Passion for Oysters Produces Restaurant Pearl
Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton have taken their passion for oysters and turned it up a notch with their third restaurant—Rappahannock in Richmond, Virginia. It’s quickly become a destination location affectionately described by the owners as a “hybrid of rustic, modern, and gritty.”
Opened in December 2012, the seafood restaurant features the cuisine of executive chef Dylan Fultineer, who previously did extended stints with award-winning chefs Paul Kahan, at Blackbird in Chicago, and Suzanne Goin, at the second location of The Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara, California.
“With Dylan’s tremendous talent, Travis and I made the decision to step back,” says Ryan Croxton. “It would be senseless not to take advantage of his [expertise], and this makes for a great partnership.”
As owners of a thriving oyster business, the Rappahannock Oyster Company, and two other seafood restaurants—Merroir in Topping, Virginia, and Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Washington— Ryan and Travis are committed to sustainability and farm-fresh ingredients.
“About 90 percent of the food we use in our restaurants is generated out of Virginia,” says Travis. “If we can’t source something in the Mid-Atlantic, we expect there to be a really good reason.”
As part of that commitment to sustainability, oyster shells from the restaurant are saved in buckets and placed in a holding facility where they are dried out before being reintroduced to the water.
Ryan says reviving their family’s 100-year-old oyster business with the intention of bringing Chesapeake Bay oysters to menus across the country has given them a leg up when it comes to the restaurant business.
“Our experience is a distinct advantage because we know how food travels,” he says.
Rappahannock restaurant, which is located in the historic downtown area of Virginia’s capital, is named for the river where Ryan and Travis grew up. Open for lunch and dinner, it employs 48 people.
“Richmond is in our backyard so we wanted to open a restaurant here,” says Travis. “We had to be part of the revitalization of its downtown, and hoped we could change the city for the better.”
Now, a little more than a year into operations, the Croxtons report business has exceeded expectations and produced a good mix of clientele along the way.
“At lunch, mostly business people are coming in, but we do get some seniors who drive in for a leisurely meal,” says Travis.
During the week, local hotels send several guests to Rappahannock, and on weekends about 95 percent of diners drive in from the suburbs. About half the customers they are serving are repeat business, and with several downtown condos slated for construction, the Croxtons anticipate business should only go up.
Ryan and Travis credit their staff for the successes they have enjoyed since the restaurant’s doors first swung open.
“We lucked out with great general managers and staff in each of our locations,” says Travis. “We purposely left ourselves out of the operations—aside from media strategy and finance—and that empowers our employees to feel passion and ownership of the restaurant.”
Best-selling entrées at Rappahannock include the Rockfish & Barcat Oyster Bourride with garlic, fennel, potatoes, poached egg, and grilled bread; Whole Grilled Fish with green rice and roasted baby carrots with charmoula; Heritage Oaks Grange Pork Terrine with brioche croutons, house pickles, walnut oil vinaigrette, and soft quail egg; and Buckwheat Knefla Dumpling Stew, which features Boswell’s rabbit, Brussels sprouts, cherries, and toasted pumpkin seeds. Check totals average $45 at dinner and $18 for lunch.
Another distinguishing feature of Rappahannock is its rooftop garden—a unique opportunity for the urban locale—where herbs and various produce are grown for use in the restaurant.
“We had an incredible roof space, and we were approached by a gardening consultant to add the garden,” says Ryan. “Dylan supervised the construction, and we put in a pulley system because it was hard to get everything back and forth.”
Moving forward, they plan to expand the garden, institute a canning program, build the coffee offering, hone service, and open more restaurants.
“We definitely want to look at more sites,” says Travis. “All of our restaurants are different—and since we are not beholden to one model, the next can be a blend of the three we have now.”
Despite their successful track record, they were pleasantly surprised by how Rappahannock has taken off.
“It’s nice to come in and see new faces,” says Ryan. “And when you see people coming back to the downtown area, it’s very gratifying.”