If These Walls Could Speak

Published 5:58 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2023

By Robert St.  John

Food Columnist


“If these old walls could speak
Of things that they remember well,
Stories and faces dearly held” – Jimmy Webb

As human beings we like to assign humanoid characteristics to inanimate objects. The late great comedian Richard Pryor was a master of it. He often brought various body parts and pieces of furniture alive in his act. This morning I caught myself doing it when the oft used and cliched phrase, “If these walls could speak,” popped into my head.

I was alone at 5:00 a.m. in the former dining room of one of my concepts that is currently under construction. I love walking around an empty restaurant in the stillness of the early morning. I do it often. There’s a different energy before the first team member clocks in for the morning shift. I’m not quite sure what it is but I know that in a matter of hours the restaurant will be buzzing with energy. The contrast to the tranquility of the morning is appealing to me.

It’s the very first dining room of the very first restaurant I ever owned. We are in the process of making a change. That’s nothing new. It’s something I’ve done over the last 36 years, especially in this room. Wandering around in that space I began to ponder— if these walls really could speak what amazing stories would they tell. From 1975 to 1987 the walls housed a dress shop. I don’t know who owned the store, but the walls contained a lot of floral wallpaper and mauve paint.

In the summer of 1987 when my original business partner and I were looking to open a fine-dining restaurant the dress shop had recently closed. The building was on the edge of town. If one drove another 30 feet west, they’d enter a dry county The location was the last spot in Forrest County one could dine with a glass of wine for dinner. It was also the first spot you could reach if you were in Lamar County and looking for a cocktail.

The restaurant was the Purple Parrot Cafe. The walls were green. I don’t know why I chose green and not sure why the name Purple Parrot stuck. It was a joke one night when we were trying to think of a name. It became the temporary name and never came up with a better name, so it stuck.

There was never anything tropical on those walls. There were large oil paintings by one of the art professors on campus because we couldn’t afford art. The wine list was minuscule, not only because we didn’t have money to have a substantial wine list, but the state of Mississippi didn’t carry many wines back then. That is a battle we would fight, and win, a few years later in the mid 1990s.

If those walls could speak they would relay countless tales of romantic marriage proposals, anniversary celebrations, thousands of birthdays, bar mitzvahs, and all manner of festive events.

Sitting in that small space this morning I could see where the construction workers had peeled back several layers of walls from previous concepts. In 1993 I undertook a one-week changeover and re-concepted the space into a casual steakhouse. The steakhouse walls were intentionally tacky. There was taxidermy and old signs and other things to “country-up” the place. It was night and day from where it had been. It was a reactionary move at the time, and I learned a lesson. That lesson was: Don’t worry about the competition, just be yourself. It’s a lesson I’ve had to remind myself of recently and is the reason these walls are currently under construction. That steakhouse made money and we opened another one in Jackson. But I missed the fine dining aspect of things. So, in 1995 I reopened the Purple Parrot and put up yet another set of new walls.

“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety” –Abraham Maslow

People seemed to be happy with the Purple Parrot 2.0. I was happy. I was newly married and about to become a father. Our wine list began to grow into an award-winning list. The walls definitely heard celebration and merriment in those days.

“Don’t be afraid to change. You may lose something good, but you may gain something better.” Unknown

Those walls stood during Hurricane Katrina when the second floor of the restaurant concept that shares the building blew away. They also barely made it through an F4 tornado that laid a path of destruction just a block away. There were several remodels over the years. The walls always held fine art, most of which we changed out on a regular basis.

The Purple Parrot probably hit its peak in the years between 2012 and 2016. We had a great 10-year run as a Four Diamond AAA-rated restaurant with a “Best Of” Wine Spectator award-winning list that had grown to over 1,000 labels with 4,000+ bottles in inventory.

The walls saw another change when I tweaked the concept to a steamed seafood and steak restaurant. Again, there was taxidermy, but this time it was fish. It was the right move at the time, but no one else in my company bought in. That’s a dangerous space, and it shows a lack of leadership. The leader of the company should always bring everyone along and have the team buy into their vision. I was the leader. I dropped the ball.

“Change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous in the end.” –Robin Sharma

There seemed to be a negative energy between those walls in those days. Again, probably lack of leadership at the top. So, the old reliable Purple Parrot surfaced once again, 3.0. The walls were changed, but the concept had run its course. I probably held on eight years too long, but the restaurant was so near and dear to me, it was like one of my kids. Actually, it was several years older than both of my children.

Then COVID hit. It was apparent that a white-tablecloth restaurant was not a viable entity in the market going forward. I was in the process of working on Tex Mex concept for another locale, and with uncertainty in the air— and the fate of our restaurants seemingly hanging on a thin thread— I decided to move the Tex Mex concept into the space I already owned. We built an amazing patio. The recipes were spot on. The problem was we opened ten months into a global pandemic and were short 25 staff members on the day we opened.

“Change before you have to.” –Jack Welch

That brings us to today. I’m sitting in the early morning stillness of an empty room. A room filled with memories, 36 years-worth of memories. The old dress shop building has doubled in size over the past 36 years. The construction team will be here in a couple of hours. They don’t know all the stories these walls could tell. They just know to follow the set of architectural drawings to make more changes to the walls. I’m so excited about this next concept. It’s probably what I should have done 10 or 12 years ago. I actually thought about it, and had people advise me to do so, but I hung on to the past for sentimental reasons.

“Stop being afraid of what could go wrong and start getting excited about what could go right.” –Tony Robbins

I am more enthusiastic about this change than I have been about anything since the original opening 36 years ago. It will allow us to reach a point where we can truly strive for excellence in all we do. All the days of confusing imaging and branding and complicated operational structures will be gone. We are the Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar. That’s our brand. That’s who we are and we’re about to be the best we’ve ever been because our focus will be zeroed in on one menu.

I’m not sure what has happened recently, but I have a renewed energy and passion for the restaurant business. It’s happened in the last 18 months. I feel as if I have the energy and drive I had when I was 26 and first opened this place. Maybe being an empty nester has something to do with it. Maybe it’s just that I am following my deepest intuitions again and not being a reactionary owner while striving to plow new ground. That lesson I learned 30 years ago— be yourself and be the best you can be at what you do and let others do what they do— has come full circle. Hold on. Here we go!

“There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” –CS Lewis