“Don’t look next to you, look ahead”

Don’t look next to you, look ahead. It’s a cliche, but the idea is simple, pay attention to your own shit, not someone else. I can’t tell you the number of times when I first opened and I read about another concept opening that seemed similar to mine, or even just a competing restaurant that was super hot at the moment. I felt such pressure to compete that I would get distracted. Many of those restaurants are no longer open. And I think back to the times when I could

As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing John Perkins.

Juniper owner John Perkins isn’t from the South, and he wasn’t formally trained at culinary school. But both cooking and the Low Country are in his blood — and his soul — and with a little ambition and a lot of grit, he’s created a distinguished Saint Louis restaurant that is renowned for both its authentic southern vibe and outstanding food.

Growing up in St. Louis, Perkins learned the ins and outs of entertaining from his parents. His mother, an Arkansas native with a generous spirit, and his father, an Army Chaplain who often hosted various officials, instilled in him a strong sense of hospitality and taught him that Southern cuisine was the perfect food for charming and comforting guests.

After traveling the world and attending seminary school with the intention of joining the ministry, Perkins resettled in St. Louis and began to pursue a career in restaurants. His start came while running an underground restaurant called Entre, which he describes as a roving, secret dinner party. He then opened three separate pop-up restaurants in 2013 — Le Coq, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and the Agrarian — — before launching his permanent concept, Juniper, in October 2013.

Along with his grit, Perkins credits his creativity and vision-oriented personality for helping to establish Juniper as a premier Saint Louis restaurant and ensuring that it continues to thrive over the years. Perkins resides in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood with his wife, Lindsay, and five children, Evangeline, Shepherd, Clementine, Juniper, and Jemima.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?

My path to becoming a restaurateur was almost accidental. Instead of a “next right thing,” my situation was more like the “next necessary thing”…I was running consecutive pop-up restaurants, each one different from the previous and while I had the creative juice to keep it going, it was causing more confusion in the dining public than not. I simply had to pick a direction and go with it. So, after 5 years of doing underground restaurants, pop up restaurants, and seasonal catering I opened Juniper in the fall of 2013 in St. Louis, MO.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

We focus largely on southern-style cuisine at Juniper. I am, for the most part, completely self-taught in the kitchen and in my early years of learning I would find a cookbook that was compelling, read it all the way through and copy a few recipes as a way to teach myself. Eventually, these techniques began to pile on top of each, layering over each other in a way that gave me some depth of knowledge. I found the process to be analogous to a writer finding his voice because with every new cookbook discovery came a new culinary perspective I was interested in, but not necessarily a perspective that was mine.

I first had to overcome my hang-up that doing southern comfort food wasn’t intellectual enough, as if feeding people was an intellectual exercise and not a spiritual and emotional one. Once I got that straight, I also had to come to terms with my own history, and the influences I had had over the years — even the ones that I had dismissed.

Overtime, I have phased out of the kitchen and focus my time now on the functions and growth of the business. In early 2020 we brought on a new Chef de Cuisine, Matthew Daughaday, who is a well-known chef here in St. Louis. He has been a great addition to our team and has embraced the opportunity to learn more about the history of southern cuisine.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

In August of 2011, I moved into the space that would later become Juniper. It had no commercial kitchen equipment to speak of when I moved in and despite that I was hopeful that the existing equipment would pass muster from the city inspectors. Initially, it seemed like everything would be ok, then just as suddenly it wasn’t; I was told I needed to replace the existing hood at the cost of 18,000 dollars. Have I mentioned that I had no money? So, I tried Kickstarter, and they rejected my application. I was out of ideas, and thoroughly discouraged. In a last-ditch effort, I decided to use the email list I had accrued during my years running the underground restaurant, and do my own crowdfunding. It worked. I raised the money I needed in relative short order and got the work done.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Opening Juniper was an act of desperation in many ways. I had 3000 dollars in the bank when we opened and all my credit cards were maxed. Our opening night coincided with the playoff run of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals, and if you know anything about St. Louis you probably know that this city is crazy for their Cardinals. What that meant for us, was that the restaurant was a ghost town and this went on for three weeks. I thought we weren’t going to make it. I remember it was the last weekend of October, Saturday night, we had 12 people in the restaurant — all night. All I knew at the time was to keep moving forward, someone or something could have stopped me, but I was never going to stop myself. The very next Saturday, post-baseball, we had 107 guests, and it’s never slowed since.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

