By Susan Marquez
When Matt Taylor was 16 years old, he was given a hand-me-down car with no gas. “My parents told me that if I wanted to go somewhere, I needed to get a job.” A family friend owned a Subway sandwich shop, and he went to work. “Little did I know, that was the beginning of my career in food service.” Matt realized while working at Subway that food service was a good way to make a living. “We all have something in common,” he says. “We all have to eat.”
After graduating from Jackson Prep, the Flowood native went to Mississippi State. During his time in Starkville, he worked at a country club and various restaurants. With some experience under his belt, he went to work at the famed Rendezvous restaurant in Memphis for the next seven years. “I went to work for the Vergos family, which was my first exposure to Greek restauranteurs. I learned so much working there. It has a special place in my heart. They were such a good family to work for.”
But there is no place like home. “There is something about Jackson that pulls people back. I returned in January 2010 and started waiting tables at Nick’s.” Nick Apostle owned the white-tablecloth restaurant, and he became a mentor to Matt. “I grew up eating at Nick’s,” Matt recalls. “It was the celebration place, where we went for special occasions, like birthdays or prom.”
When Nick’s closed the doors at its Lakeland Drive location and opened in Fondren, Matt helped open the new restaurant. “I worked my way up the ladder there, and during that time I learned so much about the business from Nick. We had long talks, and he has easily forgotten more than I’ll ever know on my own.” Nick tried retiring a second time, closing the Fondren location, but he had one more restaurant in him.
The Lake Caroline community was developing, and Nick opened a neighborhood restaurant overlooking the lake. The seafood-driven menu was perfect for The Mermaid Café. “I moved to the Mermaid Café, but I had my doubts,” says Matt. “There wasn’t much out there when it opened in 2009. But Nick was a visionary. He saw what it could be.”
As Nick’s children began having children, he was ready to hang it up to spend more time with family. It was Nick’s hope and Matt’s dream for Matt to buy the restaurant. Two years ago, on January 1, 2020, Matt became the owner of The Mermaid Café. Three months later, the Covid pandemic caused the demise of restaurants across the country.
“We were fortunate,” says Matt. “We never closed the restaurant. We had to get up to speed to transition to curb-side service, but it worked for us. We had so many regulars coming by to pick up food, and they would tip hundreds of dollars. They wanted to be sure the staff was well taken care of so they would stay on. I was so touched. It’s our staff that keeps us going, so that meant so much.”
The Mermaid Café is in a unique spot, facing west across Lake Caroline. The long front porch is dotted with rocking chairs where folks enjoy watching the magnificent sunsets. Large enough to seat 170 people, the building is also used for private receptions, from rehearsal dinners to wedding receptions, showers, birthday parties and the annual Bishop’s Cup held in conjunction with the Catholic Charities golf tournament.
The menu is broad enough for everyone, from small children to older guests, to find something they enjoy. “I have made very few changes to the menu since I have taken over,” says Matt. “I am smart enough to know that any changes I make need to be small. I don’t want to alienate the folks who keep the lights on.”
From seafood to steaks, burgers, sandwiches, salads and pizza, The Mermaid Café offers a good selection of dishes. “We also do nightly appetizer and entrée specials, and that helps bring creativity to what we do.” Matt is comfortable with his staff, many of whom worked with Nick long before Matt came onto the scene.
“We have a gentleman in the kitchen who worked with Nick for over 30 years, and he’s been with me since I started. We also have a couple of staff members who have been on board for over 20 years.” Matt says that it’s been a lot of fun so far. “I love that it is different every day. I enjoy getting to know our guests, many of whom have become good friends. I don’t think I could ever be content to work in a cubical day-to-day. I am one of those people who thrives with interaction with others and with chaos. I think that puts me in the perfect spot!"