Whether you call him the Mayor of Upshur Street, a restaurateur or a savvy businessman, Paul Ruppert has spent years developing retail and restaurants in Petworth, helping to kick off the revitalization of the neighborhood’s reputation and its culinary and literary appetites. Some concepts have been very successful, others have closed as their times or energy came and went.
Ruppert first opened Petworth Citizen in 2013, followed quickly by Crane & Turtle and then Upshur Street Books. Slim’s Diner was much anticipated when it opened two and a half years ago, with lines around the block. Crane & Turtle closed in 2016 and became Cappy’s Crabs, a seafood pop-up for one brief summer, and now is the successful Himitsu (one of Washingtonian’s top 25 “Very Best Restaurants” in DC for 2019).
Is Ruppert paring back his involvement from Petworth? No, he says, instead he's thinking about what he wants to do now, as a next phase of his career, and how his current businesses fit into that strategy.
"My goal is to, in the case of the bookstore and Slim's, is to find people who are passionate about what they're doing and can really devote the time and energy that's required to make them successful. And in turn, what I'm looking to do with the next phase of my career is to take my experience and help people who have a dream of opening a restaurant or another business, and to help them in some way."
"For right now, my goal is to not open another restaurant in the near future, but if the right opportunity comes along, or if we can't find a good person to take on the Slim's space, then I'll do something in that space," Ruppert said.
Ruppert is an entrepreneur and an "idea man" — always looking for ways to start something new and interesting. What he doesn't like to do as much is run the operations side of the restaurants. Instead, he recognizes his strengths and his creative passions, and wants to focus on those for now. He said wants to take what he's learned in creating concepts and opening different restaurants and businesses, and mentor and guide others who are looking to do similar things, but need help.
"I'm good at building a team, identifying a concept and getting that team to work work toward that concept. Getting publicity, getting us open, that sort of thing," he said. "At Slim's, I was running the business, and that's not what I wanted to be doing."
In a city with 700,000 residents, there's opportunity to have a successful restaurant, he said. But it takes creativity and passion for that endeavor.
"In neighborhoods like this, in 2019, the successful restaurants are going to be owner-operated, where their owners are there most of the time," he said. "Restaurants have to bring in a million dollars a year to be successful. That's a lot of customers, or it's a high ticket price."
Ruppert said he enjoyed opening the restaurants and retail on Upshur, and is still passionate about the neighborhood. What comes next for the recently closed locations, like Hanks, Ruta and Slim’s, is dependent upon who opens them and what’s the concept.
"I'm very confident about Upshur Street and Petworth," he said. "But it has to be the right concept operated by the right people."
As for the Slim's location, Ruppert said they're pursuing two directions: developing ideas internally, and actively marketing it to other users for a sublease. There's been interest already to use the space.
Ruppert said Slim’s won’t become a bar, and instead, said he’s focused on the space being a restaurant to serve the neighborhood.
"What needs to go in here is a restaurant. It has to be able to take advantage of the outside patio, and it has to sell more than Slim's. It's not going to become a bar,” he said. “There's very specific challenges to this space, it's small and the structure is the structure — there's no remodeling the space in a dramatic way. It will likely need to have a more narrowly focused menu and something that is a natural fit for the patio and a natural fit for alcohol sales."
And he’s right, Slim's is not a large space (it can hold 41 people inside, 55 outside). It used to be a pharmacy back in the day, then an office, before being empty for a few years until he took up the lease on the building.
He leases all three floors of the Murrell building on the corner of Georgia and Upshur Street under a long lease, with his businesses' offices on the 2nd floor. The third floor is available for rent, offering about 750 square feet. It would make a good office space, or even a shared workspace for people who telework. He also still holds the leases on the buildings for Himitsu, the bookstore and Petworth Citizen.
As for Citizen, it's doing well, he said, especially with their Thursday night jazz nights run by Herb Scott. The bar also has traditional music on Sundays, offering old time jams and Irish music once a month.
There's also the popularity of the Literary Cocktail events in the Reading Room every weekend. These Friday and Saturday night events are hosted by craft bartender Chantal Tseng, and offer different cocktails all based on a novel or book -- one per weekend. With the Loyalty Bookstore opening in February in the Upshur Street Books location, Ruppert said there will be a much greater crossover and connection between those events, the Reading Room, and the bookstore.
Petworth is still going strong, and Ruppert's thoughts on Upshur and the neighborhood mirror my own. Some businesses open and become very successful, some try out their concept and can't sustain. Neither is necessarily heralding the health or failure of the local economy — they're experiments. For Ruppert, the most successful ones have their owners staying intimately involved, staying passionate and creating new ideas with the space.
For now, Ruppert is happy to be in Petworth, and positive on what's coming next for the area. With three new retail spots opening on Upshur in the next few months, a new coffee shop on Georgia, a new yoga studio opening — and yes, more condos coming — the area is still growing and evolving.
And as we've said in the past, the best thing you can do to ensure Petworth retains a variety of retail and restaurants, is to go out to them a little bit more.
Upshur Street Books to become Loyalty Books (January 21, 2019)
Slim’s Diner to close permanently on Sunday (January 09, 2019)
Upshur restaurants are doing fine, and would do better if you went out more (December 10, 2018)