I think at this stage of our restaurant’s history, creating a dish that gets people excited is as much about knowing why guests come to you in the first place as it is about being culinarily creative. There is a sweet spot, where the trust a guest has in us will allow them to move just past their comfort zone to try something new, exciting and different. We try to hone in on that, as a way to keep pushing — not just the circumscribed boundaries of our guests, but also what we can do as a restaurant.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

A perfect meal is when you don’t remember the food. Of course, I remember great meals, but what I often remember more than the food I had is the company I kept. And truthfully, I will always place a higher value on the human connection forged around a table, than I will on what’s on the table.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I think my creativity has always come from observation. And as my willingness to observe things around me ebbs and flows so does my creative impulse. And vice versa.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I am! We are very close to debuting a drive through only, small footprint, fried chicken business. It seems everyone is doing chicken sandwiches these days, and of course, we will have those, but our bailiwick has always been traditional fried chicken, large format meals, and I think we can carve out a niche in the market by focusing on that.

What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Don’t take everything personally — I speak from experience on that one. Go to therapy, it’s good to just talk to someone — you don’t have to be struggling with mental health to benefit. And find interests, enjoyment in something that isn’t related to your work.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Don’t look next to you, look ahead. It’s a cliche, but the idea is simple, pay attention to your own shit, not someone else. I can’t tell you the number of times when I first opened and I read about another concept opening that seemed similar to mine, or even just a competing restaurant that was super hot at the moment. I felt such pressure to compete that I would get distracted. Many of those restaurants are no longer open. And I think back to the times when I could have spent my energy making my restaurant better rather than fretting about what someone else was doing.
  2. It’s not personal. In the early years, I took everything as a personal affront to me. If the restaurant wasn’t full, it meant that this city was rejecting what I had to offer, it was rejecting me. If a reviewer wasn’t overflowing with praise, I harbored resentment. If an influencer took pictures of some other restaurant, but not ours I didn’t forget the slight. That was exhausting, let me tell you. Not only was I paying attention to superfluous stuff, it impacted my mental health, it distracted me from my goal and the truth was — the vast majority of all those things that I chose to take personally had nothing to do with me. They were not about me. It was a combination of narcissism and insecurity that I wish someone would have just said, yo, get over yourself. Do your thing.
  3. It’s very personal. Any creative, any entrepreneur is by definition putting themselves out into the world when they create a business. Some have less of a sense of personal attachment than others, but in all cases these businesses or pieces of art come from an inner wellspring of creative output. It is personal, by definition. The key is to hold both these paradoxical truths (no. 2 and 3) tightly.
  4. Failure isn’t fatal. I can’t tell you how many ideas I have tried out over the years that haven’t worked, or how many times when the restaurant itself seemed poised to fail. At any of these moments I could have retreated, quit, given up. Perhaps it’s just my circumstances, or the unique reality of my restaurant, but I never took those opportunities and we will soon celebrate 8 years. I suspect that many people, when confronted with similar failures, find reasons to fold up shop and move on. And who can blame them? But in my case, I never stopped moving forward. I responded to my failings by viewing it as a lesson, an opportunity to learn and get better.
  5. The power of grit. There are a lot of people smarter than me, a lot, a lot of people more talented than I am, better cooks, better administrators, better business people. That will never not be the case. But what I do have, and am content to wear as a badge of honor, is grit. I think if someone had told me when I first opened, that grit was superpower, and that I shouldn’t worry so much about other people and whether or not they were richer, smarter, more talented I probably could have saved myself many years of self-doubt.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

I would be tempted to say, fried chicken, only because that’s the thing that most folks probably associate with Juniper these days even though we are a lot more than that. But after some contemplation I think I would say the shrimp and grits is really the most representative of what we are as a restaurant. It is historical, it is rooted in a particular place, we have always had it on the menu and it has gone through many iterations while still always being, shrimp and grits.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I don’t know how this would work really, but over the years one of the things that has frustrated me the most is how I think the traditional rules about capitalizing entrepreneurs and particularly people who don’t look good on paper really prevents a lot of people from getting their ideas off the ground. I would love to see some new thinking on how to loan people money, that might be considered high risk, or ideas that are high risk, people who are otherwise disadvantaged or marginalized. These would essentially be micro loans, but with debt forgiveness built into the structure of the loan. The debt forgiveness would hinge on business profitability, consistent and on time payments over the history of the loan, that kind of thing. The ironic thing about fundraising is that when you don’t have money and need it, no one wants to give it to you. But when you have money, and don’t need it, people are basically begging you to take their money. The humor belies the frustrating reality that access to capital is still too tightly controlled, and that traditional thinking results in lost opportunities. It’s past time to hit the reset button.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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