The opposite of a Slim chance: an interview with Paul Ruppert

You can’t talk about the recent resurgence along Upshur Street in Petworth without mentioning Paul Ruppert. The Ruppert family has lived and owned businesses in DC since the 1890s when his great-grandfather opened up a hardware store. An entrepreneur at heart, Paul has run several successful restaurants in DC since he opened his first one on 7th Street with his mother in 1992. Paul has made a career of opening businesses in areas of DC that are on the cusp of change, and then lending support to those communities. It’s no different with Petworth.

I met up with Paul Ruppert a couple of weeks back to tour “Slim’s Diner,” the under-construction restaurant in the old Murrell Building at 4201 Georgia Avenue NW, and to get to know more about him. If you don’t know who Paul is, by now you likely know and might have been to at least one of his three businesses on Upshur Street. Paul owns Crane & Turtle, Upshur Street Books and Petworth Citizen. 

We started our time together by visiting the diner in the Murrell Building and talked about what it would look like (and what food it would serve) when it was done. At the time the interior was still very rough, as nothing had been installed yet and the floors were still being worked on. 

They believe the checkered flooring is the original floor from the pharmacy that was here in the early 1920s. The building itself is still owned by the Murrell family, who purchased the building in the 1980s. The building has been a pharmacy, an office building and recently was a legal clinic for women. After being empty for a long time, Paul leased the building with the intention of putting his company offices in the top floors and opening a restaurant in the bottom floor. 

“We looked at the Murrell building and it said ‘diner’ to us. So then we started asking questions. Ok, can the neighborhood support a diner? Will it make money? We talked to neighbors, got opinions on Facebook and around town, looked at the architecture, did the financial assessment, the work needed… and we said ‘great, let’s do this.’”

When we arrived at the diner they were just completing the last round of floor polish, so we stood at the open front door and talked about what customers will find in about two months from now. (Yep, that means they’re hoping to open the diner in October.)

What you’ll find is traditional diner food. Burgers, pancakes, eggs of all kinds and a side of fried potatoes (or maybe hash browns…) The counter area will also serve as the bar (they’re thinking of offering spiked milk shakes). The long side of the counter will have nine of the stools (no backs on them), while there will be five stools with backs along the side. (The far side of the counter will open, allowing staff to go back and forth behind the counter.) Paul has spent months doing research at other diners, thinking about what will make Slim’s Diner popular, desirable and ultimately, profitable.

Rendering of Slim's Diner (courtesy Paul Ruppert)

“We’re going with clean lines, classic, I would say,” said Paul, looking around the empty interior. It was obvious he was seeing the finished restaurant in his head as he explained the layout to me. “We’ll have formica tables, red vinyl booths and chairs,” he said, pointing along the wall. 

The plan is for eight booths, five along the windows and three running down the center. Each booth will hold up to six people. They’re planning on 40 seats inside the diner at the counter and at the booths. Outdoor seating will come a bit later. Due to permit issues, the restaurant has to be completed before they can start the process for outside seating, but they’re planning on another 40 seats along Upshur and 9th Street. I asked about the recent online poll the diner ran on hash browns versus fried potatoes. “There were more votes for hash browns, but we’ll see,” he said, with a slight grin. While everyone gets a vote, Paul gets to make the final decision.

Slim, a carpenter and the namesake of the diner. (courtesy Paul Ruppert)

The diner will be open from 7am until midnight during the week, and will close later at 2am on the weekends. There’s no menu yet, but that’s coming.

I asked Paul about the meaning of the diner’s name. “Slim is a carpenter who has worked on all of our restaurant projects over the past 25 years,” he said. “He has never met a stranger. We admire his friendly attitude and hard work ethic and believe that his name captures the friendly, accessible vibe that we want to offer at the new diner.” Sounds like a great way to honor someone.

Paul showed me the upstairs offices, which will be the home for all of Paul’s businesses, including his family’s real estate management company and the Upshur Street restaurants, with 8-10 employees working in the offices.

