Talking about Nippers Beach Grille with owner Rudy Theale
1. Tell us about Nippers.
Nippers was born from what I like to do. I wanted a place with a sports bar area, a beautiful waterfront dining area so that you can use it as your home-away-from-home for special events, and then a deck on the outside. Those are the three things I love.
We want a place where someone comes in, dines, and then stays. Our whole mantra is "come for the food, stay for the experience." Whether your experience is watching the game, enjoying the waterfront view or listening to live music 7 days a week inside or on our outdoor tiki deck. So our goal is to bring someone in and then keep them for the day.
…are people staying around?
Oh yeah! For hours and hours.
2. How long has Nippers been open?
We opened May 16, 2011.
3. Was the concept the same from the beginning?
Yes. I wanted the inspiration of the Caribbean, but with Southern, coastal cuisine and an international flair. I wanted food that anybody could eat. In the Caribbean you can get some authentic conch fritters. Overall, I wanted a more accessible coastal cuisine type menu with international flair. That's what we've done.
4. Who is your demographic?
If you go to the Caribbean you see people of all ages. There's no one demographic. Everyone likes to relax on a vacation spot on an island.
5. What is coastal cuisine?
It's a lot of fresh coastal seafood. We do a lot of daily fish specials. We've got a special menu that includes 3-4 seafoods, a couple of meats, and a couple soups. So every day when you come in there's something new and different. We have consistency in our favorite items and our specials allow us to try out new things.
6. Can you give some examples?
From an appetizer perspective we've got an Ahi tuna poki which has a Hawaiian feel. We have conch fritters which is certainly a Caribbean feel. We have baked oysters which is a New England feel. So, it's not any one particular geographic type of food. It's an international splattering of food but prepared in the Southern coastal way.
7. What attracted you to your location?
I had a personal connection to that location. I started my first business when I was 19 in that building. I've known and been friends with the owners for a very long time. I never thought the building was being used for the right thing. It was nightclub after nightclub. I kept looking down from my office and thinking it would make the perfect beach bar restaurant.
8. The food bloggers absolutely rave about Nippers, and yet Nippers seems to fly under the radar without the fanfare of some other restaurants in Jacksonville. Why do you think that is? Does your location hurt you at all?
We've done some advertising but not a ton and that's probably part of it. I also think there's a lifecycle to every brand that looks like a bell curve. You can hype up a brand and have it take off, then quickly crash down again. Or, you can grow organically over time and let the roots settle in really deep.
So, for us, the location allows us to create a kitschy, super cool place on the water. It's not in your face but rather it grows more by word of mouth. That may be one of the reasons why we're getting so much positive attention from the bloggers - they tend to want to share things when they discover something new that's not being shoved and thrown at them.
We want to be the real deal. There's nothing made up or faux about Nippers. Our conch isn't just a bunch of bread - there's a lot of conch in there.
9. Where did you get the name, Nippers?
There's an inspiration from the Islands. A nipper is a young island boy that likes island sports. That fits in with our island theme.
10. What makes Nippers special?
If you want to come to Nippers just for a drink and to have a good time, you can do that. We have a drink called Rudy's Bad Habit that outsells all other drinks by 12 to 1. So, you can just come in to have a Bad Habit or two and enjoy yourself. But you can also come in and taste some of the most exquisite food you'll find in Duval County. I think that's what makes us special. I'm a big believer in keeping it simple. And if you're going to be in the restaurant business you better have good food. If you combine that with the other fun experiences you've got a winner.
11. What make the food so exquisite?
I call our whole concept "barefoot chic." In other words you can come in wearing your flip flops and your hat on backwards, or you can come in a sports coat and pants - and believe me, people come in both ways. I needed to differentiate my food from anyone else in the city, so I went out and I hired a chef by the name of Kenny Gilbert who was just coming off the show Top Chef. I knew that nobody in Jacksonville had ever participated in a show of that magnitude and he was leading the pack in season 7 for a while and had a good chance to win. I got hold of Kenny and had him bring in a team that he'd worked with for a number of years. He came in to create a menu and a series of taste profiles that were second to none. The leader of the team that came with him was an individual by the name of Omar Callazzo who we refer to as "Chef O." Chef O took over after Kenny moved on and is responsible for total kitchen management. He knows how to create food that could come from a Ritz-Carlton and bring it to Nippers on the waterfront in a tiki environment. That's the hybrid - being able to produce chef-driven food in a casual environment - that makes Nippers unique. And that's where we deliver on our idea of barefoot chic.
Chef O is very creative. He blows me away every time I taste something new. He makes me crave it.
12. What's his style?
Chef O can create a flambé or a burger and both will be at the top in terms of the taste profile. If you remember the BASF commercials that said "we don't make the products, we just make them better" - well, I think of Chef O as the BASF of food. He's the guy who can take any food and make it amazing. I hate to pigeonhole him into any one style because he's so good at delivering on such a wide range of styles.
13. Where was he before Nippers?
He was with Kenny for nearly 7 years. He attended the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. He's worked at places like the Ritz-Carlton and 9545 in Telluride, Colorado. When he was at 9545 as Executive Chef the local paper, the Telluride Daily Planet, described his food as being so good "it will buckle your knees."
14. Can you recommend a few dishes to give people a sense of what Nippers is all about?
On the appetizer side I'd definitely recommend the Ahi tuna poki, the baked oysters, and the conch fritters. I also love Chef O's version of the wedge salad. It has Andouille sausage instead of bacon; it's really good. The caprese salad is different - it comes with a marmalade and is fantastic. The conch chowder is to die for - it's our mainstay soup and is on the menu every day.
