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Restauranteur talks about Fondren project, restaurant challenges during COVID-19

Robert St. John (Source: WLBT)
Robert St. John (Source: WLBT)
Updated: Dec. 18, 2020 at 4:02 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Restauranteur Robert St. John says now is the worst time in history to be in the restaurant industry.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s had to close three of his eight establishments, including the Purple Parrot in Hattiesburg.

Even so, he’s hopeful that when his new Fondren restaurant opens in early 2022 that the worst part of COVID-19 will be over.

“If not, we’ll have a year and a half under our belts and will know how to deal in a post-COVID world,” he said. “My bet is we’re going to be pretty close to normal.”

St. John is co-owner of a $13 million project that will include a bowling alley, tiki bar, single-screen movie theater and burger joint.

Construction on the first phase of the project began recently and is expected to wrap up in October or November of 2021.

Development will feature a new movie theater and bowling alley.
Development will feature a new movie theater and bowling alley.(WLBT)

The second phase, Ed’s Burger Joint, is expected to get underway in the coming weeks and be completed in January of February of 2022.

“I think the timeline works in our favor,” he said. “People are going to be ready for entertainment. They’ve already been locked up for 10 months. By the time we’re open, it will be a year and a half,” he said. “Family activities such as bowling are going to be needed. And where a lot of restaurants are not going to make it, we are pushing forward.”

The first phase will include the renovated Capri Theatre, as well as a Highball Lanes bowling alley and The Pearl tiki bar. Highball Lanes will feature 10 lanes and a restaurant, while the movie theater is expected to show a mix of first-run and classic films, as well as some live entertainment.

Ed’s Burger Joint, which will be located north of the Capri at the site of the former Butterfly Yoga building, and will feature everything from burgers and fries to shakes and onion rings.

The building will be slightly different than originally expected, in part, because of the COVID outbreak. “In Fondren, we shifted gears midstream ... we’ve tweaked it and added a lot more outdoor seating,” he said.

The ability to adapt the restaurant to meet current demands is something that St. John said has served some restaurateurs well during the pandemic.

“If there is any silver lining, it is that restaurants have learned to adapt and roll with the changes, which we’ve always done,” he said. “We’re in a brutal business and we’re used to challenges and hard work and small margins and things like that.”

St. John said that even with the ability to adapt, restaurants are still suffering due to limits on seating capacity. Right now, all restaurants and bars in the state must limit the number of customers to no more than 75 percent of the building’s capacity, according to Onedine.com.

The city of Jackson has further restrictions on bars, which are currently prohibited from serving patrons at bar tops. Rather, all customers must be served at tables.

These restrictions, coupled with the fact that restaurants typically do the most business during lunch and dinner hours, severely limit an establishment’s ability to make ends meet.

“Seating is everything in our business. Everything is based on how many seats you’re going to have, how many times you’re going to turn those seats over. Management salary is based on that. Banknotes are based on that,” he said. “I’m not arguing the science, but to cut capacity, I tell you from a business standpoint that it is an unworkable situation if it goes on too long.”

Locally, several restaurants have closed their doors permanently as a result of the virus, including Logan’s Roadhouse, Outback Steakhouse and Surin of Thailand.

St. John himself has had to close two restaurants and one bar as a result of the outbreak. One restaurant, the Purple Parrot, will reopen in a few weeks as a new TexMex restaurant, he said.

The longtime restaurateur is particularly worried about independent establishments across the country.

St. John, who is a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, has been pushing for Congress to include aid for restaurants as part of the latest COVID-19 relief act.

He said he is grateful to Sen. Roger Wicker who introduced a bill that would help provide that relief. However, that measure has yet to pass.

“It had 50 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle,” he said. “When you have (Sens. Dick) Durbin and (Chuck) Schumer and (Lindsey) Graham and (John) Cornyn supporting it, then you know you have something worthwhile.”

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