“What’s it like owning a bowling alley?” That’s a question I am asked a lot these days. To be honest, it’s a question I never thought I would be asked. When I got into the restaurant business over 40 years ago, all I wanted was to open one restaurant. That’s it. just one. I wanted to be an independent restaurant owner so I could wear shorts and t-shirts to work every day. Seriously, that was my goal. It wasn’t about money, or accumulating wealth, or anything other than I love restaurants, and didn’t want to have to wear a suit and tie to work every day. That part has come true, but the one restaurant thing has grown legs.
The other day, a friend asked, “When will you stop? How many is too many restaurants?” I had to stop and think for a second. The growth in our company, especially the recent growth, doesn’t come from some ego source inside me. Not at all. We currently have 400 people employed in our company. We are creating opportunity and growth. The decisions I make, daily, affect those 400 people and their families. The beautiful thing about the restaurant business is that it creates an opportunity for some to realize and live the American dream.
I am certainly a beneficiary of that principle. I grew up with a single mom who raised my brother and me up on a public-school art teacher’s salary. I paid myself $250 per week for the first two years I was in business (which was a 50% pay cut from what I was earning waiting tables). The money didn’t matter. It still doesn’t. I lived in a one-room garage apartment until I was 30 years old. I never considered myself as someone who was living the American dream, but now, in retrospect, I guess I was (and in shorts and t-shirts).
Stacey and Steve Andrews, my business partners at our Italian concepttabella, are the perfect example of how the restaurant business can deliver the American dream. Steve started with me as a prep cook in 1987. Stacy joined the first restaurant several months later as a hostess. They both worked their way up the restaurant hierarchy, fell in love, got married, and then both moved into management. When I was ready to open the Italian restaurant, I knew exactly who to partner with — Steve and Stacey. They deserved the opportunity. Since then, they have more than earned the opportunity. They own 1/3 of the business and run a very tight ship.
That’s the way it works in our company. We hired four managers, 37 years ago when we opened the first restaurant, and — until this year — haven’t hired a manager since. We just promote from within. People move their way up based on their performance and commitment. Men and women who started as line cooks or dishwashers become kitchen managers. Busboys and hostesses become servers or bartenders and then move into management. Sometimes they get ownership. It’s the true American dream.
Back to the bowling alley. That is truly one thing I never thought I would do. But I’m so glad I did. I love the bowling concept so much I’d like to do others in the future. It’s fun, people have a blast doing it, and it’s a community activity in which they can drink and eat and compete in a sport.
But the dirty little secret is that it’s not a bowling alley with a restaurant attached. It’s a restaurant that happens to have a bowling alley. So, when I look at it closely, it’s just doing what I know — owning and operating a restaurant.
Another question I get these days is, “What’s it like owning a movie theater?” The people that know me well don’t have to ask that question. They know the answer. They know that I love movies and that I must love owning a movie theater. It’s true. I do.
The Capri Theater was built in 1939 on North State Street in Jackson at a time where almost all the movie theaters were located in downtown Jackson around Capitol Street. The Capri closed in the mid 1980s and by the turn of the 21st Century all movie theaters had closed in Jackson. There wasn’t one movie theater in the city limits. When I became a part of this recent Fondren project, the space where the theater is located was being considered for a live music venue. That was something I wasn’t interested in. I knew that the state capital of Mississippi needed the movie theater, and the Capri needed to be reopened. When I brought that up to David and Jason, the two developing partners, they were relieved because that had been their wish all along.
But the theater is a restaurant as well. Sure, there are new business practices we had to learn, such as dealing with major movie studios. But when you boil it down to its core — like the bowling alley next door — it’s a restaurant. Really more like a bar and restaurant. But instead of servers delivering food and cocktails to a table in a dining room, we deliver food and drinks directly to your reclining seat while a movie is playing. A perfect world in my view.
So, I guess when one looks at it from a 10,000-foot view, I haven’t strayed too far from the restaurant business. Highball lanes is not really a bowling alley. It’s a restaurant with a bowling alley inside serving the greatest hits from three of our restaurants in Hattiesburg. I believe it’s the best food you’re ever going to eat in a bowling alley. It’s the same with the movie theater: the seats are comfortable, they recline, and have a table attached, there’s Dolby 7.1 sound, and a digital laser projector to provide entertainment. But there’s a full menu that we deliver to your seat. It’s a restaurant that shows movies.
In the end, I am endlessly blessed to be at a point in my life where I get to do what I love to do — my hobby, actually — every day and get paid for it. Also, I get to do it while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. For over three decades I have lived by the tenet that you have to be wed or dead before I put on a necktie. I hope to keep it that way.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.