Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 16, 2012

Fans of country singer Zac Brown treated to his southern  hospitality

 I am knee-deep in the service industry. It’s my calling. It’s my passion. It’s what restaurants are boiled down to on the most basic level—service: Making (and keeping) customers happy. Hospitality.

I love it. I love my job. I have the hospitality gene running through every corner of my body. My staff and management has it, too.

The fact that we are so dedicated and  in tune to people’s needs on a daily basis allows me to see, and appreciate that in others. I can smell a major hospitality incident from a mile away.

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Last night I attended a Zac Brown Band concert in Bossier, Louisiana. It is an activity that I highly recommend if you want to hear good music and have an excellent time. It’s also an activity I highly recommend if you want to see an excellent service/hospitality experience.

A concert might seem like a strange place to witness a service incident, but when it comes to Southern hospitality, Brown and his band mates are masters.

Several years ago, Brown, a son of Georgia, and the consummate Southern gentleman, began hosting an eat-and-greet before every performance. This isn’t the typical line-‘em-up-in-a-tent-and-smile-for-a-quick-photo-before-being-quickly-shuffled-out-of-the-tent-and-into-the-parking-lot event. No. In addition to the staff and crew, Brown feeds a crowd of about 200 before every show.

Chef Rusty Hamlin tours with Brown in a mobile kitchen rig that would make most Beard chefs jealous and a crew of six to eight sous chefs and assistants. They source local ingredients in the towns they play, and change the menu accordingly.

I met Brown last summer and struck up a friendship over a three-day period of music and food in California. At one event over the long weekend I served a Creole/Cajun luncheon to a small group. Brown provided the musical entertainment. He also went back for thirds on the final course.

For dessert that day I served White Chocolate Bread Pudding. It’s a dish that I’ve served in our restaurants for years. I first ate it at the Palace Café in New Orleans almost two decades ago. I immediately went home and worked up my own version. We’ve been selling it ever since. It’s also my go-to dish when I’m doing demos or traveling catering events. It travels well, but most importantly, people love it.

Brown liked the White Chocolate Bread Pudding so much he asked me to serve it at the band’s eat-and-greet in Kansas City last summer. He also invited me to Bossier last night for an encore. I was happy to oblige.

The event, as always, went off without a hitch. What struck me though, is Brown’s dedication and commitment to his fans. Not only does he feed around 200 before every show. He and the band meet and shake hands with everyone who enters the room.

After a brief welcome, Chef Rusty briefs the intimate and attentive crowd on what they will be eating that evening. Then, each table begins to get up and go through the substantial multi-course buffet line. Brown goes from table to table engaging each and every guest in attendance. For their part, the band actually gets behind the buffet line and serves the guests. Amazing.

This isn’t an “artist’s representative” visiting with high-profile guests and venue catering employees manning the chafing dishes— not by a long shot. This is a multiple award winning, selling-out-stadiums, hotter-than-a Georgia-August artist taking an hour and a half before a performance to spend quality time with his fans. And it’s a hard-working and talented group of musicians wielding serving spoons, serving their public, and enjoying every minute.

After dinner, they punch the clock on their second job, and the real work begins as Brown and the band go to work entertaining thousands— often, tens of thousands— for over two hours putting on a fun-filled and raucous performance unlike any other touring band in the country.

After the concert, everyone went to work packing it all up and getting ready to do it over again the next night in Houston, just as they had done the previous night in Little Rock.

No one in the music business does this. No one. There are a few who are catching on and starting to hold cookouts before shows.

But to spend the resources required to send a full professional cooking team all across the country with the sole purpose of taking care of fans is an unprecedented occurrence.

They do this for roughly 90 shows a year. It’s generosity to the nth degree, an amazing display of hospitality, and one that could— and would— only be “pulled off” by a group of Southerners. Actually, the entire Zac Brown organization is service oriented. Everyone from security, to roadies, to personal assistants seems to have one goal in mind— take care of their guest/fan. It’s a job they do well.

One day— in addition to all of his music awards, chart-topping record sales, sold-out concerts, and charitable endeavors— Zac Brown will be remembered for introducing hospitality and service to the music industry.

My tombstone is likely to read: “Husband, father, server of White Chocolate Bread Pudding,” and in the end, I guess that’s not too bad.

 (Restaurateur, author and self-described “world-class eater” Robert St. John and his family recently returned from a months-long culinary and cultural immersion in Europe.
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