Meredith Stringfellow says you’re not going to do a restaurant if you don’t love it.
A recent industry survey reported that new restaurants in the United States have a one in four chance of closing or changing ownership within their first year. Those odds increase to three in five during the restaurant’s first three years.
Fighting those odds, Stringfellow and husband, Ryan, opened The Blue Rooster in downtown Flora in 2008 after a year of running the nearby Coach’s Country Store.
Now in its fifth year, the tiny restaurant in the rosy red brick building on Mississippi 22 is going strong. The Stringfellows opened a second Blue Rooster location last year on Northside Drive in Clinton.
The Blue Rooster menu includes appetizers, salads and sandwiches but the real draw is their signature burgers with mouth-watering names like the Big Nasty, the Flamethrower and the build-your-own Rooster Burger.
“I love to hear people say I’ve been everywhere but this is the best burger I’ve ever had,” Stringfellow says.
Comments like that from customers after a good meal are the lifeblood of Blue Rooster, and as critical for staying in business as any revenue stream.
“I want their plate to be clean,” Stringfellow says. “It just fills my soul to take that plate back to the trash can and dump it and they’ll be nothing on it.”
In a recovering economy, dining out might still be a pinch for some budgets, but the lunch and dinner hours are always packed at Blue Rooster with everyone from farmers and small business owners to high schoolers and tourists dining in or picking up orders.
Born Meredith Johnson in Delhi, La., the future restaurant matron earned a business management degree from Mississippi State University in 2005 then moved to Hattiesburg one month before Hurricane Katrina hit. It was during that time that she met Ryan Stringfellow, a cook and budding restaurant manager from Lucedale.
“I couldn’t do anything without him,” Stringfellow says today of her husband. “He’s taught me everything I know.”
It was Ryan who came up with the name for the restaurant. He frequently tells younger customers an imaginative tale about being shipwrecked on a deserted island, “with nothing to eat but a blue rooster.”
While Meredith spends most of her time in the front of the house managing the customers, Ryan cooks and manages the staff.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of money to get started,” Stringfellow says. “He just got in the kitchen and started cooking and I’d be up front working the register.”
Meredith Stringfellow’s walk is slightly stiff as she opens up the restaurant one Friday morning. A car crash at the age of 14 left her paralyzed from the knees down.
“I was in a wheelchair for a year and a half,” she says rolling up a pant leg to show the braces that help her walk. “We’re fighters. My brothers both played football. I was a cheerleader, captain of my eighth-grade squad. My world was turned upside down.”
Stringfellow admits that she can walk today “by the grace of God.” Her quadricep and hamstring muscles help her lift and plant her feet. She can’t wear high-heels and resorted to wearing white Pumas to her wedding.
With inward grit and a gleam in her eye, Stringfellow admits she’s too busy to worry about whether she will ever walk as well as she did before the accident.
“There came a point in my recovery where it just kind of stopped,” she says. “If I had time to stop life and just do that — but I don’t — I don’t have time to go and be with a therapist all the time and take whatever experimental drugs that are going to make me feel weird. I’m so grateful and so thankful. I have to keep my eye on the prize.”
What does keep Stringfellow wondering is managing her cherished restaurant. Inconsistencies with the menu, foot traffic, employees, even utilities all can be a challenge. The biggest thing is just the unknown factor: Will Blue Rooster beat the odds another year or two or three?
Stringfellow says it all comes down to her employees and customers.
“If you’re going to be here and give me 175 percent, I’m going to pay you,” she says, adding that she’s happy to include overtime.
Regarding her customers: “Business is fantastic. Flora is our town. We’d like to make this something really great. Its so nice to be a part of something.”
Right now, the Stringfellows are holding their own managing both restaurants, staying active in their community and raising their 14-month-old son Johnson Drew.
The Blue Rooster was a finalist in the Mississippi Beef Council’s “Best Burger” contest in 2010 and won statewide in 2012. Also last year, Stringfellow was inducted into the Mississippi Business Journal’s “50 Leading Business Women” annual class.
“I want you to fall in love with this place,” she says she told a recent job applicant. “That’s what we do. This is our life. Our passion. It’s not just a job for us.”
cut Meredith Stringfellow opened her Flora restaurant The Blue Rooster in 2008. She was honored in 2012 as a Mississippi Business Journal “50 Leading Business Woman.”
>> AT A GLANCE
Name: The Blue Rooster
Address: 4822 Highway 22, Flora
Phone: (601) 879-3289
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 AM – 9 PM