This column is part of a series called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Phil de Gruy, a 24-year restaurant industry veteran who ran Phil’s Grill, a multi-unit burger eatery, for 10 years.

I miss the stress. Not that I need it. If anything, I had to let it go.

Letting go of Phil’s Grill — the restaurant concept I grew from the ground up into a local’s favorite in New Orleans — is my best chance at restoring my health and watching my kids grow up.

You would think the stress is the worst part of owning a restaurant. It certainly doesn’t help your immune system when battling cancer. But I miss being a professional problem solver, interacting with my staff, coaching them through little problems during a shift like whether they should break up with their boyfriend.

But when my doctor called one morning to say the colon cancer I previously beat might now be in my lungs, and only an hour later I received an offer to buy my restaurant, my wife and I took it as a sign. It was the right decision for my health and for my family. Still, it’s devastating. It’s like a death.

Cancer doesn’t run in my family so if I had to guess how I got it, I’d bet stress. That same stress I miss.

I was 25 when I got out of the army and needed a job. I took a server position at a new Chili’s location. It was more than a gig. I enjoyed the camaraderie, the constant challenges. Really, I felt the tug of the industry. I worked my way up from waiter to Managing Partner in nine-year span that included 5 moves and General Manager of three locations.

A couple of more stops and we decided after Hurricane Katrina we’re not moving away again. The employment choices were thin and the timing right. My wife, Christina, said, “You can leave the industry or start your own concept.”

I wanted to be part of the rebuilding of the city. A restaurant owner serving a community attempting a comeback. It would take another year or so, but this was the beginning of Phil’s Grill.

Closing the last restaurant was the hardest thing I’ve done in my career, but I don’t regret it.

Initially, I started with a huge menu. Perhaps those giant Chili’s menus had sunk into my psyche. But then I sat down with a local chef and he said, “You know, all we ever talk about is burgers. Why don’t you just do burgers?” It was the “aha moment”. My inspiration was that classic New Orleans burger you’d order from the bar. Port Of Call, The Bottom Line, Beach Corner. The half-pound burger, a little bloody, but so much better than any restaurant was doing. I don’t know why these taste so good. Maybe because you usually eat them when it’s late and you just got out of work, but I wanted to take those flavors and put them in a family-friendly environment.

That was the beginning. Within five months, Phil’s Grill got its first write up naming us among the top five burgers in the city. Crowds started gathering down the street, and we were off. I had the idea to turn my one location into a small, regional chain. I opened a new location every year for four years.

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I wanted to be part of the rebuilding of the city. A restaurant owner serving a community attempting a comeback. It would take another year or so, but this was the beginning of Phil’s Grill.

This was where the challenges of the business and my personal health would collide. I wasn’t prepared for the expansion, and the second and third locations closed, but the first and fourth were strong. I expanded again after a couple of years. Though it was in a beautiful space in a booming part of town, I was a “couple of blocks away” and it basically failed out the chute. Right around this time, I wasn’t feeling well. Eventually, I couldn’t stand up straight and my blood pressure was through the roof, so I went to emergency room. The mood in that hospital room got real quiet when the doctor told me they had found a tumor on my colon. It was stage 3 colon cancer.

Chemo would be next, and I needed to take a step back from the restaurants. This was when my team really stepped in, letting me heal, relieving some of the stress. They proved resilient, even when huge challenges came up. I remember getting a call from a manager, saying there was a Honda Accord that drove through the window now sitting in the dining area. I ran over to join the team, but we didn’t close. When customers showed up, they asked if the grill was still working. The tow truck driver tried his first Phil’s burger that day.

It was the right decision for my health and for my family. Still, it’s devastating. It’s like a death.

I did six months of chemo before coming back to work. For another year, I was on the job, plugging away every day. Then another setback. Now the flagship closed. I was reeling, trying to keep my company alive and unknowingly also battling health issues again. After some routine scans, I got a call from the doctor. They found a mass in my lungs, and it may be the cancer from my colon now metastasized in my respiratory system. An hour later, came that call about an offer on the restaurant. The coincidence couldn’t be ignored.

Telling my team was the hardest part of saying goodbye. They understood, they supported. The new owners looking to open a burger concept offered everyone a job. Every day for the two weeks following that announcement felt like attending my own funeral. And, often, the closure feels like a death in the family. One guest told me, “No one is over this yet.”

Often, the closure feels like a death in the family.

When I look back, it feels like a failure. I know it shouldn’t. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we did it right. We treated our people right, who in turn treated our guests like family. We didn’t only flip burgers. We were part of the community. I’m most proud of that.

Cancer doesn’t run in my family so if I had to guess how I got it, I’d bet stress. That same stress I miss. Because of the location of the mass is against my aorta a needle biopsy was ruled out. A second procedure was attempted using a GPS-guided scope but was unsuccessful. On April 12 I had a lobectomy removing the entire upper lobe of my left lung. We’re waiting on pathology reports to determine if it’s cancer, then we’ll plan from there.

Closing the last restaurant was the hardest thing I’ve done in my career, but I don’t regret it. I still have a beautiful wife, wonderful kids, and much more I want to do. Phil’s Grill may be gone, but I plan to be around for a long time.

[Editor’s Note: Since writing this column, Phil received the results a diagnosis that the previous colon cancer he battled had metastasized in his lungs, which automatically is categorized as stage four cancer. He plans to get a second opinion and weigh treatment options in the coming weeks.]

Written by
Phil de Gruy is a 24-year restaurant industry veteran and ran Phil’s Grill, a multi-unit burger eatery, for 10 years. He is married to Christina and has 4 sons (Corey, Jackson, Jacob and Jude), and 1 grandson (Harland). He is a two-time cancer champion.
  • Evelyn Boullier

    Don’t give up, have faith!