By Marilyn Tinnin
Robert St. John
He Loves Well
For a little boy who likely suffered from ADHD before there was such an acknowledged malady, Robert St. John has not done too badly. The Hattiesburg native, nationally acclaimed restaurateur, chef, food/humor columnist, author, tour guide and passionate family man claims to have “fallen backward” into almost every success on his lengthy resume. A conversation with this modest, gregarious and down-to-earth guy will keep you laughing at his hilarious but true stories. But when he starts to talk about his wife, Jill (yes—no joke—her name is Jill St. John) and his daughter, Holleman and his son, Harrison, he apologizes when the tears well up. This is a big-hearted man who knows how to love well.
He considers fatherhood his crowning achievement as well as his most critical assignment. Robert’s dad died of a brain tumor when he was only four, and he admits that missing such a key relationship in his life profoundly shaped the value he places on the privilege of being a father. He has not taken one second for granted.
His mom, Dinny, was 34 years old when she found herself widowed and bearing sole responsibility for the support of two little boys, Robert and his older brother, Drew. She went back to college to get her teaching degree, taught art for fifty years at Hattiesburg Public Schools, Presbyterian Christian School, William Carey University, and USM, retiring a few years ago at the tender age of 81. She never remarried but poured her energies into her two sons and countless students she inspired along the way.
There was never a lot of money in the St. John household, but there was a lot of love and an intentional education in the appreciation for art and the finer elements of culture. A set of encyclopedias his mother bought while he was still small opened the door for a young and curious Robert to a world of exotic places and experiences beyond the city limits of Hattiesburg! He dreamed of traveling to all of them one day.
Creativity was his strong suit from the start although he did not have a lot of opportunities to use it in the structured school environment where the three R’s—Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic—reigned supreme. However, while he was still a high school student he wrangled a job as a disc jockey at the local radio station making much-needed spending cash while he cultivated his natural gift of gab. High school was not that difficult. He worked 40 hours a week at the radio station and was able to do a halfway decent job at schoolwork, too.
When he headed off to Mississippi State University as a freshman, it made perfect sense to major in Communications. Who knows? If he had applied himself he might have been the next Walter Cronkite or at the very least a male version of Oprah. He is a social animal for sure, and it was his very forte as a social animal that brought his college career at Mississippi State to an end after two years. As he once said in an interview, “Mississippi State let me know they no longer needed my services.”
He returned to Hattiesburg embarrassed at his failure and knowing that his sweet mother was not going to support him even if she had had the means, which she didn’t. Employment was his sole option. Although he says he came home with his “tail tucked between my legs,” in retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to him.
The Light Bulb Moment
Robert got a seemingly random (although God does not do random) job working for two ladies who owned a delicatessen. They were middle-aged entrepreneurs and didn’t know any better than to hire a college flunkout as their manager. He managed the deli by day and waited tables somewhere else at night, so he definitely had an up close 24/7 bird’s eye view of the restaurant business. It required energy, an intense work ethic, people skills, and creativity. Within two weeks he knew this was his thing—his calling! He wanted to own his own restaurant, and soon.
He enrolled in the University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) Hotel, Tourism, and Restaurant Management program beginning again at 20 as a virtual freshman. He was now a man on a mission—his professors at Mississippi State would not have believed the work ethic of their former student. Robert was working 40 hours a week, taking 18 to 21 hours a semester, and was serious about school for the first time ever.
He was living rent-free in a garage apartment behind his grandmother’s house during that time. His grandmother was “one of the greatest influences in my life,” shared Robert. She was a Southern lady to the core and also a woman of great faith. Robert thought so highly of her that his only daughter and first child, Holleman, is named for her.
He completed his degree at USM, found a building, sold a small plot of land his grandfather had left him, and staked his entire $25,000 net worth on his first venture, “The Purple Parrot.” The year was 1987 and a bank loan allowed him to purchase the equipment needed.
This foray into the restaurant business preceded his culinary training. Up until this point he had waited tables, become a connoisseur of good food, and learned just enough business acumen to think he could run a successful eatery. His investment may have been judged by some to be minimal, but for the 26-year-old, it was everything.
He hired a renowned chef from Destin who was known for outstanding original cuisine. The only potential problem was that he had an equal reputation for some extreme partying. Robert sold him on the idea of a fine dining, white tablecloth restaurant in Hattiesburg where there was almost no competition at the time. The eccentric chef would have an opportunity to prepare his exclusive secret recipes, but Robert absolutely laid down the law that there would be no drinking alcohol on the job. There was just too much at stake to risk a mess up in the kitchen.
“So, he developed the recipes, and I hired my buddies to work the front of the house,” Robert explains. “We went for a soft opening, no advertising, but on opening night people didn’t just drift in. They poured in, and we were packed.” It should have been a cause for great celebration and thanksgiving, and it was except that the celebrity chef from the Panhandle kind of “melted” according to Robert. He got into the walk-in cooler and consumed a case of beer.
