Despite the dichotomies that exist in Mississippi, restaurateur Robert St. John is trying to stamp out hunger while at the same time fighting the obesity epidemic that runs rampant in his state.
In 2009—responding to a plea for food from a nearby mission that helps feed 800 families a month—St. John created not-for-profit Extra Table, a relief organization that supplies pantries and soup kitchens with much needed funding, canned goods, and essential food items.
“Mississippi is the most food insecure state in the nation, but we are also the most obese,” says St. John. “Some people have a problem rectifying that, but those two things often go hand in hand.”
To address both issues, Extra Table only supplies low-fat proteins such as tuna and chicken, healthy grains, and low-sugar foods to the organizations it serves. And there are no items that are high in fructose corn syrup.
“We’re committed to getting wholesome, nutritious food into the hands of those who need it,” says St. John.
Firmly ensconced in the Hattiesburg business community for more than 25 years, St. John owns and operates the Purple Parrot Café, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, and Tabella—restaurant operations that employ more than 230 people.
St. John, who is 51, balances a full schedule that includes writing, overseeing New South Restaurant Group, spending time with his family, and spreading the gospel of Extra Table. He is about to open another bar and has a new book, An Italian Palate, coming out in the fall.
Extra Table hired a full-time executive director in June, 2012, and is expanding beyond its Mississippi roots to Tennessee, Florida, and South Carolina.
“We would love to reach every corner of the country through slow, measured growth,” St. John says. “Our goal is to end hunger and we are going to do it the best way we can.”
Since its beginning, Extra Table has partnered with Sysco, the nation’s largest distribution company, which allows the organization to purchase food at the lowest possible price. Donors who want to contribute can buy food bundles in $250, $500, and $750 increments, which are delivered to the many hunger agencies supported.
“We buy a $750 package every month and a lot of donors are also on an automatic draw,” says St. John. “Our food is all new, it’s all healthy, and there are no dented cans.”
St. John, who holds two fundraisers annually to cover administrative costs, says all donations benefit hunger victims. “We are committed to the ideal that 100 percent of donations go directly to purchasing food.”
He partners with winemakers and wineries from all over the world to sponsor the Purple Parrot Café’s Annual Wine Festival, where guests can sample unlimited wines from a selection of some 110 labels. Additionally the organization sponsors the Extra Table Christmas Concert. Each event brings in about $30,000 to benefit the organization, and also heighten awareness.
Moving forward, St. John will continue to grow his hospitality business, but he clearly is committed to Extra Table and helping eradicate hunger. “I have done a lot of soul searching and asked myself a simple question: ‘Do I want to be the guy who feeds people filet mignon or the guy who feeds people canned tuna?’”
The decision wasn’t hard. “I have to feed people filet mignon to get my kids through college, but my real passion is the other. It is something I feel I am just supposed to be doing.”