ROBERT ST. JOHN: The most stressful workday

By Robert St.John

Do you remember the most stressful day of your life? I do, and I have a photograph to prove it.
In 1991, I was opening my second restaurant, Crescent City Grill. Actually, I was reopening it under another name and concept and in a new space next door to the old space.
The building that houses the Purple Parrot Café and Crescent City Grill was built as a dress shop in the mid-’70s. I happened along in 1987 looking for a place to open a white-tablecloth restaurant in Hattiesburg.
I had $25,000 I had acquired after selling a piece of land my grandfather left me in his will. I was living rent-free in a garage apartment behind my grandmother’s house. We opened the restaurant on a shoestring and, thankfully, the public responded.
The dress shop occupied a third of the building and we opened Purple Parrot Café and – what was then called – Purple Parrot Grill in the other two-thirds of the space. All was well.
In 1991, the dress shop closed and their space became available. I wanted to move over into their area, but first I needed to change the name of the Purple Parrot Grill because no one could remember which restaurant was which (first business lesson: brand identity). Having been a fan of New Orleans cuisine, and since most of my cooking was in the Creole direction, I decided to call the new place Crescent City Grill. The space where the former Purple Parrot Grill was located would become The Mahogany Bar.
If that sounds complicated and convoluted, just imagine what it was like trying to operate a high-volume business while all of that was going on.
Electricians were stepping over plumbers who were trying to move carpenters out of the way to make room for the equipment suppliers and air-conditioning installation crews. Everyone was getting in the way of our customers and I couldn’t do anything about it. The work had to be done.
At the same time I was throwing a new menu on the kitchen staff which doubled the number of food items we were preparing from scratch every morning. That created an entirely different set of challenges.
The local chamber of commerce was set to host a ribbon cutting for the new concept. The workers were still hammering out finishing touches 45 minutes before we were scheduled to open. Fresh seafood and produce shipments were arriving at the back door. Food was being prepped. About that time a reporter from the local newspaper showed up and asked to take a photograph to accompany an article about the new restaurant.
The photographer captured my most stressful moment. I was standing in the newly decorated dining room. It was 20 minutes before we were to open the doors. The ribbon cutting attendees were filing in early, and they were hungry. I remember having to ask workers to step out of the way of the photographer as everyone was running frantically to get ready to open the doors. In that instant, he snapped the photograph. You can see it in my eyes and all over my face – work stress.
We moved into that new kitchen and were out of room instantly. Today, we do three times the volume we were doing then. There was no room to work in the kitchen. Something had to be done. Again.
Last year I began building a new kitchen for a talented staff of chefs and cooks who had been working under adverse conditions for too long. While a new kitchen is being built, we are quadrupling the size of the bar in the Purple Parrot Café, adding a patio area, building a private dining room and adding a wine cellar.
We have a 1,000-label wine list, which means there are over 6,000 bottles of wine in our building, with no cellar. The new cellar will be filled instantly, but will also serve as another private dining room that will seat anywhere from two to 16 patrons.
All of this is going on while we are open and operating. Two weeks ago we served our last plate of food in the old kitchen at 10 p.m. Instantly, a team of electricians, plumbers, air-conditioning specialists, construction workers, equipment specialists, and our kitchen staff went to work. By 9 the next morning we had moved into a huge new kitchen space. Best of all, it was done with significantly less stress than the previous move.
The restaurateur I admire most, Danny Meyer, once said, “Business is problems. A successful business is problems well handled. If you can’t handle problems, get out of business.”
Onward.
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.