Imagine walking into a hip, 14-foot wide New York restaurant. The food is delectable, the atmosphere is incredible, and you’re fully immersed in a big city experience. Now, walk outside and realize you’re actually in a small southern college town. This is exactly what patrons experience when they visit Saint Leo in Oxford, Mississippi.
Don’t be deceived by its small size and southern charm. By serving amazing food and employing a fantastic staff, truly magnificent meals are served in this unassuming location. In 2017, Saint Leo was honored as a James Beard Foundation “Best New Restaurant” semifinalist, and owner Emily Blount was selected alongside twenty other women for a fellowship in the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program. Many restaurants only dream about achieving these same accolades.
This level of success is even more inspiring when you discover that Blount had never managed, much less owned, a restaurant before embarking on a 3-year journey to open Saint Leo.
From Footlights to Food Service
Blount got her start in acting in New York and produced her own off-Broadway show. If you have ever met an actor or actress in New York, you know that they often spend a great deal of time working in restaurants to pay the bills. Drawn to the energy, pace, and the camaraderie of the hospitality industry, Blount followed this familiar formula. After spending time at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern and reading his book, Setting the Table, she realized that great restauranteurs use a formula to inspire their staff to make real connections with their patrons. After the birth of her daughter, Blount’s husband convinced her to move back to Mississippi to be closer to his family. She decided that she wanted to build a restaurant in Oxford.
“I never managed a restaurant. I was a host and a server and I managed a Yoga Works. I didn’t have any business starting a restaurant.”Emily Blount, Owner
Three years after their decision to move to Oxford, Blount opened the doors to Saint Leo. She invested countless hours into business planning, research, and sought out others in the industry for guidance. She consulted with Chef Dan Latham, who had a successful restaurant in Oxford called L&M’s before moving to Atlanta. She also purchased a mobile wood-fired oven to host popup dinners around town to test her concept before going all-in on a brick and mortar restaurant. It was those popup dinners that ultimately provided the grassroots marketing and buzz that made them so successful in their first months after opening. Blount spent an entire year just looking for the perfect location for the restaurant.
Stepping into Leadership
To make a place that had the same levels of hospitality and enthusiasm as Gramercy Tavern, Blount sought out guidance and mentorship from peer leaders. She attended leadership training events, some of which were hosted by Danny Meyer and Ari Zingerman, to help her 85 (and counting) employees to be successful and engaged. While attending the five-day Women Entrepreneurship Program in 2018, Blount received business training as well as gender-specific leadership development. The program also stressed an emphasis on work-life balance and other cultural issues facing restaurant entrepreneurs. By networking with a group of twenty other women, Blount finally felt as though she wasn’t doing this on her own.
This experience further developed Blount’s goal of building a business where the food and service are, of course, important — but the happiness and well-being of her staff are paramount. Her experience as a mother has also helped immensely in creating an environment where she truly sees her staff as her family. She knows that the magic the restaurant creates on a daily basis is only possible with the help of a rested, respected team. As a mother, she knows first hand that juggling “mom life” while running a restaurant is tough and requires a great deal of sacrifice.
“I go through periods of thinking I am sucking at being a Mom, because I have to do payroll, but it can also be rewarding because they also see their mom working towards something and being passionate about something important.”Emily Blount, Owner
Blount is co-owner of Saint Leo with her sister-in-law, Joie Blount, who is also the mother of a young child. They work together to make sure that their employees are taken care of and understand that their focus is on their wellbeing. The restaurant industry is notorious for having staffing issues, but the co-owners work to create an environment at Saint Leo that prioritizes the needs of each individual person. The duo works hard to provide not only a living wage to members of their team, and also offer non-salaried employees paid sick time. Blount has seen how minimum wage and tipping systems are flawed, and she is working to find ways to improve this over time.
Southern Hospitality Meets New York Energy
Blount’s care and attention to detail are evident when you walk through the doors at Saint Leo. Their staff has a contagious energy and joy that makes the whole experience exciting. From Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” playing in the background to “Soul Train” playing on the TVs in the bar, the restaurant gives patrons a unique experience likened to enjoying brunch on the Lower East Side. The added bonus? Experiencing authentic southern hospitality at the same time. Blount noted that even her menu is basically a conversation with her audience — and always a work in progress.
When first opening, the menu pushed the limits of local cuisine too far for some locals’ tastes. But her consistent quality has made the restaurant a local favorite — as well as one of the places to visit while in town. After all, patrons should have a deep human connection with the people that are serving them that unforgettable pizza or plate of carbonara. Saint Leo, under Blount’s leadership, proves that amazing food and great service can be found in the most unexpected places.