Robert had no choice but to fire the chef that very evening. He also had no choice on night number two except to get in the kitchen himself. One of his stories he loves to tell is that prior to that baptism by fire his only cooking experience had been that he asked for and received an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas when he was six years old. How hard could it be to go from baking with a 100-watt light bulb to successfully operating state-of-the-art commercial kitchen equipment? No more difficult than going from piloting a Big Wheel to a 747. Right?
And so began another chapter in the life of the guy whose overarching theme is how God has almost always taken the worst thing and turned it into the best thing. It’s probably another blessing that Robert St. John’s energy quotient is as legendary as he is because he was working about 90 hours a week to keep his dream alive.
“At the time, we were closed on Sundays and so my girlfriend who later became my wife and I would drive to New Orleans every week and eat all around. Although I had eaten in New Orleans my entire life, I was now doing it with different eyes. I would come back to Hattiesburg and try to recreate the recipes that I had eaten. Eventually, my recipes sort of pushed the departed Destin guy’s off the menu.”
As Robert’s skill in the kitchen continued to blossom, so did his understanding of branding, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He opened other eating establishments, each with a unique personality and theme and all in close proximity to each other right there on Hardy Street in Hattiesburg. (See New South Restaurant Group or NSRG.com).
The Family Man
All through his childhood, Robert greatly missed his dad who died so prematurely. His mother and his grandparents provided a stable and loving family environment for Robert and his brother Drew, but Robert never remembers a time when he didn’t look forward to being the dad he did not have.
Anyone who has ever read one of Robert’s weekly columns in The Clarion-Ledger has caught a glimpse of his enjoyment of family. There are regular mentions of their shared adventures.
Parenthood is one of the few significant experiences in Robert’s life that was plotted and planned and mapped in great detail. He and Jill dated for five years before they married in 1993, but they intentionally waited four more years to start their family.
“I was 36 when Holleman was born, but that was all in God’s plan,” he says. “It happened just exactly how it was supposed to happen. I had friends in the restaurant business, who were working those kinds of crazy hours, and they woke up one day and their kids had gone to college. They missed so much of their lives.”
When Jill was pregnant that first time, she and Robert were both unusually conscious of the number of friends and strangers who would stop them at a party, at church, or in the restaurant and say, “It goes by so fast.”
Robert says, “We heard that so much that one day I remember sitting on the side of our bed and saying to Jill, ‘I don’t want to be 55 or 60 years old and ask where that time went?” He made the decision that he would stop working nights. “I just was not going to miss my kids growing up.” That is a vow he has kept.
Jill and Robert still eat lunch together almost every day, and when the kids were in elementary school, Robert says, “We would also bust them out at least once a week to have lunch with us, too.” Although Holleman is off at Mississippi State now, Harrison is still in the nest, a tenth grader at Presbyterian Christian. He and his dad have a special father and son tradition of breakfast together several times a week.
It is no surprise that food has always been a major part of the St. John family’s bonding rituals.
Travel has been another. “I had a plan before my kids were born to take a month each summer and go to a different European country—just the four of us. For the previous eleven months, we would learn everything we could about that country.” He had great ambition to discuss it over dinner each night while each family member had input planning the cities they would visit, the sights they would see.
Although the plan didn’t evolve exactly that way, it has been pretty close. When Holleman was about ten years old, Robert had a sudden thought that she was very close to the age when children start to prefer spending time with friends to spending time with family. He absolutely was not ready—he was still enjoying the company of both his children more than anything. It was past time to see some of those exotic spots he had read about years and years earlier in those encyclopedias in his mother’s bookcase.
He began to spend about two hours every night planning their first trip. It took two years budgeting and prioritizing for it, reading up on different European countries, and becoming a self-taught tour guide for the trip of a lifetime. True to his nature, Robert was not going to take an anemic approach to this.
In 2011, the four St. Johns boarded a plane for Sweden, bought a Volvo when they arrived and embarked on a six-month, 17-country, 72-city adventure on two continents. Jill bought into the idea even though part of the bargain required her to take on the role of homeschooling mom. She laughs that she blames herself to this day for Holleman’s weakness in Algebra and admits she will forever be in awe of moms who successfully homeschool for years on end.
During the last few weeks of the trip, best friend and artist Wyatt Waters joined them in Italy exploring from the tip of Sicily to the Alps. Wyatt painted; Robert ate, and the result was An Italian Palate.
Robert describes that time as “the best thing I have ever done in my life.” The already close family became closer, and the memories they made are worth more than gold. Robert, half joking but dead serious, too, says, “You know, I’ve told them not to expect a pile of money when I’m gone. I’ve said, ‘You’re welcome to spend your inheritance with us as we travel and spend time together.” From his perspective their together moments have proved to be the best classroom for lessons about life, faith, and what matters most. You could say that he has not wasted a minute of his season as “Dad.”
