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Robert St. John

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

Good Morning, Hattiesburg

January 10, 2024

A few weeks ago, an interviewer asked, “Give me a typical day in the life of Robert St. John.”

I had never thought about it and so my knee-jerk reaction was, “Every day is different.” That’s true. But there is a certain structure to how my day typically begins.

When I’m working out the day starts at 5:30 a.m. in the gym, three days a week. Other than that, every day starts the same when I’m in town. I typically pop into the bakery between 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. to check on the morning’s bake and then head to the Midtowner for breakfast. I make a point to say “Good morning,” to everyone working in the kitchen and on the floor and then take my seat at table 19.

One can learn a lot in that initial 60 seconds of entering a restaurant in the early morning. If I receive an enthusiastic return, “good morning,” I know we’re getting everything set and ready for breakfast service in a smooth manner. If a morning welcome is half-hearted, I usually check up on that person to see if everything’s ok with their position in that moment, and if there is anything they may need help with in their personal life or at home.

It’s rare that a return “good morning” is delivered in a downbeat manner at The Midtowner. That has been one of the great surprises with this breakfast-lunch concept I opened several years ago. Before we opened, I wondered if we were going to be able to retain a team that could wake up at 5:00 a.m. and make it to work on time.

If you’re not a restaurant person then you should know that a large percentage of the foodservice world— especially in a college town— likes to have a good time after work. I’m not talking about a rousing game of Scrabble or milk and cookies and a few rounds of charades. Restaurant people are party people. It’s always been that way, or at least during the time I’ve been doing this since 1981. The hours are long, the pace is fast, the pressure is sometimes intense. It’s not The Bear-level intense, but many times it gets hairy and young people are going to do what young people do.

I was part of that post-work release madness for my first couple of years in this industry until I got clean and sober.

I spent 10 years thinking about opening a breakfast joint before I ever opened a breakfast joint. I knew my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi would respond positively to a locally owned independent breakfast place that also served good, old-fashioned southern home-cooking for lunch. I knew our location was perfect for what we wanted to do. My biggest concern was if our team members would consistently be able to show up to work on time. A couple of our other concepts sometimes had trouble getting people to an 11:00 a.m. lunch shift in a timely manner. It’s never been a problem at The Midtowner.

This concept has been such a pleasure to own and operate. I love all my concepts. They’re like one’s children. One day one of them is dealing with an issue while the other is perfectly fine. The Midtowner has been a steady presence in the New South Restaurant Group fold. My early fears of team members not being able to get up early and get to work were unfounded.

All restaurants have a certain energy and vibe. The vibe at The Midtowner is always upbeat and positive. I wanted to create a restaurant that felt like it had been in operation since the late 1940s, a true local, community café. Back in those days that’s pretty much all that existed— small cafes or fine dining restaurants with French chefs. There weren’t any theme restaurants or national chains littering the landscape. It was all local.

I wanted to create a place where the entire community could get together and share a meal— young, old, black, white, rich, poor, guys with their names stitched to their work shirts, and sorority girls with Greek letters on their sweatshirts. It was one of the proudest moment s of my restaurant career when— two weeks into our initial run— I turned around while working the window and looked out into the dining room, and that’s what I saw— all ages, all walks of life, all occupations, all sharing a meal. I wanted to create the most Hattiesburg restaurant that had ever existed in Hattiesburg, and I felt as if I had done that. It still feels that way.

One of the greatest compliments I receive is when someone is surprised when I tell them that we’ve only been open a little over five years. “But it looks like it’s been here since the fifties.” That was the plan.

I am wired for a breakfast joint— to own one and to be in one. It just fits my lifestyle and personality, and I feel overly blessed to own one and have such a positive team running it every day. When my “day in the life” starts out at a breakfast joint— whether it’s mine or someone else’s— it sets a positive, productive tone for the rest of my day.

Onward.

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