There are a lot of benefits to being a restaurant owner for 30 years. The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate the non-monetary perks of restaurant ownership. It’s not always about the money. It can’t be. I’ve made some money in the restaurant business, but I’ve also lost a lot, and have even been on the verge of bankruptcy a couple of times.
As I grow longer in the tooth, I am able to look back on a career in foodservice— seven years as an employee and 30 as an owner— and appreciate things I never thought would be so important to me.
I am very grateful that the restaurant business has provided for me and my family, but I am also proud to have been a job provider. We currently employ over 250 people among four restaurants and two bars, operated by three separate corporations. Since 1987, we have employed more than 3,000 people. Some have worked for us while in college and have moved on to great careers all over the country. Many have gotten their start in foodservice with us, and moved on to bigger and better jobs in larger cities and restaurants.
One of the stats that I am most proud of, is that when we opened in 1987, we hired four managers, and we haven’t hired a manager since. Not one. For 30 years, all of our managers have been promoted from within. Anyone who is currently managing for our company— or has been a manager anytime during the past three decades, save the original four— started out as a busboy, dishwasher, server, or line cook. That’s over one hundred managers who have started at an entry-level position and moved into management careers. All of them.
Many of our managers have moved on to work in other restaurants, many have started non-foodservice businesses of their own, and many have gone on to open their own restaurants. I love that.
Another great thing about being a restaurant owner for 30 years is seeing all of the couples who have met, and later married, while working in our restaurants. I don’t have the numbers to back it up, but I would guess that well over 100 couples have met while working for us, and moved on to long-term relationships or marriage.
We’ve also been able to provide opportunities for our managers to become partners in other businesses we’ve opened. Stacey and Steve Andrews are the trifecta of that example. They met while working as servers at the Purple Parrot. They married, and eventually moved into management for two our companies. Now they are partners and co-owners in our Italian concept, Tabella.
As a restaurant owner in my mid 50s, I am at a point in my life where I appreciate the small, less flashy things most of all. It occurred to me the other day that our restaurants, namely our flagship and oldest-running concept, the Purple Parrot has been a place where several hundreds of people have gotten engaged. That is special. It’s nothing we set out to do from the start, but having a fine-dining concept has made us a place where people want to share important events. We have hidden engagement rings in desserts and floated them in glasses of champagne. We have had Elvis impersonators bust into the dining room for marriage proposals, and counselled many nervous young men who solicited advice on how to pop the question. What a great thing of which to be a part. It makes me grateful and proud. There aren’t many professions where those opportunities are available on a daily basis.
We also have been a part of hundreds of couples returning to the restaurants to celebrate anniversaries after marriages. We have catered their weddings, and served at their funerals. We have hosted, Mardi Gras parties, bridesmaid’s luncheons, homecoming teas, and thousands of nervous and awkward teenagers during prom dates.
I am proud that our restaurants have been an important part of people’s lives. Food is the great connector. It’s one of the things that brings us together most often. We share a meal when we share a special event. We have hosted birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, retirement parties and promotions, birth announcements and wakes.
We have been a significant part of many people’s lives at very special times. We take that very seriously. We are honored, and that is why I am feeling blessed, today.
Mississippi Cheese Straws
1/2 lb. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded, at room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until cheese is finely crumbled. Transfer to a clean surface and knead until it becomes a smooth, Play-dough like texture. Wrap tightly and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350.
Using a cookie press or pastry bag fitted with a large star tip, pipe the mixture onto a lined baking sheet into 6 inch lengths. Bake until the edges just begin to brown, about 10-12 minutes. Carefully transfer to a cooling rack and store in an airtight container once completely cooled.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restaurateur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.