Meridian Star

October 17, 2013

Milestones

By Robert St. John
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — Someone once told me, “You have to be a masochist to be in the restaurant business.”

    The guy who said it owned a small cafe for a brief stint and was holding a fire sale of his furniture, fixtures, and equipment before heading into his next, more stable, career— logging in the Great Northwest or crabbing in the Bearing Sea or something far less dangerous, and more profitable, than owning a restaurant.

    People hop in and out of this business all of the time. They dive in with dreams, ideas and a pocketful of plans and usually limp out bruised and battered with empty pockets. That is why we get such a bad rap. But to those of us who live it everyday and love it, even in our sleep— that is if we are getting any sleep— we wouldn’t do anything else.

    It really hit home when we were cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of our new concept, Branch, and the re-opening of the Purple Parrot Café after a yearlong remodel/construction project. It was truly a grand affair with the governor, speaker of the house, local dignitaries and leaders, and the requisite giant pair of ribbon-cutting scissors.

    The first to the podium was the new president of the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Rodney Bennett. In his brief remarks he noted, “The Purple Parrot Café was the first meal I ate in Hattiesburg the first day I came to town.”

    I started thinking about that statement and my mind began to drift during the ceremony. Something about the remark struck a chord and I began to think about the 25 years we have been open, and to all of the memories that have been created in that small dining room on Hardy Street. It’s the same for many other independent restaurants throughout the country— we continue to be a major part of people’s lives.

    These days restaurants have a more involved role in everyday life, much more so than when I was a kid. It only makes sense as the general public eats out more often than it did a few decades ago. Naturally people are going to celebrate life’s milestones over a meal. It’s what we do.

    Whenever I grow frustrated with a certain aspect of this business, all I have to do is think back to what we have accomplished since 1987— not awards, recognition and sales records, but milestones in our co-worker’s lives and in our customer’s lives.

    In 25 years I would guess that hundreds of people have gotten engaged in our restaurants. There aren’t many careers or professions that can make that claim. No one proposes to his or her future spouse in the lobby of an accountant’s office. No sane person brings their girlfriend to an annual doctor’s appointment and asks the nurse to hide an engagement ring in the specimen cup. We place engagement rings in glasses of champagne all of the time. We get to be present when people make some of the most important decisions of their life.

    I wish I had kept a log of all of the creative ways nervous young men have presented rings to potential brides-to-be in our restaurants. We’ve inserted them into desserts and had them delivered by Elvis impersonators.

    One of the greatest joys of this business is not only being there when the proposal is made, but to also be present every year when the anniversary comes around. Many want the same table and want to order the same meal.

    That is near the top of the long list of reasons why I love the restaurant business.

    We have hosted rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions. We have been the place where thousands have had their first date and that is truly an honor.

    In addition to playing a roll in bringing our customers together, this business has also played a matchmaking role with our staff. Over the two and a half decades we have been in business, hundreds have met and began dating on our staff and dozens have married. My business partners in the Italian restaurant Tabella, Stacey and Steve Andrews, met 23 years ago while they were servers in Crescent City Grill. Current Mahogany Bar manager, Daryl Bosarge, met his wife when they both worked on staff. Both couples have beautiful healthy children. It’s nice to know that we had a small part in bringing those families together.

    My dictionary defines masochism as, “The enjoyment of what appears to be painful or tiresome.” The restaurant business is certainly tiresome. But to the extent that it is “painful,” all of those problems are washed away with the next wedding anniversary or a great-grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration at table five in the corner of that small dining room on Hardy Street.

    I love this business.