By Robert St. John
The Meridian Star
I love restaurant people. They are my comrades, and I am proud to be considered among their ranks.
I’ve been working with, and hanging around, restaurant people for 33 years. We are a different breed of human being— slightly off center, squarely off base, and gluttons for punishment.
It takes a special person to work the long, stress-filled hours the independent restaurant industry demands. Not everyone can do it, especially the “service” aspect. Some people aren’t cut out to “serve” others. Then there are others who feel they are above it.
The independent restaurant/bar industry is unlike any other business. The hours are long, the shifts are hard, and the challenges change by the minute.
Millions of people have entered the independent restaurant business cold— without having worked in it, with dreams of opening their own place— and were hit squarely in the face with the realization that real restaurant life isn’t like movies or television.
Everyone knows a Joe who quit his career and hoped to open a place where he could entertain his friends at his private table in the corner. Yet on the first weekend, the dishwasher didn’t show up, the plumbing lines were clogged, and his convection oven quit working in the middle of a busy Friday night. Joe didn’t spend much time at his private table. He was washing dishes, trying to find an after-hours plumber, and wondering how he was going to serve a dining room full of angry guests who could care less that his convection oven is on the fritz. At 1:30 a.m., while washing greasy mats on the back dock, he dreamed of his former career, the much easier, and less stress-filled profession— explosive ordinance disposal.
The life of an independent restaurateur is not for the faint of heart. It is not for the risk averse. Truly, it is not for sane people. This little slice of career real estate is reserved for an exclusive club: Restaurant people— those who have a passion for serving food and exercising hospitality.
My 11-year old son and I have conversations about his future all of the time. The other day he asked me, “Dad, what do you think I ought to do when I grow up?”
“I don’t know, son. You’ve got a long time to think about that and you will probably change your mind half a dozen times between now and your freshman year of college.” I said. “Although, whatever it is, don’t follow the money. That can’t be the deciding factor. Follow your passion, because success follows passion.”
“But I need to work to make money,” he said.
“Son, here’s a secret— if you love what you do for a living, it’s not work, you’re just doing your hobby and getting paid for it.”
Then I said something that I hadn’t even thought of before. The reality of the statement had never entered my mind and I realized it as the words were coming out of my mouth. “Over the last 25 years,” I said, “I have never once— seriously, not once— gotten out of bed and dreaded going in to work. I have never even had a fleeting thought about not wanting to go to the office.”
It’s not that every work shift over the past 25 years has been a cakewalk, just the opposite. It is hard. The restaurant business is the only industry I know where there are more ways to lose money than there are ways to make money. It’s brutal. We have serious challenges we face every day. I have closed several restaurants over the past 25 years. Hell, I almost had to claim bankruptcy twice. It’s a hard way to live. But if it’s in your genes, and it’s where your passion lies, it’s the only way to live.
“So, son, what I wish for you, is not an easy path to success, but an opportunity where you have the distinct honor of getting to follow your passion, and the hope that you get to work alongside devoted people.”
The key to success in the restaurant business is surrounding oneself with enthusiastic restaurant people who are branded with the hospitality gene. Not everyone has it, but those who do, wouldn’t do anything else.
Gone are the days of 90-hour workweeks that I endured during the first years of my career. However, nothing is guaranteed. The irony of the restaurant business is that those 90-hour weeks might be lurking just around the corner, one never knows. That’s all right, too. One does what one has to do. In the meantime, I will surround myself with dedicated restaurant people and we will all continue to follow our passion.