Washington D.C. is in Paul Ruppert's blood. His family has run a real estate business in D.C. since 1889. And his great-grandfather owned a hardware store on 7th Street NW; the sign still hangs on the building. In a city of transients, Ruppert is a rare breed, a native Washingtonian who has seen and been a part of its dramatic growth and change.
Those newer to the city know Ruppert best for partnering with local food and drink talents for such popular bars The Passenger, The Columbia Room and the now-closed Hogo, as well has his neighborhood hangouts Room 11, Crane and Turtle and Petworth Citizen. Those in the arts and music scene might know him better from the Warehouse Theater. Among his new ventures: Upshur Street Books (the Kickstarter campaign began this week).
And it's clear that he dreams big — his team has several other projects in the works. Among them is a restaurant on the first floor of the Murrell Building on Georgia Ave. and Upshur St., and a relocation of their offices to the second floor. And there are even more things to come from Ruppert.
Ruppert got his start in restaurants long before the D.C. food scene kicked into high gear. After graduating from college, he returned to D.C. and convinced his mom to open a restaurant in 1992. "She's game for any kind of new adventure. So we took the building that we own on Seventh Street, where Hogo was. At that time Ruppert Real Estate was downstairs, so we moved it upstairs and renovated the first floor."
At that time, it was an area where many might not have felt safe venturing through at night. But Ruppert saw it with different eyes, "Working down there in the real estate office as a kid... that was our neighborhood. We took precautions, but it didn't seem like a rough neighborhood. That's where the family business was, and we knew everyone who worked in the area."
The family ran the place together, serving American homestyle cuisine. "We were both in the kitchen, and my sister was out front. And we had a little bit of success in that Phyllis Richman reviewed us and we had some customers. But we weren't profitable. We knew we had to hire a chef, so we could go and do more to draw people in. We hired a fantastic chef, John Cochran, who we eventually sold the business to, and he turned it into this fantastic restaurant."
And with Cochran at the helm, Ruppert's was a pioneer in the food scene with its focus on local and seasonal ingredients. Then-Washington Post critic Phyllis Richman in her 1996 review called the restaurant "a fashion show for seasonal produce." Richman described an hors d'oeuvre served in the bowl of a spoon as "precious" (today, it sounds like a conventional amuse bouche). Ruppert says Cochran was "doing something not a lot of people were doing at that time. He and his team took the restaurant to new heights." The chef was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 1997.
This set the tone for Ruppert's future ventures. "I pay a lot of attention to what's going on in the food and beverage scene in D.C. Keeping on top of trends because innovation is something important to me. I don't want to do something other people have done. So when Derek had this idea of a 10-seat high-end cocktail lounge, I said, 'Wow! That sounds fantastic. No one else is doing that.'"
After selling the restaurant to Cochran, Ruppert moved to New York to complete a Master's in Irish Studies, and then served as director of the American Irish Historical Society. During his time in New York, he started to become involved in art openings and shows at the Warehouse. In 2001, he came back to work full time on the Warehouse, adding a cafe to the front of the theater and concert space next door. He also began working with Nick Pimentel, who booked concerts, and who would eventually become one of his business partners and the interior and visual designer for his projects.
In 2007, with increasing commercial property taxes, Ruppert began looking for buyers for the family's properties on Seventh Street, including the Warehouse. He concurrently started working on Room 11 with Pimentel, Dan Searing and Ben Gilligan. And he discussed doing a project with Derek Brown somewhere else. "Then the economic crash came and the deal for selling our properties fell through. So that's when Derek, Tom [Brown] and I decided to do The Passenger and the Columbia Room on Seventh Street."
"My overall goal is to do interesting things in life," Ruppert says."I love Washington. So I want to do things to make Washington a better, cooler, more interesting place. And so I have a certain skill set that is limited and in order for me to achieve what I want to achieve, I need to partner with people who are talented in areas I'm not talented in. I think that's what I've found success in over my career."
This was why he initiated his partnerships with Derek Brown, Dan Searing and Ben Gilligan. With Brown, he read an article about him and then sent him an email asking to grab coffee. For a year and a half, they discussed ideas, and looked at spaces. Similarly, with Room 11, he got in touch with Pimentel about doing a wine bar. Pimentel asked to join the team, while also recommending Searing and Gilligan.
"One thing that makes people stay with the projects we do, is I give people a lot of responsibility and I don't pretend to be an expert in the things I'm not an expert in," he said. This approach has enabled him to engage his partners more actively in his projects. He certainly did not expect to open a Japanese and French restaurant like Crane and Turtle until he auditioned the chef, Makoto Hamamura.
One of Ruppert's next moves is in the consulting realm, working with others who want to open their own restaurants. Over the years he has received many calls requesting to meet over coffee. Often, those turned into formal consulting opportunities — assisting with business plans, navigating city regulations, or developing marketing plans.
The native Washingtonian notes for all his projects, "The profit motive isn't the most important thing. My first goal is to do something that adds something to Washington and that we do a good job doing that."
Business partner Pimentel says, "He's helping neighborhoods. He's helping with the bookstore, for example. I know that Paul is always worried that on his gravestone, it would say 'Restaurateur' on it. And that's not what he wants to be known for, not just that. He's done a lot with the arts and theater, working with artists. He's definitely a great asset to our community."
"I do not do this job to get recognition," Ruppert acknowledges. "I do this job to create special places."
Editor's Note: Ruppert is not involved with frequent partner Nick Pimentel's upcoming Filipino restaurant.
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