Restauranteur wants food truck to inspire East St. Louis


EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (AP) – For Harry Parker, owning a restaurant isn’t just about making good quality food for customers.

He also wants to give back to the community, especially those that are underserved. Parker, the owner of Gulf Shores Restaurant and Grill, remembers hearing gunshots while serving customers in Ferguson, Missouri. He has given free meals to veterans and is planning to give some to teachers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parker wants everyone to experience that affable nature of Southern hospitality, which is fitting, because the South is where he calls home. And he wants East St. Louis residents to have a taste of it. In December, he plans to have a food truck in the city.

“I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant in areas that may be (of) lesser income, that don’t have all the growth criteria and all the demographics and so forth,” Parker, who lives in Edwardsville, said. “The food is mama and daddy’s recipes. I have an engineering degree and an MBA. I don’t know a lot about cooking, but mama and daddy cooked….and when I go back home, this is the type of food that we eat and grew up on, and I just say you know it’s a shame that I don’t take this food to where people who look like me are and maybe don’t even know about it.”

After retiring from DuPont as a corporate executive, Parker used his family’s recipes to open the restaurant’s first location in Creve Coeur, Missouri, in 2008. He opened an Edwardsville location seven years later. The restaurant prides itself on being the premier destination for getting Cajun seafood in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

East St. Louis is the latest food truck location for the restaurant. For nearly two years, Gulf Shores has operated food truck locations in St. Louis’ North County. Now Parker plans to operate on alternate days, near the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center and the federal building. Parker hasn’t set a date for the opening.

Keesha Blanchard, an East St. Louis resident, is a regular customer of Gulf Shores. For the past two years, she’s traveled to its Edwardsville location, a nearly 30 minute drive from East St. Louis, mainly for its fried pickles, which she loves. She’s also a fan of Gulf Shores’ shrimp. She’s excited about the food truck coming to her city.

“It’s rare that you have a restaurant that really cares about the people. The food is always great, and it’s nice to know that they want to make sure that you’re OK too,” Blanchard said. “Even the people who weren’t serving me but were around would check on me to see if the food was OK.”

Caring for the people and community he’s serving is Parker’s mission. It’s what led to his plans for East St. Louis, a community that’s severely under-resourced. Along with being a food desert, the city’s unemployment rate is about 16%, more than two times higher than the national rate.

“We support the community,” Parker said .“We give back to the community. I want everybody to understand and see that a minority-owned restaurant can indeed be a part of the community and can indeed contribute to the community, which is why I wanted to do the food truck in East St. Louis.”

Parker also wants his mission to be reflected in the people he hires. He said some of his servers are people who want a second chance at life after dealing with drug abuse or having a criminal past.

“People who have had hard times, but now want to get themselves out of it, are still people and they’re capable,” Parker said. “So I want to have the best restaurant in St. Louis, and when people say how good the food is I want to say, ‘And guess what? The people who cooked that food are felons, recovered drug addicts and so forth’. Those people can make up a workforce that can indeed contribute.”

Torian Hopkins, a cook and food truck manager for Gulf Shores, is thankful for Parker’s willingness to give him a second chance. Hopkins joined the restaurant’s staff in Edwardsville in 2015. Last year, he was sent to prison for a firearm possession charge. Upon his release this year, Hopkins was able to get his job back.

“I was going through other things in my life, and I was on the verge of giving up,” Hopkins, an East St. Louis native, said about his life before he went to prison. “I was calling off work and I was just doing all types of stuff. My brother had passed (away) and then after my brother had passed, my mom had passed, and I was giving up. I believe getting incarcerated was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me because I wouldn’t have made it. I would’ve been gone.”

“And I refuse to be institutionalized, and I won’t do the things that I did to go (there) the first time, and if it just so happens that I do the things I did, I understand the consequences.”

Hopkins said he’s glad to have a boss who cares about him, like Parker.

“He’ll help people with anything,” Hopkins said. “When I got out, he bought me a car, got my job back and just made sure I was alright.”

Hopkins, 36, is happy about continuing his affinity for cooking, which started as a childhood hobby. His favorite part about working for the restaurant is having a strong bond with his co-workers.

“I love cooking and seeing people happy with what I do,” he said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Parker’s grateful that he’s able to expand the restaurant’s food truck business at a time when most restaurants, including his, are struggling. Parker said his business is operating somewhere between 15% to 20% of its regular sales, but he doesn’t let that get him down.

“There’s opportunities in difficult times,” Parker said. “I try not to sit down and talk about how bad it is. I try to be motivated to go and do those kinds of things, find those kinds of opportunities, find those parallels. That’s why we have the food truck. We’re looking forward to the food truck supplementing us. “

He’s also looking forward to inspiring the people in East St. Louis with his food truck, especially considering how he’s a Black man who was raised in the Jim Crow South and made a successful business out of his parents’ cooking.

Parker, 66, was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He remembers his mom teaching him and his siblings how to blend spices and make gumbo, a Cajun delicacy. Parker’s Southern upbringing made it easy for him to enter the restaurant business after retirement.

“I’ve always loved to cook, because mama could cook and daddy could cook,” Parker said. “Whenever we were going some place,…. everybody wanted to know what my mom and dad were gonna be making. (For) family reunions – my dad’s name is Rockwell, my mother’s name is Mary – (people would ask) , ‘What’s Rockwell and Mary cooking, what are they gonna bring?’”

“We would have all those family recipes. It would be a shame to have those recipes die, so I decided I was gonna take those recipes and open a restaurant.”

Parker hopes his story, and, by extension, his restaurant, will encourage people in East St. Louis to follow their dreams, regardless of how difficult they may seem.

“If I can motivate anyone to have a dream and pursue it and take it directly in our neighborhoods so our people can see it, so they can witness it and understand that this is a Black-owned restaurant, and that restaurant is doing everything it can for the entire community, then I’ve done my job.”


Source: Belleville News-Democrat:

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