Thursday, July 30, 2020

Robert St. John: Farewell, Old Friend

Today I am grateful.

Some would think that closing a restaurant one has owned and operated for over 32 years would be grounds for despair and depression. Not so. Not even close. Today I am thankful for all of the people I have worked with over the past three decades, and all of the people who— side-by-side together— we have served.

The Purple Parrot is the first restaurant I ever opened. I was 26 years old in 1987 and had zero experience in managing a restaurant. I had worked for several years as a server during a very long and storied college career. My mother begged me— crying and pleading— not to open a restaurant. “You will ruin the family name,” she said.

“Mom, the family name isn’t that great to start with,” I replied.

As a neophyte business owner, I was only interested in three things. I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to wear shorts and t-shirts to work every day, and I wanted to open a fine dining restaurant in Hattiesburg, Ms. My goals and long-range plans (to the extent that there were any) didn’t surpass the next week.

My original business partner for the first couple of years was Dean Owens. He and I had worked together as servers while we worked our way through college. We brought in a chef from the Florida Panhandle to handle all of the kitchen duties at our new restaurant. He was a legendary chef. Yet legendary for two reasons: 1.) He was a talented chef, and everyone loved his food. 2.) He was a well-known party animal. He might start drinking in Destin one afternoon and end up in Tampa three days later. We hired him under one condition— that he not drink. Many of you already know the story but we had to fire our chef on opening night. We learned our first business lesson that night— lock the beer cooler.

Actually, firing our chef was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally because it forced me to get back into the kitchen, where I spent the next four years working 90 hours a week teaching myself how to cook in a professional kitchen. The extent of my cooking experience before that time was that I had asked for, and received, an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas as a six-year-old.

In those days there were only a couple of choices when dining out in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. We spent the next few decades being the most popular choice. Populations shifts and changes in dining culture had a little bit to do with this recent decision. But mostly it’s just a gut feeling that this type of dining experience isn’t going to be a workable business model in this market, post-COVID.

I have no bitterness. I have no shame. I have no embarrassment. I have nothing but pride. Over the years our chefs, servers, and managers have overseen a restaurant that has— for over a decade— received a AAA Four-Diamond rating (the only restaurant in Mississippi, not located in a casino, to be recognized as such). Our sommeliers have curated a wine list of over 1,000 labels that has received Wine Spectator’s second-highest honor for most of this century. The Purple Parrot has been voted the best fine dining in the state numerous times, and a few years ago we recognized by AAA as the second-best fine dining restaurant in the South (behind Commander’s Palace in New Orleans). All of the credit for those accomplishments— and more— goes to the thousands of people who have worked at the Parrot over the years. Well done, all.

What I choose to think about today are the more than 10,000 people who have drawn a paycheck, started careers in foodservice, and gone on to culinary school or moved on to work in other restaurants, some have even opened restaurants of their own. It’s a legacy of which I will always be proud. We literally— and I mean literally— helped thousands of kids get through college working for tips and in the kitchen. To hell with the accolades, that might be one of the most important things we accomplished. Period.

I also think about how many couples got engaged in the Purple Parrot dining room. I did the math the other day and my best guesstimate is over 600 couples. I know many of those couples stayed together because so many return to celebrate anniversaries with us. The Parrot has also played Cupid with our staff as hundreds of couples met in our restaurant, married, and moved on. They are located all over the country. I stay in touch with many of them.

We have probably hosted over 5,000 birthdays in the last 32 years. It makes me swell with pride to know that we’ve been a part of such significant days in people’s lives.

We have hosted rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, anniversaries, and retirement parties. The Purple Parrot has been a key gathering place for families in this community for two generations. The first prom couples we served in 1988 are 50-years old today. They’ve literally grown up with us, and alongside us. I am grateful to all of them.

We’ve launched political careers and campaigned for local issues, while always being committed to improving our neighborhood. The sign above our entrance reads “Through these doors all are welcome, all are appreciated, and all are loved.” It’s not just a slogan. We live it. From day one our company’s mission has been to “Support our co-workers. Delight our guests. And serve our community.” I woke up every day for the past 32 years intent on delivering that promise.

The Purple Parrot has been closed since March. But this week we are re-opening for one final week to send this old girl off in style. When we announced that we were doing a farewell tour for five nights to have proper closure for our guests (and for us), the entire dining room— for each night— was booked in just over a day. That, too, means a lot to me.

Our sister restaurants located in the same building the Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar will remain open and are actually expanding. We’re also making room for a new concept in the Parrot space which we will announce in the coming weeks.

