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Dean Owens, left, and Robert St. John at the opening of the Purple Parrot restaurant in Hattiesburg on Dec. 27, 1987.

Just a little over 32 years ago, I was a few weeks into the honeymoon phase of my first restaurant opening. There have been 17 other openings since then. They have all been stressful and hectic, but there is something about the first one that holds such a special place in my heart.

Yesterday, I had breakfast with Dean Owens, my original business partner from that first restaurant, the Purple Parrot. I purchased his stock a couple of years after we opened, and he lives on the West Coast now. We rarely see each other, so it was good to catch up and talk about those early days.

Owens and I met through a mutual friend and were both servers in the same restaurant while putting ourselves through college in the mid-1980s. I don’t remember who was the first to bring up that we should open a restaurant together, I just know we both wanted to open a restaurant, and eventually – over the course of several months – we began talking about joining forces to open a fine-dining restaurant in my hometown of Hattiesburg.

He graduated before I did, moved to Atlanta, and started working as a manager for an independent restaurant group. I still had two semesters of school left to finish, but we stayed in contact via long-distance telephone calls, and the occasional visit, and we still talked about opening a restaurant together.

In the spring of 1987, I finished my internship and moved to the Florida Panhandle. He quit his restaurant management job in Atlanta and moved down to the Panhandle with his girlfriend. The plan was to wait tables and develop the opening plans of our future Hattiesburg restaurant, soon to be named.

In actuality, we mostly just waited tables, hung out on the beach, and dined out almost every night. Even though we made no progress on developing a business plan to open a restaurant, the experience proved to be invaluable as we made lifelong friends down there, he was able to hire the chef away from where he was working, and all of the dining out gave us plenty of inspiration and motivation for our upcoming endeavor.

Those months living on the beach were some of the least stressful days I have ever spent. I would wake up late in the morning, walk out to the beach and eat breakfast at a place called June’s Dunes, lie in the sun all afternoon, go to work waiting tables at a restaurant called Harbor Docks that evening, and then hit the clubs until the wee hours of the morning until I woke up late the next morning, went to the beach for breakfast, laid out in the sun – rinse, wash, repeat.

Eventually summer came to a close, the tourists went home, and the snowbirds who leased us the condo moved back to the beach for the winter. It was time for us to ditch the sand and stress-free existence and move back to Hattiesburg to open our restaurant.

We had our eye on a property that had been a former 24-hour breakfast concept near the university. The small amount of restaurant planning we had done in Florida was with that building in mind. We had never even set foot in the closed property until we quit our Florida jobs and moved back to town. A real estate agent finally walked us through the restaurant, and it was a complete wreck. There was no way, with the limited funds we had, we were going to open a restaurant in that location. Dejected, Owens and I went to lunch at the restaurant where we both waited tables in college to talk about our dilemma. It was there that we talked about a building – a former dress shop – that had just come up for lease at 3810 Hardy Street, the location where the Purple Parrot still stands today.

Looking back, it’s scary what we didn’t know. Neither one of us had any experience opening a restaurant, and we had even less money. We each kicked in $25,000 as our stake in opening the restaurant. I’m not sure where he got his initial outlay. For my $25,000 stake, I sold the only thing I owned that had any monetary value, a small 40-acre plot of land-locked cutover in Perry County that my grandfather had willed to me when he passed away.

We didn’t have a name for the restaurant. During the planning stages we just called it “the restaurant.” Owens remembers this story differently. As I remember it, he and I went to a Jimmy Buffett concert in Biloxi during the pre-opening days of the restaurant. On the way home that night the conversation turned to what we were going to call the restaurant we were opening in the coming weeks. To my memory, we were throwing all sorts of names out there and I made a joke and said, “What if we call it the Purple Parrot?” We laughed and agreed that it would be the temporary name until we came up with something better. We got so busy opening the restaurant that we never took the time to come up with anything better.

In those days, there were only a couple of full-service restaurants in Hattiesburg, and we were packed from day one. We are blessed to still be busy today. I look back on those early days with a specific reverence. They were hard. They were stressful, and they were fun. We paid ourselves $12,000 a year for the first two years. It was a 50 percent pay cut from what I had been making as a waiter. We made it because, in many ways, we didn’t know exactly what we didn’t know.

I’ve been spending the last day remembering back to those early years and feeling grateful to all the people who helped us get this thing off of the ground, and grateful to Owens, too. I owe so many people so much. There are more than 300 people who work for the New South Restaurant Group today. Each and every one of them has played a key role in making my restaurant dreams come true. For that I will be forever grateful.

Onward.

ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Purple Parrot Corn and Crab Bisque at robertstjohn.com.

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