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.
As a neophyte business owner, I was only interested in three things. I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to wear shorts and t-shirts to work every day, and I wanted to open a fine dining restaurant in Hattiesburg. My goals and long-range plans (to the extent that there were any) didn't surpass the next week.
My original business partner for 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. He was a legendary chef. Yet legendary for two reasons: 1.) He was a talented chef, and everyone loved his food. 2.) He was a well-known party animal. He might start drinking in Destin one afternoon and end up in Tampa three days later. We hired him under one condition: that he not drink. Many of you already know the story but we had to fire our chef on opening night. We learned our first business lesson that night: 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. The extent of my cooking experience before that time was that I had asked for, and received, an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas as a 6-year-old.
In those days there were only a couple of choices when dining out in my hometown of Hattiesburg. We spent the next few decades being the most popular choice. Population 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 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 food service, 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. I know many of those couples stayed together because so many return to celebrate anniversaries with us. The Parrot has also played Cupid with our staff as hundreds of couples met in our restaurant, married, and moved on. They are located all over the country. I stay in touch with many of them.
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.
We've launched political careers and campaigned for local issues, while always being committed to improving our neighborhood. The sign above our entrance reads “Through these doors all are welcome, all are appreciated, and all are loved.” It’s not just a slogan. We live it. From day one our company’s mission has been to “Support our co-workers. Delight our guests. And serve our community.” I woke up every day for the past 32 years intent on delivering that promise.
The Purple Parrot has been closed since March. But this week we are reopening 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.
Our sister restaurants located in the same building the Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar will remain open and are actually expanding. We're also making room for a new concept in the Parrot space which we will announce in the coming weeks.
The Purple Parrot is part of me. It's a large part of who I am, and who I've been for 32 years. I have a strange sense of accomplishment on one hand and a boatload gratitude on the other. There is no bitterness. No one is to blame here, unless it is me and some poor decisions or mistakes I may have made along the way. I certainly made mistakes. It was all learn-as-you-go in the early days, and I probably fought too hard to hang on in the latter days.
But again, what I have are memories. I'm grateful that an independent restaurant was open and served a community for over three decades. The majority of independent restaurants don't make it past their fifth year. We bested that stat six times over.
In the end, it’s the people. It's always the people. From the dish stewards to the bartenders and every position in between. It takes a team to pull off something as crazy and hectic as an average restaurant shift. It also takes great management, and if we’ve had nothing else, we’ve had excellent management teams. The textbooks might read, “Location, location, location.” But the true key to success in the restaurant business is management, management, management. I’ve worked alongside the best.
I'm also 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.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef, columnist and author, who has written a weekly syndicated newspaper column for more than 20 years.