ROBERT ST JOHN: One score and five years ago …

By Robert St. John

On Dec. 27, 1987, the world was much different than it is today. The Berlin Wall was still standing, so were the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Cellular phones – for the few who might have had one – were large and hard-wired to automobiles (unless you carried one around in a large shoulder bag). MTV was still relevant and actually playing music most of the time. If someone wanted to send another person a message, they had to purchase a stamp, hair was high and full of mousse, gas was cheap, and computers were large and mostly used for word processing.
I was living rent-free in a one-room garage apartment behind my grandmother’s house. A few months earlier I had sold a small 40-acre plot of land my grandfather left me and used the entire $25,000 from the sale to fund my first restaurant.
My net worth was negative. It was nothing and it was everything, it made no difference. I had been waiting tables for several years while earning a degree in what is now called hospitality management. My opening salary for the first two years was half of what I had been earning as a server, yet – if the funds would have been there – I would have paid someone for the pleasure of being able to own my own restaurant.
I worked 90-hour weeks for the first four years and loved every minute of it. I owned a business. It was mine. I, along with the help of many others, had created it from nothing.
A few months ago I was talking to my children about their future and what career they might choose one day. It dawned on me that I have never, not once in the past 25 years, awakened in the morning and felt dread about going to work. Actually, if you do what you enjoy doing for a career, it’s not work. You are just doing your hobby and getting paid for it.
We employ over 230 people today. Over the past 25 years there have been thousands who have drawn a paycheck from our company. Many co-workers have met and married in the restaurants and moved on – some to open other restaurants, others to new careers in new places. All of the current managers started as busboys and dishwashers and worked their way up.
There are two people – Beverly McCurdy and Bruce Colquitt – who have been with me since day one. Dozens have worked there for over 10 years, several for more than 15 years, and a few have been there for over 20 years.
It’s a tough way to make a living, 61 percent of independent restaurants are out of business after three years, but once bitten by the restaurant bug, it’s unshakable.
The key to success in the restaurant business is easy, it’s people. Early on I learned a valuable lesson. The restaurant had been getting some positive press and reviews and they had gone to my head. My ego took over and I started believing I was solely responsible for this success. In those days I was still pulling 15-hour shifts in the kitchen. One morning a cook called in sick. A few minutes later another called with a flat tire, an hour later a prep cook’s car battery was dead, another called after that and was dealing with a death in the family. It was a freak occurrence, but as I was sitting there trying to figure out how I was going to open for lunch and cook in all of those stations, I had an epiphany. It wasn’t about me as the newspapers had stated. It took – and still takes – a lot of people, a full team working together, to make a restaurant run.
I owe each employee and customer a debt I will never be able to repay for the privilege of owning a business that is in the business of feeding and serving others.
On Dec. 27, 1987, the world was much different than it is today. I had a 28-inch waist, a full head of hair, and had not yet met the woman I would marry. The Purple Parrot Café was about to open its doors for the first time and my life was about to change forever.
Thank you.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.