Gulf Shores Restaurant & Grill staying committed to the community

Gulf Shores Restaurant & Grill staying committed to the community

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August is Black Business Month in Illinois, as the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) announced a series of events and initiatives on Monday throughout the month. That includes “Shop Black-owned Businesses Saturdays.” Illinois currently has over 132,000 black-owned businesses comprising 11% of all Illinois businesses.

“Supporting Black business owners and entrepreneurs is important for the health of our communities and for restoring the Illinois economy following the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “Since day one of my administration, we have committed to creating an inclusive business ecosystem, centered around equitable access to opportunities and resources.

“This guiding principle has been incredibly important given the profound impact the pandemic has had on minority and economically depressed communities and businesses,” Pritzker continued. “During Black Business Month, and throughout the year, I encourage all Illinoisans to join me in supporting Black-owned business and celebrating the immeasurable contributions and the critical role they play in our economy.”

With the emphasis placed on black-owned businesses this month, it’s important to note the Metro East community is home to several black-owned businesses as well. That includes Gulf Shores Restaurant & Grill on Harvard Avenue in Edwardsville.


Gulf Shores, which has two locations in Creve Couer, Missouri, and Edwardsville, was started by Harry and Erica Parker in 2005 after Parker said he felt “constrained” in presenting a dining experience that represented the Southern and “N’Awlins” hospitality, the website says.

“I started Gulf Shores because I wanted to bring my family recipes to the public,” said Harry Parker, owner of Gulf Shores. “I’ve been in St. Louis for 19 years, started the first restaurant in Creve Coeur 17 years ago, and that went better than expected so I decided to expand. We’re trying to bring the true flavors of New Orleans — the gumbos, the blend of spices, debunking the myth that Cajun food is hot, that down home cooking — to the Midwest.”

Parker said that Gulf Shores makes everything in the restaurant, from salad dressings to sauces to desserts, in house. That’s in an effort to replicate the “total New Orleans” dining experience, which also includes beignets, live music and “everything New Orleans” in one spot. That also includes live aquariums, as the Creve Coeur location includes a 200-gallon tank and the Edwardsville location includes a 400-gallon tank.

“I wanted to do something for the kids,” Parker said. “When we started out, I wanted to be a kid friendly restaurant. I wanted something special for the kids, and the aquariums have the kids losing their minds. The seniors also enjoy it much more than I was expecting. Other than it becoming a talking point at the dinner table, the aquarium relaxes people and reminds them of Gulf Shores in Alabama.”

The menu and emphasis on the New Orleans feel to the restaurant is something Parker wanted, as having roots in the city, Parker wanted to bring that atmosphere to the Midwest. 

“The menu comes from my mom and dad,” Parker said. “It’s all my menu, the flavors of New Orleans, it’s what I grew up on. I also got input from my wife, my family, people like my aunts in the development of the menu.”

The menu features genuine New Orleans food staples with sides like red beans and rice as well as things like red snapper etouffee that Parker said you can’t find other places. Chandler Eason, the assistant general manager of the Edwardsville Gulf Shores location, said the restaurant is the closest thing to the genuine experience.

“We deliver that New Orleans experience away from home, being that we’re so far away from New Orleans, we’re the closest restaurant in the area to give that experience out,” Eason said. “It’s all done through the food. Once a week there’s a special from Friday to Friday, with Cajun, New Orleans-style food. Ninety-five percent of it is Harry’s own family recipe from down in the Gulf area.”

The pandemic was a hard time for both the Parkers and Gulf Shores as a restaurant, and both had to adapt to overcome the presented challenges.

“We went straight to to-go orders only, with us being a shorter staffed restaurant already, it was a transition,” Eason said. “It was a little bit slower in the beginning but through time we picked things up, we saw the support throughout the community stick with us and saw more business as the limit capacities continued to expand.”

Eason said the restaurant is continuing to view options as the uptick in the area continues to come into play. Things like cleaning menus after use, making sure all tables are sanitized and taking a while to seat larger parties to ensure safe disinfection are being followed, as are proper cleaning procedures.

Gulf Shores may have been able to see that support from the community as the Parkers and the restaurant place a heavy emphasis on people because that’s what makes a restaurant successful, Parker said.

“You have to have a passion for people, show people that they’re appreciated,” Parker said. “I think at restaurants, both employees and customers have the biggest impact and people can make the restaurant experience what they want it to be. The goal is excellence in terms of the people involved, the people factor is the biggest factor that makes a restaurant successful.” 

That belief in putting people first has made Parker want to invest in the community, both in terms of actual time, as the Parkers have been cooking and working on the restaurant’s food truck in St. Louis throughout the pandemic, as he’s experienced a hard time getting people employed thanks in part to the labor shortage, but also in terms of giving back to the community.

“We’ve fed the police and the firemen, high school teachers, at Edwardsville High School there’s a staff of about 225, we fed them to show our appreciation,” Parker said. “We gave computers to Woodland Elementary School … We support churches. We want to be a part of this community as we live in Edwardsville. In return, they’re reciprocating and helping us to become very successful.”

That success has recently meant diversified revenue, as the pandemic has taught Parker to become “smarter.”

“One thing I learned through the pandemic, having a single source is not a good place to be,” Parker said. “We expanded on that and accompanied that lesson with our food truck, we have that and a catering business, a seafood business, retail sales. I would like to think one thing COVID did was make us a lot smarter.”

Parker credits the food truck for enabling the restaurant to survive the pandemic. He said Gulf Shores took advantage of opportunities like at Amazon, which shut down interior cafeterias but still had large staffs in need of food. That was an opportunity Gulf Shores’ food truck was able to take advantage of. Gulf Shores is also now opening a new location in November in St. Peters, Missouri.

That diversification of revenue is one lesson Gulf Shores took out of the pandemic, but Parker said the goal is also to stay committed to the community.

“We’re gonna grow, we’re gonna expand,” Parker said. “We’ll diversify our revenue stream, open a brunch location, a seafood market, and those will be proving grounds as the company grows, maybe expanding into areas like a brunch cafe, seafood markets, a short order restaurant without an expanded menu. The intent is to grow, the other intent is to stay committed to the community.”

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