Stigall Treads Rocky Business Road
When Donna Stigall opened Le Soul restaurant in Hazlehurst two years ago, she had no clue what she was getting into.
"I had no experience in the restaurant business," she says. "I never waited on a table, let alone managed a restaurant. This is the hardest work I've ever done. It's not just serving good quality food, but hiring a staff and organizing them to work together well. I have made a lot of mistakes and continue learning. I'm a fighter, though, and am determined to be successful. I am committed to making it work for customers and others who want me to succeed."
Folk in the area who love good food and are willing to tolerate the birth pangs and confusion that go with opening and building a restaurant business are rooting her on.
Stigall was born and grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, with two sisters and a brother. She recalls riding her bike and playing on the streets in the downtown area near the Roman Catholic cathedral a few blocks from her home. "Small and a safe place to live for a child, it was the perfect place to grow up," she says.
At 14 years old, she got her first job there working for her father, who owned and operated a collections agency and tax service with branches throughout Mississippi. She went through school at Natchez until her family moved to Clinton, Mississippi, just before her senior year in high school. Rather than start a new school year there and have to make new friends and start a new life in midst of her senior year studies, Stigall completed her course work during the summer and received her high school diploma from Clinton High School when she was 16 years old.
While working at Gayfers, a clothing retailer at a Jackson mall, Stigall attended Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi, and then went on to the University of Mississippi at Oxford, where she decided she preferred beaches to academics after a semester, and relocated to Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
In Florida, Stigall maintained a relationship with a long-time sweetheart whom she had met as an eighth grader in Natchez, married him in 1980 and moved with him to Lafayette, Louisiana, where he worked in the oil fields and they started a family. After a divorce, Stigall came back to Mississippi in 1996 to live near her parents, who resided in Brookhaven. She settled in Crystal Springs and started her own business there in 1997 making loans for Pay Day and selling cellular phones. The business, which she calls Stigall Investments & My Mortgage Company. LLC, now specializes in renting properties and brokering mortgage loans, and continues today as a much-needed funding source for her fledgling restaurant.
In 1999, when one of her three sons decided he wanted to play high school football at Madison, Mississippi, she moved there, and then relocated to Hazlehurst in 2019 to be near her Crystal Springs business and have an easier drive to her properties and other interests in Lafayette.
At Hazlehurst, Stigall purchased a building on the south side of Gallatin Street, to add the "charming apartment" on its second floor to her portfolio of rental properties. "I had fallen in love with it twenty years earlier and never forgotten about it," she says. The first floor of the building had been a lighting and antique store, which the wife of a Hazlehurst government official suggested would make a good restaurant location and that Stigall might want to open one. "Hazlehurst needs a good restaurant," she told Stigall.
Le Soul was born, it has been a rocky road. "I enjoyed the design and construction work, shaping a space for a restaurant, but I wasn't prepared for the work of managing it, even though I like business challenges." There have been the challenges of creating business systems, developing a loyal customer base in a venue that allows people to relax and get to know each other and, above all, building a competent, reliable staff with people who function well together and you can trust to operate the business when you want to take time off. Over the short two years she has managed Le Soul, Stigall has employed an estimated ten cooks. For an all too brief time, she unloaded the work on Chris McSwain who transplanted the former Porches restaurant business at Le Soul, but another job took him away and Stigall was again "a prisoner of my restaurant," while getting everything on track.
Good quality food with a Louisiana touch and striving to give her customers the best has helped propel Le Soul to a point at which Stigall believes it can successfully hurdle the "third year business hump." Le Soul now has a good, reliable cook, its staff is melding and Stigall continues to work on making its service run smoothly consistently. Tweaking Le Soul's New Orleans style Sunday brunch -- unique to the area -- is high on her current agenda: Adding more breakfast items to the menu that features catfish, steak and Bloody Mary and mimosa specials. Music, perhaps a live jazz trio. Sports on wide flat screens.
Stigall is even seeing a future with some time to spend with her three sons -- Braydon, who works for his father's oilfield services business; Arin, a medical technician; and Payton, a mechanic -- and their families, including five grandchildren -- Kannon, who is studying at LSU; Jaleh, 13, Karah, 10, Parker, 8, and Cali, 5.
What are your hobbies? I long for the days I can travel again. I'll go anywhere, but I want to spend time with family and enjoy my condo at Destin, Florida.
Are you a reader?
I do a lot of online reading in connection with business, but sitting down with books in another thing!
Do you enjoy movies or theater?
I am looking forward to movie theaters reopening in the aftermath of COVID-19. Top Gun is at the top of my list. I enjoy high school plays, little theater and TV movies as well. I have no favorite actors or actresses. Just give me a good script.
Are you into music?
I enjoy everything except rap. I like Adele. But there are a lot of great artists locally, too. I played the saxophone in high school. So, yes, I really like jazz. But I am not a musician.
What would you do with lottery winnings if you were so lucky? I would clear up my debt, invest in Le Soul to make it a big success, take care of family and friends and give to the legitimate charities focused on animals, sick and abused persons and people in need.
How would you change the world? The world needs a lot of help. Things are sad today. People need to live like Jesus. How you make that happen, however, is way over my head.