By Robert St. John
My 45-year working career has been varied and full. The first official paying job I held (after three years of mowing lawns) was in the summer of my 15th year when I worked as a janitor at my school stripping and waxing floors. That fall I started working full time as a disc jockey at a radio station. I also spun records at frat parties, high school dances and in a local discotheque. After flunking out of college, I started working in restaurants and fell in love with the industry. I loved it so much that I took a job managing one restaurant during the day and waiting tables at another at night. I couldn’t get enough.
My dictionary defines the verb “work,” this way— “…be engaged in physical or mental activity to achieve a goal.” But it’s never felt like work.
I eventually returned to college to finish my degree in Hospitality Management, though I still worked full-time waiting tables. Every spare moment I was in the library reading restaurant trade magazines or staying up until early in the morning designing floorplans, kitchens and menus. I was “eat up” with the restaurant biz (pun intended).
In 1987, I borrowed $25,000 and opened the first restaurant. In the early days I worked as a chef behind the line, after four years I moved to the front of the house and eventually into the restaurant office. Since then, my work career has branched out from restaurant and bar ownership to newspaper columnist, book author, tour leader, television host, television producer, documentary film producer and the founder of a couple of non-profits.
Though, as of today, I can now add theater owner and bowling alley owner to my jack-of-a-few-trades-and-master-of-none list. I have been a fan of movies all my life and — conservatively — have spent more than 10,000 hours sitting in a movie theater watching films over the course of my 60 years. During that time, there are probably periods in my youth when I dreamed of owning a movie theater, but I never really thought that would happen.
Many would scoff at that many hours over the course of six decades spent in a dark theater. My friends would probably never vocalize it, but I am sure many feel that such a practice is a total waste of time. But I don’t really hunt. I rarely fish, and I never play golf. I have friends who have spent way more time on golf courses than I have in movie theaters.
Unlike the time I have spent in movie theaters, I have rarely bowled. I certainly never expected to be the owner of a bowling alley, yet here I am. Also, in addition to the five restaurants and two bars we currently own, we’re about to add another restaurant and bar to the list.
There is no doubt that I have been helped in a major way along the course of this hodgepodge of a career. Sometimes it was a friend or mentor with a loan, other times it was good timing, many times it was providence. I am grateful for all of it.
Work is my pastime. Work is my fun. Someone once said, “When passion meets work, work becomes a hobby.” My knee-jerk reaction to that quote was to state that there was probably a time in my life when work seemed like work. Though I think I would have to go all the way back to mowing yards and waxing floors. Actually, there were two summers in which I worked on a landscape crew laying sod and on a construction crew installing insulation in attics. That was work. Hard work. So technically, I haven’t really “worked” since the summer of 1982.
The new restaurant, bar, bowling alley and theater are all set to open in Jackson this week. Opening a restaurant is stressful. The first two weeks are filled with thousands of moving parts, any of which can go wrong at any minute. The key to success in this business is management, management, management, whether it’s during a honeymoon period, or 34 years into a restaurant’s run. As stressful as openings are, they are also an opportunity to see a dream come true. When a restaurant, or bar, or theater, or bowling alley for that matter, opens, it’s a vision actualized and brought to life.
And it’s the vison of dozens of people. And it’s the hard work of hundreds of people. I’m typically the guy out front doing the dog-and-pony show, but there are scores of others making the wheels turn.
It’s funny how life takes us in directions we never thought we would head once we let go and let life happen. I have made thousands of mistakes in my life, maybe tens of thousands. Though one of the things I feel I have gotten right is that I have been open to opportunity when it came knocking.
When I speak to students, I always try to reserve most of the time to field questions. I am almost always asked some form of the question, “What is the key to success?” After 40 years in this business and given some time and space with which to reflect, it seems the key to success in business — at least in my case — is simple: Support your co-workers. Do everything you can to delight your guests/customers/clients. Find every opportunity to say, “Yes.” Serve your community. Don’t screw anyone over. Take less of a deal if you must, but make the deal. Foster others’ successes. Surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented, set the course, steer the ship, get out of their way and give credit where credit is due. Finally, find something you’re passionate about and make it your career.
Oh, and one last thing, keep moving forward, learn from past mistakes, but don’t dwell on them. I like to sum that concept up in one word…
Hoisin Glazed Chicken Wings
1 gallon water
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
2 Tbl kosher salt
1 1/2 Tbl crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup white vinegar
2 Tbl fresh ginger, minced
3# fresh chicken wings
2-7 ounce jars hoisin sauce
1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1 Tbl fresh jalapenos, small dice
2 tsp minced garlic
1 Tbl fresh lime juice
1 Tbl Hot sauce
You can grill the wings and save this step. In a large stock pot, combine the water, soy sauce, sugar, salt, red pepper flakes, vinegar and ginger. Bring this mixture to a simmer and allow it to cook for 10 minutes. Place the chicken wings into the simmering mixture. Once the water returns to simmer, cook the wings for 20 minutes.
Using a large colander, strain and discard the liquid. Allow the chicken wings to cool in the refrigerator for one hour. This step may be done 1-2 days in advance.
Preheat oven to 250
Line a large baking sheet with heavy duty aluminum foil and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the hoisin sauce, sugar, water, jalapeños, garlic, lime juice and hot sauce. Remove half of this mixture for later use.
Toss the pre-cooked wings in the mixing bowl, coating them well with the sauce. Arrange them on the foil lined baking sheet and cover them completely with another sheet of aluminum foil. Bake for 50 minutes. Remove the foil and place the remaining sauce in to a large mixing bowl. Gently place the wings in the bowl, and toss them with the sauce. Return the wings to the baking sheet. Turn the oven up to 275 and return the wings to the oven, uncovered. Bake for 45 minutes.
Remove from the oven and serve.
Yield: Eight to ten servings
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.)