The Purple Parrot is part of me. It’s a large part of who I am, and who I’ve been for 32 years. I have a strange sense of accomplishment on one hand and a boatload gratitude on the other. There is no bitterness. No one is to blame here unless it is me and some poor decisions or mistakes I may have made along the way. I certainly made mistakes. It was all learn-as-you-go in the early days, and I probably fought too hard to hang on in the latter days.

But again, what I have are memories. I’m grateful that an independent restaurant was open and served a community for over three decades. The majority of independent restaurants don’t make it past their fifth year. We bested that stat six times over.

In the end, it’s the people. It’s always the people. From the dish stewards to the bartenders and every position in between. It takes a team to pull off something as crazy and hectic as an average restaurant shift. It also takes great management, and if we’ve had nothing else, we’ve had excellent management teams. The textbooks might read, “Location, location, location.” But the true key to success in the restaurant business is management, management, management. I’ve worked alongside the best.

I’m also grateful for the 130 team members who are currently working with me in the restaurant today. We still have one employee— Beverly McCurdy— who has been with us from day one in 1987. Many have been here 15 or 20 years. It’s my goal to keep them busy for the next 15 to 20 years whether it’s in Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, or the new concept I plan to unveil in the coming days.

Let this column not be one of sadness, melancholy, and regret, but one of celebration and gratitude for the fact that we were able to make a small difference in a wonderful community for several generations. It is my hope that the reader’s takeaway is a deep appreciation for everyone who dined with us or worked alongside us through the years.

I am indebted.

Thank you.



Louis LeFleur said...

Saw this announcement, with much less detail, on one of RSJ's FB posts last week and thought that was an odd way to go about it. Never saw it mentioned elsewhere, though I didn't check the Purple Parrot website, until this weekly column came out yesterday. Regardless, done with great class both times as one would expect. I can only wish him the best with the CCG expansion and new venue.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had had a chance to eat at the Purple Parrot before it closed. I love Tabela’s and Ed’s. I hope plans are still on track for Ed’s to come to Jackson. Thank you, Mr St John!

Anonymous said...

The definition of a humble mic drop

Anonymous said...

Loved the Purple Parrot and ate there almost every time my wife and I went to Hattiesburg. It was without a doubt one of the best dining experiences in the entire state. Really sad to see it close, but I will be interested to see what concept Robert has planned for its replacement.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like he will be opening a new restaurant in the space.

I hope they are full steam ahead in Fondren, but it's probably hard to open a bowling alley, bar, restaurant and movie theatre during a pandemic

Anonymous said...

Very nice article.

Rumor around Hattiesburg is that the replacement to the Purple Parrot might be a Mexican restaurant or a steakhouse. Whatever it is, St. John will make it unique.

Over the years, I've eaten at the Purple Parrot, but the food and service seemed to decline over the past couple of years. Some believe that he got too spread out with other ventures, like many restaurant owners do.

Best wishes to Mr. St. John!

Anonymous said...

He has been evolving since the day he opened his first place. He will continue to do well I suspect, at least as well as any restauranteur can do in this new world. I love Tabella and also the new breakfast place called Midtowner.

Anonymous said...

Article in the Clarion Ledger says the new concept has a lot of outdoor seating. Doesn't sound like a steakhouse. Besides, you've got Outback, Longhorn, and Kobe nearby and that's a lot of competition.

I'm thinking higher-end casual dining similar to the Cheesecake Factory.

Anonymous said...

There is a storm chaser video from several years back when the tornado hit Hattiesburg, in which the guys in the car, when driving past all the chain restaurants on 98 west, commented that just about every chain had a location there. That is pretty close to true. Several since then have closed, with vacant buildings sitting on prime 98 west real estate, and who knows how many more may be heading in that direction, thanks largely to the pandemic.

When Robert opened Purple Parrot there were no dining options west of the 98 west/I-59 intersection. The Parrot's location WAS "west Hattiesburg" in the 1980s. The explosion of commercial and residential growth in Lamar County has moved "west Hattiesburg" almost to Bellevue, with restaurant options there that surely pulled business away from the Purple Parrot. (If the City of Hattiesburg gets its way, it eventually will annex all of the 98 west commercial corridor to Bellevue.)

I appreciate and respect Robert's candor about mistakes (I think he made a mistake closing his "589 Family Fish House" that was located in the perfect "fish house" building between Bellevue and Sumrall; my family loved it). We all make mistakes, yet too many fail to take ownership, or try to place the blame on others. I often wondered if the (few) times my dining experience at one of his restaurants missed the mark was due to him being busy with other brand enterprises and not as involved in the restaurant operations.

