Ruffin Rodrigue, proprietor of Ruffino’s on the River in Lafayette, Ruffino’s in Baton Rouge, and Ruffino’s Catering in downtown Baton Rouge, is our guest on Discover Lafayette with Jan Swift.
A native of Thibodaux, Rodrigue followed in the footsteps of his dad, Ruffin Rodrigue, Sr., who played LSU football in the early 1960s as a member of the infamous Chinese Bandits. Rodrigue was an All-SEC guard at LSU from 1986 through 1989 and fondly recalled his time under the tutelage of Coach Bill Arnsparger when the team was #3 in the nation and won the SEC Championship. After graduating in Spring 1990 in Marketing, he played for the World League of American Football (now NFL Europe) until an injury in Montreal ended his career and he returned to Louisiana.
Rodrigue put his marketing degree to use working for five years at Mockler Beverage, a Budweiser distributor in Baton Rouge. He developed a friendship with T.J. Moran, the first franchisee of Ruth’s Chris who went on to become one of the largest U. S. franchisees for the steakhouse company and who also owned the wildly popular TJ Ribs and Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant. In 1998, Ruffin entered the hospitality business with Moran to manage DiNardo’s, an Italian-themed restaurant in South Baton Rouge on Highland Road named after Gerry DiNardo who had been a popular LSU football coach. As DiNardo’s coaching career went into decline it was time to rebrand the endeavor, and Moran, Rodrigue, and chef Peter Sclafani bought out DiNardo and went into partnership in 2000, renaming the restaurant “Ruffino’s.”
Being mentored by the late T. J. Moran, successful franchisee of Ruth’s Chris and owner of TJ Ribs and Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant, left an indelible impression on Rodrigue and he recounted that Moran’s motto was to “Strive to Make it Better Every Day.” Ruffin has followed that advice every day for the past 22 years.
Being mentored by T. J. Moran left an indelible impression on Rodrigue, and he recounted that Moran’s motto was to “Strive to Make it Better Every Day.” And Rodrigue has followed that advice every day for the past 22 years. Besides sharing his sage advice, Moran also taught Rodrigue how to treat people and how to do things the right way.
Inside view of Ruffino’s on Highland Road in South Baton Rouge, featuring a Blue Dog painting with Ruffin Rodrigue’s #68 jersey, along with other memorabilia from his LSU football days.
The success of Ruffino’s in Baton Rouge led to the opening of its second restaurant in Lafayette in May 2013. Rodrigue and his partners opened Ruffino’s on the River on Camellia Boulevard in the beautiful and spacious restaurant situated on the Vermilion River that was formerly owned by Cochon’s. Cochon’s, based out of New Orleans, had been in business for only nine months but failed to capture local interest. Ruffin had been advised that the River Ranch development was the perfect place to locate. The combination of delicious food, a huge bar, personality, energy, music, and all of the right intangibles outside of food that make people want to return again and again, made the restaurant a huge success. In 2018, Rodrigue bought out his partner, Peter Sclafani, and is now the sole owner proprietor of all Ruffino’s properties.
As the oil and gas recession intensified in late 2014/early 2015, Rodrigue’s close friend and LSU football buddy Jamie Howard warned him that tough times were in store for South Louisiana. When the expense accounts of the energy executives dried up, he turned to the marketing of small gatherings and parties to healthcare and IT professionals and maintained a profitable enterprise. Rodrigue noted that the Baton Rouge market has historically been a more stable setting for business as the State Capitol and home to LSU’s flagship university, as well as the petrochemical industry which is less volatile and actually benefits from the low price of oil.
Fast forward to April 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic and stay at home order has turned the restaurant business upside down. The overnight drop in sales has presented a challenge never encountered by Ruffin Rodrigue or any of his successful peers in the hospitality industry, even after the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or the oil and gas industry declines periodically suffered over the past few decades. Veterans of the business are wondering which dining establishments will be able to hold on without an adequate revenue stream to ride out the pandemic. The bottoming out of the energy market has intensified the problems facing restaurants as people stay home and hold on to their cash. Rodrigue said that up to 50% of New Orleans restaurants may close when it’s all said and done.
The Paycheck Paycheck Protection funding authorized by Congress doesn’t work for the restaurant industry. While it was set up to help small businesses stay open and keep people employed, Rodrigue says it is impossible for restaurant owners to meet the criteria to qualify as (1) “We don’t have any business,” and (2) “Most of the hourly workers are now on unemployment.” Further, the directive that businesses utilize 75% of the PPE funds on payroll expenses is not a fit for the hospitality industry which typically employs hourly workers for the bulk of its workforce.
Rodrigue has managed to keep his salaried employees on payroll from the cash flow generated from his takeout business. He is ready to open up again and is well situated to meet the “social” and physical distancing required under government order. His restaurant and bar are both spacious and he can accommodate the guidelines to spread out tables to maintain adequate distancing. His overflow seating outside of the restaurant will complement the indoor space. But he worries that many smaller restaurants will not be able to comply with the COVID guidelines. And nobody really wants to wear a mask when they go out to eat and drink; it will also be a struggle to hear your server if they have to talk through a mask.
The only way restaurants will be able to successfully reopen, in Rodrigue’s view, is to have FDA-approved antibody testing for COVID-19. Moving forward as the economy is starting to reopen gradually and carefully with guidelines in place, he was appointed by Louisiana Senate President Page Cortez to serve on the Louisiana Legislative Advisory Task Force on Economic Recovery; the private industry group is charged with” developing policy, legislative, and regulatory recommendations to re-start the Louisiana economy and to invest in the long-term recovery of households, workers, and businesses from the COVID-19 crisis.” He is the only hospitality representative at this time on the task force.
Rodrigue is advocating that the restaurant industry is going to need grants to reopen. The funds needed to replace spoiled food, retrain the workforce, and catch up with debt service and rent may be too much for many restaurants. Once business is cut off and the entity closes, it is hard to re-enter the market and many without the desire or strength to fight it out may be lost forever.
The restaurant industry is the largest non-governmental employer in Louisiana, and Rodrigue is a passionate supporter of the Cajun culture and cuisine sustained by our local restaurants, as well as the Gulf Seafood Industry whose livelihood is dependent upon selling their product to restaurants. It’s important now to support our restaurants as much as you can by patronizing those who have maintained take-out dining. Ruffino’s has maintained its menu options and offers several family meal takeout selections which are designed to travel well from restaurant to home. For menu options, visit http://ruffinoslafayette.com
Ruffin Rodrigue has received many accolades for his work in the hospitality industry, including Louisiana’s Marketer of the Year in 2016 and Restaurateur of the Year by the Louisiana Restaurant Association in 2015. We thank him for taking the time to visit with us on Discover Lafayette and know you will enjoy his story as much as we did!