COLUMBUS — John Bean loves his work and can’t imagine doing anything else. He’s president of Eat With Us, a fast-growing Columbus-based company with several popular dining brands.
He’s been there from the beginning when he and his mother, Myrrl Bean, opened their first restaurant with family friend and partner, Harvey Seifert, in Starkville in 1982. They called the restaurant Harvey’s in Seifert’s honor. This successful venture was followed by Harvey’s Restaurants in Columbus, Tupelo and Tuscaloosa, Ala., Bulldog Deli, Cotton District Grill, the Grill at Jackson Square, Sweet Peppers Deli and Park Heights Restaurant.
Asked what intrigues him about the family business, Bean, 49, answered, “It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve heard for years that the restaurant business is tough but we really don’t know any different.”
He began at a young age and as general manager of the first Harvey’s was involved hands on in every aspect of running the business. “I enjoyed the pace of it and the 25 different things you have to deal with every hour in the restaurant business,” he said. “I keep that perspective in decision making. Managing is about dealing with people, not just customers. We’re in competition for good employees. A manager can’t be tied up with too much paper work or on the computer and be a good restaurant manager.”
Bean still tries to get out at ground level as often as possible. “My management style is to treat others like I want to be treated. It’s the Golden Rule and I want our employees to treat customers like that,” he said. “When you’re in the hospitality business, you’ve got to have that attitude. That attitude works.”
A year ago, Myrrl Bean cut back her involvement in the company, but John Bean’s brother, Bernard, and sister, Blair Bean Hughes, are actively involved. There are 630 employees in company-owned stores and 54 managers. The group of businesses consists of 12 restaurants and 13 Sweet Peppers Deli franchises with several more franchises scheduled to open in the next few months. Expanding from its Northeast Mississippi base, Eat With Us has a Sweet Peppers franchise open in Hattiesburg with another coming soon, and one in Alabama. This is its first experience with franchising.
“We’re getting inquiries from all over and want it to mushroom out,” Bean said. “There’s interest in Sweet Peppers because it’s fast, casual and there’s a lot of interest in that industry segment. That’s the fastest-growing trend now.”
He attributes Sweet Peppers popularity to its good looking interior package, great product, quality ingredients and big portions. “People like it and we hope to expand throughout the Southeast,” he said. “It gives qualified people the opportunity to own their own business.”
Other restaurants among the Eat With Us group may be franchised if Sweet Peppers continues to grow. The company has the infrastructure and has good managers.
“For now our goal is to successfully build the Sweet Peppers brand. That’s our plan and so far it’s going well,” he said. “We’re learning as we’re going and will totally focus on Sweet Peppers and grow it for the next five years.”
Bean isn’t concerned about the long hours he works, asking, “Doesn’t everyone these days?”
“I’m blessed with family involved in the business and great people in our company who’ve been with us a long time,” he said. “I just like what I do. That’s what keeps me motivated. I enjoy looking at locations and meeting with potential franchisees. I get a charge out of it.”
Although the company has a lot of long-term employees, Bean acknowledges that the high employee turnover rate is frustrating. “It’s low in our management but among other employees it’s in line with the industry-wide problem,” he said. “For most people who work in restaurants, it’s a means to an end. Only 25% are permanent. We spend a lot of time hiring and training people who don’t stay.”
He says the company tries to hire employees with great attitudes regardless of their experience. “The good comments we get about smiling employees and our product are the best part of the business,” he said. “That’s when you have a smooth running operation.”
For relaxation, Bean plays golf and attends Mississippi State University sporting events with his family, wife Kathi, daughter Lindsay and son Bryant. Lindsay is a sophomore at MSU, and Bryant is a junior in high school. Both have worked in the family restaurants, but Bean says he won’t push them to become the company’s third generation.
He’s very committed to Columbus where he was born and raised and says the company headquarters will not move.
“I hope my children will come back to Columbus. I don’t want to have to go to Atlanta or somewhere else to see my grandchildren,” he said. “Columbus, Starkville and Tupelo have been great to us and we try to be active in the communities. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Bean is president of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau and is active in the First United Methodist Church and the United Way. He is also a board member of the Mississippi Restaurant Association.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.