Rudee's on the Inlet Restaurant & Cabana Bar
Reeling in the Catch and the Customers for 30 Years
The key is to surround yourself with a lot of good people. You hire good people and treat them the way you want to be treated.
Having a successful restaurant takes hard work. Maintaining that success when your restaurant is in an area where the tourist population drastically drops at the end of summer adds another layer of challenges to any restaurateur's everyday concerns. But after more than 30 years, Carter Turpin, the owner of seafood-focused Rudee's on the Inlet in Virginia Beach, Va., has a thing or two figured out.
Turpin, who was 25 when the then-35-seat Rudee's opened in what was meant to be a bait and tackle shop, saw potential. Over the years, while going to business school at night, Turpin expanded the space into an approximately 235-seat, 4,000-square-foot restaurant and bar with an additional 1,000-square-foot cabana bar with outdoor seating, fire pits and a dock where boaters can pull up and have lunch delivered. He has seen revenues increase each year, but is quick to say while he had foresight, he could never have created a three-decade-old restaurant that continues to draw crowds on his own.
"The key is to surround yourself with a lot of good people," Turpin said. "I don't take any of the credit. You hire good people and treat them the way you want to be treated. You hope for the best and hang on for the ride."
Rudee's employs just 35 people in the off-season, but that number jumps to 100 when the tourists start flocking in. While the restaurant, with its bounty of fresh lobster, crab legs, shrimp, fish and more, draws the crowds all summer, the fall and winter months can prove challenging. Rudee’s then transitions to a fall menu, closes the cabana to bring all guests into one building and adds more promotions to further entice the local population.
"We reduce our menu prices and have an aggressive happy hour," Turpin said. That includes having sports on their 35 big-screen TVs and offering spectacular weeknight specials featuring one item — for example, one-pound Maine lobster with two sides — for just $9.99. But after "taking it on the chin all winter," Turpin explained they do revert to their spring and summer menu in March, which shows slightly higher prices, but also great family-friendly specials.
The restaurant also got a boost a few years back when the Food Network filmed there; Turpin said they see a natural spike when their segment gets rotated back in. Rudee's now features its Food Network dish on the menu: Catch of the day prepared "Chesapeake style," topped with jumbo lump crabmeat, Smithfield ham and béarnaise sauce. For a seafood restaurant, Rudee's has something for everyone, including newly added Tex-Mex and gluten-free sections on the menu. Why? Because people asked for it.
"There's a lot of customer interaction," Turpin said. "We do food and wine tastings and customers are invited. They say whether something is good or want things rotated off the menu."
While a 32-year-old restaurant could easily rest on its laurels, Turpin keeps things fresh by remodeling different rooms, changing out menu items and putting money back into the operation without really changing the look and feel people love. That includes a raw bar at the entrance with a double-stack steamer for shrimp and crab legs, the scent of Old Bay wafting through the air and workers in long plastic aprons shucking oysters right in front of you that "gives you the flavor of a seafood restaurant," Turpin said. Rudee's also has a retail wall selling items like sweatshirts, hats and T-shirts. It brings in extra revenue, and the free advertising is priceless.
"You can't put a price tag on people advertising for you," he said. "People 'wear you out.'" Well, it doesn't sound like anyone will tire of Rudee's anytime soon.