Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 11, 2007

St. John offers accolades for another with ‘100-hours-a week’ work ethic

The restaurant business is full of chef/owners with atypical success stories.

The restaurant business is full of culinary twists on tried-and-true recipes.

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The restaurant business is notorious for its 90-hour work weeks for owners who are willing to open on a shoestring and do what it takes— whatever it takes— to build a business.

The restaurant business is often responsible for preserving storied and historic buildings.

However, the restaurant business is not full of concepts or personalities which bring all of those components together in one time and in one place.

The California Sandwich Shop on Front Street in my hometown of Hattiesburg is probably the most historic and storied restaurant property within a 60-mile radius. For decades it operated in a small space across from the railroad station downtown. In 1996 it closed.

Several years, and a few failed restaurant attempts later, an atypical bagel baker came to town.

From a Greek immigrant to a Midwestern male model

A native of Iowa, Chris Hackbarth worked as a model on runways in New York and Milan before traveling to Hattiesburg to visit his homesick sister. The 24-year old immediately fell in love with the revitalized downtown area and logged on to the internet to find a potential investment property. The first business that popped up was a struggling bagel shop located in the building that formally housed the California Sandwich Shop.

Hackbarth purchased the business, moved his belongings from San Francisco into a loft apartment in downtown Hattiesburg, changed the name of the business to Southbound Bagel and Coffee Shop, and began doing the countless tasks that are involved in owning a business.

He had never worked in a restaurant or owned a business, but those were not his biggest challenges. Hackbarth had never made a bagel.

After several harrowing days and 500 pounds of dough later, the Southbound bagel was born.

I have never been a fan of bagels, though I love Southbound bagels. While having breakfast at Southbound the other morning, a friend walked by my table and said, “You know the bagels are good because the Yankees eat here.”

Hackbarth’s bagels are not the typical New York bagel. They’re slightly sweeter and a little lighter. In my opinion they are world-class and Hackbarth makes all 12 varieties from scratch every morning.

The breakfast menu offers several omelets, bagel sandwiches, lox, and rich coffee. The lunch menu offers several sandwiches using bread made from scratch in the tiny 400-square foot Southbound kitchen.

Actually, the limited space in the kitchen might be the reason that the bagels taste so good. Typically, bagel dough is boiled before being baked. A large boiler wouldn’t fit into Southbound’s tiny prep kitchen, so Hackbarth “made do” with a steamer.

The steamer might be the difference; Hackbarth thinks it’s the calcium content in the downtown water. Steam or calcium, either way, the Southbound bagel is not dense, and not bread like— it’s just good.

I am new to Southbound Bagel and Coffee Shop. A friend told me of a little café downtown that made great cinnamon rolls from scratch every Saturday morning. I thought it might be a great place to take my children. After eating a few bagels and a killer omelet, I was ashamed that it took me three years to discover the place. The kids and I decided to make our Southbound visit a Saturday morning tradition.

For the neophyte restaurateur who hit a homerun his first time at bat, the days have started to get a little shorter. “I get up at 5:30 in the morning instead of 3:30, like I did the first year,” Hackbarth says. Though that might change as the restaurant has started opening on Friday and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. to service the late-night bar business in the downtown area.

The restaurant business is filled with hard-working success stories. The Greek immigrants who traveled to the South in the early part of the 20th Century set a lofty precedent with super-human determination and work ethic. They opened places like The California Sandwich Shop and thousands of others.

The baton has been passed to another generation. One, I am happy to say, that employs the 100-hour a week work ethic of our culinary forefathers.

As a fellow restaurateur, an avid customer, and the father of two cinnamon roll-loving kids (not to mention the husband of a woman who loves world-class bagels) I am rooting for the long-term success of Southbound Bagel and Coffee Shop.

For this week’s recipe, Gingerbread, go to the blog on

(Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of five books and the upcoming “Southern Seasons.” He can be reached at .)