The renovations are keeping as much original of the interior as possible, though with so many renovations and uses over the years, pretty much only the floors remain. “I think up here were apartments at one time, over the pharmacy,” Paul said, looking around at the construction in the still empty offices. “I think it’s meaningful to keep the building useful and alive.”

We walked back to Petworth Citizen and sat down to talk more. I asked him about his background, assuming it was a long and storied career in hospitality. “I’m a history major,” he said, with a slight shrug and grin. “I have a Master's in Irish Studies, and for a while I worked up in New York City as the director of the American Irish Historical Society.”

 Paul Ruppert

Paul Ruppert

But Paul and his family have a lot of experience with real estate and running restaurants in DC, including Room 11 (3234 11th Street NW) and the now closed Hogos and The Passenger.  Paul’s great-grandfather opened a hardware store on 7th Street, which the family kept open until 1987. They turned it into a successful restaurant in 1992 and opening and running restaurants became a successful career for Paul. The family sold the 7th Street location in 2014.

The Ruppert Hardware Store, opened on 7th Street in the 1890s. (courtesy Paul Ruppert)

After working in New York, Paul came back to DC in 2001 to run the Warehouse theater and back into the family real estate business. Now, 14 years and many restaurants later, Paul owns three businesses on Upshur, one of which is a book store. I asked him why he chose Petworth, and Upshur Street in particular, when he opened Petworth Citizen, and then doubled-down by opening more businesses on the same street.

“I love the architecture of Upshur and its neighborhood-serving retail,” he said. “The mix of retail, new and old, I like that a lot. I liked that Upshur wasn’t a main street, people aren’t rushing by. It’s a place people can connect with while driving by slower or walking.”

“When we saw this building was available,” he said, gesturing about Petworth Citizen, the restaurant around us, “I knew it would be a good place. We’re not trying to draw customers from downtown, I was interested in serving local residents.”

Petworth Citizen (829 Upshur St NW)

In fact, the restaurant is named after the area’s first newspaper, called Petworth Citizen. Old copies of the paper are framed up on the walls.

“When I do projects, I come at it from what the neighborhood needs, what does the architecture lend itself to? Before, this place had been a bar,” Paul said, referring to the prior nightclub, Island Cafe. “I realized that what was missing on Upshur was a neighborhood bar.”

We talked about the changes that have come to Petworth over the past few years, and I mentioned how Paul’s businesses have contributed to those changes. “I know my restaurants can change a neighborhood,” he said. “Honestly, change is lower on my end of things to think about. Any business is successful if it matches with what the neighborhood wants now. I’m not as concerned about what they want in five years. We thought that a neighborhood bar and restaurant that was welcoming to all would do well.” 

And Paul’s right, Petworth Citizen has done well, both for him and the community. (I even had my Petworth News Shindig at the restaurant’s Reading Room earlier this summer — seemed the natural place to do it.)

Crane & Turtle, his French and Japanese fusion restaurant across the street from the Citizen, has also done well. It’s been written up with top praise in numerous food blogs and magazines, and is highly rated by Zagats.

The before and after of the Crane & Turtle (828 Upshur St NW)

The bookstore next door, Upshur Street Books, has been slightly more of a challenge. “DC is a literate city, and access to culture is really important,” Paul told me.  “I look to build businesses that will add to the community and the city. I felt there were, are, not enough bookstores in DC. With Upshur Street Books, we wanted to provide a welcoming spot, a place to browse. We want the store to be a place for a wide range of people to meet, spark engagement.”

The bookstore hosts regular events, free for the community, from art shows to author readings to kids’ musicians.

Upshur Street Books (827 Upshur St NW)

Everything is paid for by the store itself. Now coming up to its first full year of being open, the store is doing well, has a loyal following but has yet to break even. Paul has confidence that patronage will increase over time and lead the store to more financial independence.

“The number one thing for me is not profit,” Paul said. “For me, I look at success as running a business that provides a place of employment and gives people a place to grow.”

Correction: Ruppert real estate sold the 7th Street NW buildings in 2014, not 2007.