Robert chased a dream and became very successful, probably beyond his wildest expectations. This pivot is certainly understandable and personally, I hope his plans for that space is a Mexican concept.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful Mississippi success story!

Anonymous said...

farewell my ass. chances are, you have never met him, and his other ventures are doing quite well. you do probably have 3 readers (other than BF which would make 4) that went to usm, so i do get the headline

Anonymous said...

Robert seems like a decent guy who wanted to be successful and was willing to work hard to achieve it. That part isn't all that uncommon. What is uncommon is that he also seems to not only be willing to share his with others who will work for the successes they seek, he seems to really enjoy seeing others achieve the successes for which they are willing to work.

Anonymous said...

I ate at the Purple Parrot and the Crescent City Grill and the Mahogany Bar often. Loved them. I think Mr St. John got to many thinks going on and neglected these restaurants. The quality over the last two years has deteriorated and some of the best things they had were removed from the menu. I hate to see the PP go , but if the quality drops and the prices too high people will find another place.

Anonymous said...

Robert St. John is one of our greatest Mississippi ambassadors !

He is the ultimate example of what's great about our nation.

Many readers probably don't realize Robert had to go into a drug/alcohol rehab center before he became successful. To this day . . . Robert St. John has repeatedly said if any alcoholic or drug addict needs to talk . . . he is there for them 24/7.

He's even has published his personal phone number if any addict needs to talk.

Robert St. John is a credit to his family name.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add, I loved the Purple Parrot.
But I did spend more time in St. John's Mahogany Bar.

Back in the early 90's, I spent two hours drinking beer with a redneck construction worker in the Mahogany Bar.

It wasn't until the USM classes ended, and twenty pretty little "Golden Eagle" Sorority girls came in and started squealing.

Hell . . . at that point I realized I'd been drinking beer with Brett Favre.

Anonymous said...

@12:36 PM - That was just the title chosen by St. John for his article. Goodness! You need to visit the Mahogany Bar and settle down.

Calm Down said...

Sure is dusty in here. Well said.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with Robert. I’ve known him for 50 years. He had plenty of legitimate excuses he could have used for any failure. His dad died when he was a small child. But, his mother was and is great. He had a lot of people that loved him. Robert is the quintessential American success story. I and many others are better people for having him as a friend. Wish we had more like him. Wish I was more like him

Anonymous said...

I would imagine he is slow rolling the plans for Fondern. It's hard to be in the restaurant bid'niss at the present time...

Anonymous said...

Everything I've had that comes from his venues is exceptional. I once ate at a place near Sam's in Meridian during a soccer tournament - there was not much around. The food was so good, I asked to speak to the chef. Turned out, it was RSJ's. It closed down at some point, and the next time I ate in Meridian it was Weidman's which was not a favorite. This time it was off the charts, again, I asked to compliment the chef - turns out when RSJ's place closed down, Weidman's (new owner I think) hired them all - they learned from the best and put it to good use. Still love that Tabella's and CCG are carrying some of his finest, so at least there's that. If you're ever in Hattiesburg you NEED to go to Tabella's for the lemon crepes. Sure hope he can bring some of his creations to Jackson.

Anonymous said...

" Sure hope he can bring some of his creations to Jackson " .

Robert is way too smart to open anything within the Jackson city limits.

However, the Jackson "area" might be a money maker for RSJ.

Fried Parrot Legs and Wings said...

4:47 - Howz that? He's announced in multiple media that he's opening a place in The Fondren. Is that no longer in the city limits of Jackson?

Anonymous said...

RSJ has totally disappointed all the loyal customers who have supported him over the years. We came back after the “Stockyard Steak” fiasco. We tolerated when you ruined the best bar in town with the Branch. We even returned after the recent “Steak and Seafood House” disaster. It was such a wonderful restaurant at times. And yes, what about all those loyal customers who spent thousands of dollars on all those birthdays and other events? Well now you can have some “Tex-Mex” crap. Shame on you RSJ. You should have paid more attention to the wonderful restaurant you had and the people who supported you instead of seeking fake fame in your bogus travel escapes. Hopefully you won’t ruin Tabella. It’s the last semblance of a decent restaurant in Hattiesburg. Hattiesburg has supported you for 30 years with nothing to show for it. Unfortunately, the Crescent City Grill is in the death spiral to mediocrity. Maybe you could take over the Red Lobster as your next restaurant. Why couldn’t you be satisfied having an extremely successful, really good restaurant?

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Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

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There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

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