St. John brings community cafe, donut concept to H’burgBy HASKEL BURNS,
A vision 10 years in the making from Hub City author and restaurateur Robert St. John is about to become a reality in midtown Hattiesburg.
If all goes according to schedule, St. John will open up his two newest concepts July 23 in The District at Midtown: The Midtowner, which will serve breakfast and plate lunch items, and the small-batch donut shop Midtown Donuts.
“I’ve been working on this for 10 years – heavily for five – and signed the lease on (The Midtowner) over two years ago,” said St. John, who also owns Purple Parrot Café, Branch, Ed’s Burger Joint, Tabella, Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar. “Ten years ago, we were looking at a different location and it never felt right until (developer) Rob Tatum approached me on this project.
“I’m a Midtown guy – we’ve planted our flag in Midtown. I grew up just about six blocks from here, and currently live eight or nine blocks from here. This is my neighborhood, and that’s what we were looking to do, is bring in what we say is ‘real breakfast, real lunch and real local.’”
The Midtowner, which is located at 3000 Hardy Street across from Hotel Indigo, will serve specialty plates such as shrimp and
grits, scrambled egg sandwiches and Southern breakfast pies. Lunch plates include meats with one, two or three vegetables, and diners also will find omelets, pancakes and sandwiches like roast beef, patty melts and grilled reubens.
The restaurant’s décor pays homage to past decades, with pictures from the early- to mid-20th century, as well as vintage sports trophies.
“I call it a community café,” St. John said.
“If I do my job, I want it to feel like it’s been here since about 1948.
“When you walk in, you should have that good feeling – it’s nothing fancy. It’s just casual, real food and real people.”
St. John also has partnered with officials from Hotel Indigo to serve some of his fare from The Midtowner. The hotel’s breakfast items will be served through the Midtowner, and St. John will store some of its grab-and-go items and handle the hotel’s room service for breakfast.
“With a boutique hotel, it’s not your normal complimentary, run-of-the-mill breakfast, because it’s a full-service restaurant,” hotel general manager Rhonda Cunningham said in an earlier story. “And there was no reason for us to open for breakfast when The Midtowner has such a unique following.”
Midtown Donut, which is located directly next door to The Midtowner, will serve small-batch donuts in flavors like maple bacon and regular glazed. But these donuts are a little different from your typical fare: they’re made with potato flour, are a little bigger than regular donuts, and are mostly square.
The unique donut styles share similarities with St. John’s milkshake concept at Ed’s Burger Joint, which serves shakes like Peanut Butter Crunch, Cookie Dough and Cap’n Crunch Crunchberries.
“We do several versions of glazed donuts, and then we’re doing some really over-the-top, fun applications,” St. John said. “Our standards are going to be glazed, chocolate glazed, crème brulee, blueberry cake and mochaccino.
“And there will be two or three donuts of the day – it could be a fried oreo donut or an orange dreamsicle. (And with the square) you get more of a donut – not cutting corners.”
And St. John certainly knows his donuts, having sampled the wares in places like Seattle and Chicago, and even working with a baker in Italy who specializes in bombolinis.
“I learned a lot about donuts – I did a deep dive into donuts,” he said. “I was just learning from others, like I’ve done all my career.”
The Midtowner and Midtown Donut will employ approximately 50 people, in addition to more than 250 already employed at St. John’s restaurants in midtown.
“Robert is a great restaurateur, and we’re definitely lucky to have somebody like him in Hattiesburg,” said Tatum, who developed The District at Midtown, the Hub City Lofts and The Claiborne at Hattiesburg. “He and I have been talking about this project for about four years now, so I’m excited to see the day that his place opens.”