Jill St. John took a minute to answer the question, “What do you most respect about your husband?” She wanted to say “Everything,” but I pressed her! She described his limitless energy, his larger-than-life personality that never meets a stranger, his generosity, but finally settled on his integrity. “He will just always strive to do the right thing in every situation.”
The family faith has deep roots, too. Robert is a third generation member of the Main Street United Methodist Church. Like his parents and his grandparents before him, he and Jill took their wedding vows before the same altar.
Extra Table Puts Feet to his Faith
Robert did not start his business with a written mission statement in 1987, but he did intend to plug into the community from the very beginning. He wanted to be a positive force and a generous one. He wasn’t focused on any one area, but when somebody called with a need, he tried to help in any way he could.
In 2009, he got a call from the Edward Street Fellowship Center in town. It is a mission pantry that at the time fed about 800 families a month. Their cupboard was almost bare, and they were not going to be able to supply their clients anything within a few short days. Robert called his Sysco sales representatives, placed an order and had them deliver the items straight to the food pantry the next day.
However, he couldn’t let go of the thought that there could be that many families in his city who depended so heavily on a food pantry. If the need was so dire at Edwards Street, how many similar entities around the state often found themselves in dire straits?
He had just never given much credence to that new term “food insecurity” in the good ole USA. He might have heard the term in passing and thought, “No way.” Between all the government assistance programs and the non-profit ministries that serve the poor, he found it hard to believe the statistics he began to uncover.
Robert decided to take a personal tour across the state to explore the matter. He was appalled to discover the face of hunger in Mississippi. He saw single working moms holding down two jobs trying to feed children. Yes, there were school breakfasts and school lunches, but a good number of those receiving them did not have anything at all to eat between lunch one day and breakfast the next.
He saw senior citizens trying to decide whether to buy their medicines or their groceries. For all the possible fraud that may exist in government programs, Robert discovered there were far more honest poor people who were in some kind of gut-wrenching predicament. He found that fact to be unacceptable, and he had an epiphany much like the one he had when he discovered the restaurant business. “As cheesy as it might sound, I knew this was something else I was just put here to do. It was as though all the things I had learned in the restaurant business, all the contacts I had made—everything that had happened before was to prepare me to do something about this problem.” It was a God-thing, and he recognized it as such.
There was a second reality. Although the hunger was real, so was the widely publicized factoid that Mississippi ranked number one in obesity. It did not take Robert long to reconcile the two opposing realities. A food pantry or soup kitchen that existed through donations had to purchase the cheapest foods they could stock in the quantities they needed or they had to accept the food that came from food drives when people simply discarded items from their shelves. Most of these fell into the category of high-fat and highly processed. The second reality was that many counties across the state do not have even one true grocery store; transportation options are limited or nil for those in serious poverty. For those people, snack food and sugary drinks from nearby convenience stores make up their daily food choices.
Extra Table, a 501(c)(3), was Robert’s answer. He found willing partners in Sysco and together they were able to get a few small grants. Robert set up a non-profit in a corner of his restaurant group’s front office. They got their charter in 2012, and although the agency has expanded its reach to supply soup kitchens and food pantries from the Gulf Coast to the northern counties in Mississippi, it is still run by two full-time employees out of a corner of the New South Restaurant Group’s front office.
Like Robert St. John, Extra Table operates with as little red tape as possible. It remains true to its two original principles: 1) The food must be healthy; 2) When someone donates dollars, 100% of that donation goes to purchase food. Extra Table began in 2012 shipping healthy food to agencies by the pound. Five years later, it ships healthy food by the ton.
For all the fame and accolades that have come his way, Robert St. John does not appear to be overly impressed with his self. The glowing reviews about his coffee table/cookbook projects he and Wyatt Waters have done together come from across the country. Time magazine, National Public Radio, The Food Channel, and Bon Appetit have all weighed in on Robert St. John. He is described in terms like “the nationally known restaurateur,” “the syndicated food/humor columnist,” “one who has amassed a loyal and fanatical readership,” and more. I personally like the description of “a true original” because he is that in spades.
I can’t help thinking of the concept of abundant life. In the passage in John 10:10, I am pretty sure Jesus didn’t mean that an abundant life had to do with our material possessions but I am just as sure we discover a particular sense of God’s abundance when we are blessed to discover our passion and our calling—and it’s likely to involve giving, sharing, or doing for others. At the end of the day, perhaps that is what constitutes abundant life in the here and now. I think Robert St John would agree. He has certainly been a good steward of the gifts God has given to him.
As he put it in a recent weekly column, “I have been the beneficiary of several lifetimes worth of help, luck and God’s grace.” Agreed.