, newspaper columns, other writings, etc. I was still learning every step of the way, but mostly what I learned is that I didn’t have it all figured out yet.

At every stage of my life, I’ve felt confident that I knew the reasons why I was put on this earth. And at every stage I learned that I still didn’t know what I thought I knew.

I love owning restaurants. I used to believe it was what I was meant to do. Though in the past decade, I have come to believe that I fell in love with the restaurant business so it would lead me to what I am truly SUPPOSED to do— Serve others.

I know that statement sounds pious and self-aggrandizing. Trust me, it wasn’t easy to type. But it’s how I truly feel and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Somewhere along the way this selfish, self-centered, egotistical, and narcissistic restaurateur/columnist did a 180 and began prioritizing serving the community as much as serving guests. These days I gain joy out of being a very small cog in a machine that serves others.

One of those ways is through the non-profit Extra Table. There are others, but what I am most proud of at this moment is the New South Restaurant Group Community Council.

The New South Restaurant Group Community Council was formed several years ago when I brought together an all-volunteer collection of team members from all our restaurants. They became the hands and feet of our service efforts in the community. Each NSRG restaurant concept has representatives that serve on an informal board and make decisions on how best— and where— to serve our community, and specifically our neighborhood of Midtown Hattiesburg.

We chose Thames Elementary School as our adopted neighborhood school and pledged to Thames’ administrators and teachers that we would help them fulfill their mission of teaching and supporting their school children. Thames is a 100% free breakfast and free lunch school. There are several students who attend Thames who are homeless. They needed help and we were happy to step up to the plate.

Over the years our team members have volunteered to read in classrooms, tutored students, helped the school with their community garden, collected money for new uniforms for students who couldn’t afford them, fed the teachers on the first and last days of school, collected Christmas toys for the kids (many of whom weren’t going to receive anything for Christmas), fed the kids at Ed’s Burger Joint when they have made exceptional grades, and various other things the school requested.

In 2018 Thames Elementary was a D-rated school by the Mississippi Board of Education. Today Thames is an A-rated school. The school administrators, staff, and teachers accomplished that impressive and important task, but our team members were there to help them along the way.

Last week, a few of our community council members volunteered at Thames Elementary’s Goal Party. They stood in for student’s parents who couldn’t— or didn’t— show up. That is what has me so proud to be a business owner today. It wasn’t me. I was working overseas. It was our team members and I am as proud of them as I am my own children.

As an owner of restaurants, I’ve come to believe that it is our duty— not only to take care of our guests, but— to take care of our community and those who need our help the most. What if every business in Mississippi figured out a way to become the hands and feet of the community’s needs?

I spent a majority of my first five decades as a self-seeking, self-centered, consumer and collector of material and monetary things. It’s where I thought my joy lived. I didn’t go into business to serve others. As a 26-year old I just wanted to own my own restaurant and make money.

At 62-years old, and after 43 years in the restaurant business, my gut tells me that I finally have it all figured out. Though life experience tells me that I’m still learning. I’m learning about life. I’m learning about business. And I’m still learning about parenting and other relationships. But maybe what I finally have realized is that serving others is a huge part of this life thing.

I also realize that five or ten years from now I am probably going to look back at this period of my life, and maybe even re-read this column, and realize: Once again, Robert, you thought you had it figured out, but you didn’t. Maybe that’s what life is about— continuing to figure it out along the way. Maybe I’ll never have all the answers, but it doesn’t mean I can’t stop searching.

Onward.

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