Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Robert St. John: Bowling, Movies, and the Restaurant Biz

 “What's it like owning a bowling alley?” That's a question I am asked a lot these days. To be honest, it's a question I never thought I would be asked. When I got into the restaurant business over 40 years ago, all I wanted was to open one restaurant. That's it. Just one. I wanted to be an independent restaurant owner so I could wear shorts and t-shirts to work every day. Seriously, that was my goal. It wasn’t about money, or accumulating wealth, or anything other than I love restaurants, and didn’t want to have to wear a suit and tie to work every day. That part has come true, but the one restaurant thing has grown legs.


The other day, a friend asked, “When will you stop? How many is too many restaurants?” I had to stop and think for a second. The growth in our company, especially the recent growth, doesn't come from some ego source inside me. Not at all. We currently have 400 people employed in our company. We are creating opportunity and growth. The decisions I make, daily, affect those 400 people and their families. The beautiful thing about the restaurant business is that it creates an opportunity to for some to realize and live the American dream.


I am certainly a beneficiary of that principle. I grew up with a single mom who raised my brother and me up on a public-school art teacher’s salary. I paid myself $250.00 per week for the first two years I was in business (which was a 50% pay cut from what I was earning waiting tables). The money didn’t matter. It still doesn’t. I lived in a one-room garage apartment until I was 30-years old. I never considered myself as someone who was living the American dream, but now, in retrospect, I guess I was (and in shorts and t-shirts)


Stacey and Steve Andrews, my business partners at our Italian concept Tabella, are the perfect example of how the restaurant business can deliver the American dream. Steve started with me as a prep cook in 1987. Stacy joined the first restaurant several months later as a hostess. They both worked their way up the restaurant hierarchy, fell in love, got married, and then both moved into management. When I was ready to open the Italian restaurant, I knew exactly who to partner with— Steve and Stacey. They had earned the opportunity. Since then, they have more than earned the opportunity. They own 1/3 of the business and run a very tight ship


That’s the way it works in our company. We hired four managers, 37 years ago when we opened the first restaurant, and— until this year— haven’t hired a manager since. We just promote from within. People move their way up based on their performance and committment. Men and women who started as line cooks or dishwashers become kitchen managers. Busboys and hostesses become servers or bartenders and then move into management. Sometimes they get ownership. It's the true American dream.


Back to the bowling alley. That is truly one thing I never thought I would do. But I'm so glad I did. I love the bowling concept so much I'd like to do others in the future. It's fun, people have a blast doing it, and it's a community activity in which they can drink and eat and compete in a sport.


But the dirty little secret is that it’s not a bowling alley with a restaurant attached. It’s a restaurant that happens to have a bowling alley. So, when I look at it closely, it’s just doing what I know— owning and operating a restaurant. 


Another question I get these days is, “What's it like owning a movie theater?” The people that know me well don’t have to ask that question. They know the answer. They know that I love movies and that I must love owning a movie theater. It's true. I do. 


The Capri Theater was built in 1939 on North State Street in Jackson MS at a time where almost all the movie theaters were located in downtown Jackson around Capitol Street. The Capri closed in the mid 1980s and by the turn of the 21st Century all movie theaters had closed in Jackson. There wasn't one movie theater in the city limits. When I became a part of this recent Fondren project, the space where the theatre is located was being considered for a live music venue. That was something I wasn't interested in. I knew that the state capital of Mississippi needed the movie theater, and the Capri needed to be reopened. When I brought that up to David and Jason, the two developing partners, they were relieved because that had been their wish all along.


But the theater is a restaurant as well. Sure, there are new business practices we had to learn, such as dealing with major movie studios. But when you boil it down to its core— like the bowling alley next door— it’s a restaurant. Really more like a bar and restaurant. But instead of servers delivering food and cocktails to a table in a dining room, we deliver food and drinks directly to your reclining seat while a movie is playing. A perfect world in my view.


So, I guess when one looks at it from a 10,000-foot view, I haven't strayed too far from the restaurant business. Highball lanes is not really a bowling alley. It's a restaurant with a bowling alley inside serving the greatest hits from three of our restaurants in Hattiesburg. I believe it's the best food you're ever going to eat in a bowling alley. It's the same with the movie theater the seats are comfortable, they recline, and have a table attached, there's Dolby 7.1 sound, and a digital laser projector to provide entertainment. But there’s a full menu that we deliver to your seat. It's a restaurant that shows movies.


