djr-2020-08-02-liv-column-rsjp1

The Purple Parrot Cafe, Robert St. John's first restaurant, is set to close after 32 years in Hattiesburg.

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.

My original business partner 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. We had to fire our chef on opening night and learned our first business lesson – 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.

In those days there were only a couple of choices when dining out in my hometown. 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 were 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. The Parrot has also played Cupid with our staff as hundreds of couples met in our restaurant, married and moved on. 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.

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.

I'm 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.

Onward.

ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find him at robertstjohn.com.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus