Story Ryan Poe | Photograph Luisa Porter
Evolve. That’s what Eat With Us Group CEO John Bean did, starting with a Starkville University Inn bar named Harvey’s in 1982.
Bean, his hair now streaked with silver, was food and beverage director at the Columbus Holiday Inn then.
Casually dressed and sitting in his spacious downtown Columbus office overlooking his company’s flagship restaurant, Harvey’s, Bean leaned back, put his fingertips together and told his story.
While in Mississippi State University business school, Bean had waited tables, like many college students. But he had bigger plans. He decided to drop out of school in his third year to manage a Nashville, Tenn., restaurant, but all along wanted to run his own business. When Starkville “went wet” in 1981, he saw his chance. “I said, ‘There’s the opportunity,’” Bean remembered. “We just kind of went from there.”
Backed by his mother, Myrrl, and family friend and father-figure Harvey Seifert, the Columbus native opened the popular night spot, but quickly found that the grill was a more reliable source of income than the bar. “There was no plan,” Bean said. “We evolved. We had to build a business we could make a living on.” He transformed the restaurant to fill the casual, fine-dining niche in Starkville, which was the “real key” to his success, he said.
“Before you start your business, a real key is finding a niche in your market,” he continued. “If you find a niche, you find yourself an edge, which gives you staying power.” Building “slowly, more methodically” on that success, he opened a second Harvey’s in Columbus in 1984 and a third in Tupelo in 1989, a year before Seifert died.
Now, 29 years after the first Harvey’s, the Eat With Us Group has 25 restaurants and franchise locations in five states, and is still growing despite the down economy. Bean said the group’s success was partly due to an emphasis on pleasing customers — something he learned from working as a restaurant manager. “We try to focus on who’s coming through our doors,” he said. “If we can do well with them, we’ll be OK.” Taking care of customers is one of the most important and sometimes overlooked marketing tools in the industry, he added. That attention to customers comes from the family-like nature of the family-owned group, Bean said. Executives treat managers as they would want to be treated, and managers treat employees the same way. So, when employees serve the customer, the golden rule trickles down. “They all contribute in different ways,” he said. “That’s why we’re here 29 years later.”