In the end, I am endlessly blessed to be at a point in my life where I get to do what I love to do— my hobby, actually— every day and get paid for it. Also, I get to do it while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. For over three decades I have lived by the tenet that you have to be wed or dead before I put on a necktie. I hope to keep it that way.




The Late-Great Louis Norman’s Garlicky-Sweet Dill Pickles


Start with one-gallon of the cheapest dill pickles you can find (Do not use kosher dills). Drain and discard all of the juice and cut pickles into one-inch segments. Next, layer approximately 2 inches of pickle segments back into the bottom of the empty one-gallon pickle jar. Top pickles with approximately two teaspoons of minced garlic and pour enough granulated sugar over the top of the pickles to cover (approximately 1 - 1 1 /2 cups). Repeat procedure until you have filled the pickle jar. Close lid tightly and let sit. Within six hours the sugar will dissolve and make a new, sweeter, pickle liquid. Add an additional cup (or two) of sugar making sure that the pickles are always covered by sugar or liquid. 


Store pickles in the refrigerator for three days. Rotate the jar twice a day to thoroughly mix ingredients.


This is not a pickling recipe. True canners will scoff at this procedure since raw cucumbers aren’t being used. But who cares what they think. The end result is worth the loss of authenticity. The hardest part of the recipe is finding plain-old dill pickles. Kosher dills won’t work (they shrivel up). Louis sliced his garlic into small shaved chips (about two heads per gallon of pickles). I use minced garlic.


Anonymous said...

The Capri was declared historic 15 years ago. This for context on the old NGA comment made by a certain Fondy.

Anonymous said...

Nice improvement to Jackson/Fondren. Thanks for investing in our city!

Anonymous said...

I hope these undertakings have staying power.

Anonymous said...

20 years ago

Anonymous said...

What’s it like investing money, time, and sweat equity in a town with a mayor that doesn’t support business, doesn’t support law enforcement, and won’t keep the infrastructure up so your properties can have water?

Anonymous said...

DP and JS are great partners for this venture.
Hope you have great success with this one.

Anonymous said...

@11:33 based on the foot traffic I'd say pretty good

Anonymous said...

I don't visit Jackson often, but I wish them success.

Anonymous said...

I like Robert and his restaurants, but does anyone else notice that every article he writes is about him, him, and him ? I have this many restaurants, I have this restaurant, I have that restaurant, I have a bowling alley, I have a movie theater, I have a villa in Italy, I travel 3 months a year to Italy, I have friends here, I have friends there, I, I, I, I and I. Can he maybe try writing in third person about someone other than himself every now and then ? Again, I like Robert, but his articles are starting to come across as self-absorbed.(Yes, I know I can stop reading them and probably will if they're only going to be about himself all the time.)

Anonymous said...

World-class bloviator. After one experience in the bowling alley diner, I'll take Walker's or Krystal over that experience.

Anonymous said...

9:20 : Yep, we stepped in the door and knew right away the experience would be ruined. Ended up back at home eating pot pie.

Tuscany or Tuscaloosa said...

Gosh 3:08, you're just now realizing this? I think most of us skip straight to the recipe at the end of his articles.

That being said, RSJ should really change his writing style. I'm thinking it should read like a Rod Serling intro of a Twilight Zone episode. And don't end the article with a recipe, put the ingredients and instructions randomly into the article. To wit:

"I was sitting there in an outdoor diner in Palermo, accompanied by 2 sticks of butter. Wasn't long before these 6 egg heads walked up. I told them to beat it. The ghost of Kirk Fordice appeared and said he'd whip their ass...."

Now you gotta take the clues and ingredients from reading his article and whether you wind up with a pan of brownies or Bananas Foster is up to your reading skills and comprehension.

Anonymous said...

So Kevin Blackwell's truck was stolen in roughly fifteen seconds while parked at Walker's - very close by. Does RSJ and crew have good security at the bowling alley?

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Trollfest '09

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.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

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!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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