15. What's the most popular item?
The most popular appetizer is the conch fritters. When people are in a relaxed environment and feeling "islandy" that's a food that makes them feel like they're living that experience. And it's not something you can get at every restaurant.
The nachos are also really popular. We do a pulled pork version, a jerk chicken version and people love them.
On the entree side our number one selling dish is our shrimp and grits. It's the best I've ever had.
…why is that?
It's a combination of things. Some of the shrimp and grits goodness is in the oils, sauces and juices that we splatter all over the grits. We use a Kalik lager cheese sauce that's really different. Then we sprinkle on crispy Andouille sausage to top it off.
16. What's your favorite appetizer?
I love the Ahi tuna poki - it's something healthy that has a taste that's just so good. We use a really high quality, sushi-grade tuna that is cut into blocks and drizzled with some oil and some of Chef O's homemade hot sauce. It's just really excellent.
17. What can you recommend for someone who's been a few times and wants to try something different?
I love the skirt steak - it's a churrasco steak that's excellent. Chef O also does a blackened salmon with collard greens. It's like a Caribbean and Southern flair mixed. It's really, really good. And believe it or not we're becoming known as a place with one of the best burgers in town. We're not trying to be a burger place and we're using certified Angus beef that people love. It's charred perfectly and paired with a lot of different cheese options. You can get a bacon cheeseburger with gouda for example. That dresses it up, but the burgers are incredible on their own.
18. Are there any items that have surprised you by their popularity?
Our fish tacos are one of our most popular items and that has been a real shocker. Partly because we didn't start out to focus on tacos. But people have been coming in and raving about our tacos.
19. Are there any items that are really good but maybe fly under the radar?
We do a pulled pork mac and cheese that is amazing.
We have a world famous fried lobster tail that is just out of this world. It doesn't always fly under everyone's radar but if you haven't tried it you really should
20. Can you tell us about the Bad Habit? What is a Bad Habit?
It's a drink that I worked on perfecting for quite some time. It's a Caribbean family recipe. It's a frozen, rum based drink that has 9 components to it including the rum and multiple juices. The actual make up is our secret.
…why is it so popular?
Usually when I have a frozen drink I can have just one because it's too sweet. Your first two sips are heaven, but then the sweetness becomes too much. The Bad Habit is a frozen drink but it's different. There are no faux sugars. The sweetness comes from the natural juices. You can drink it all day long without getting sick of it and I've never seen another frozen drink like that.
…is its popularity driven by the Bad Habit Happy Hour?
It's popular all the time. We've sold over 50,000 since we opened in May 2011.
21. Being in the marina, do you get a lot of people arriving by boat?
Probably 10-15% of our weekend business comes by boat.
22. Can you talk about the music at Nippers?
We're a music inspired brand. I think music, and live music especially, is critical to the relaxation component for people. We have live music 7 days a week. I have spent a lot of time in the Caribbean. When you go to the cool, local places you get a wide selection of music. That's what I'm bringing to Nippers. We don't pigeonhole ourselves into one type of music. You don't always know what you're going to get, but what you do get you're almost sure to love. We pick the best musicians for their type of music in town.
…are the musicians mostly local?
It's a mix of local and musicians coming through town.
…how do people find out what's playing?
Our website is the best place to see the music calendar and to learn about the artists and the genre of music they play.
…is there a cover charge?
Absolutely not! Never has been.
23. Can you tell us about your catering? Who is the audience for your catering?
Nippers is an incredible place to enjoy casual elegance. There's no demographic unique to this. People love the water and the feeling of escaping. So we end up with all kinds of people who come to us for our catered events. Everything from corporate events to rehearsal dinners for weddings.
We're also the kind of place that can accommodate larger parties on short notice. It's not uncommon to come in and see multiple parties of 10 or more people on a single night. We've become the go-to spot for big parties that aren't pre-booked.
24. Can you tell us a little about your background?
When I was 19 I had my first business. It was the first pre-paid cellular phone company in the country called SmartPhone. I sold it way too soon. I ended up meeting one of Ted Turner's sons, Teddy, and we ended up hitting it off. We built a technology company called MyTurn.com which we took public in 1998. I'm a marketing idea person who tries to find niches that need to be filled. After MyTurn.com I decided to move out to California. I met a guy with a very small boutique watch business. I've always been a huge fan of watches so I bought the business and grew it. We were one of the fastest growing private companies in Orange County. Throughout it all I've always frequented restaurants. I've been lucky to be able to travel around the world with my businesses. With the watch company we had distributors in 60 different countries. I got to spend time in Asia and Europe. I've always been a fan of food that's done right. So it's always been a passion to get into a restaurant.
25. Why Jacksonville?
My parents live here. I wanted to spend time with them. I moved here to be close to them. My mom is the head hostess at the restaurant and loves it.
26. What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Restaurants are naturally challenging. What makes it difficult is the combination of food, environment, and service that all have to be good to hit the sweet spot. And you have to do everything in real time. You have to be on top of your game every day. The hardest part for me is that I'm not a detail guy. But there are a lot of details and potholes in this business. If you don't know them you can become derailed very, very quickly. I brought in a partner, Ridge Sink, who was one of the first franchisees for Hooters and Outback. Ridge has been with me for about six months and is a substantial partner in the business. He focuses on the daily details. The restaurant needs a corporate culture and needs to be run systematically. You need consistency in your food in terms of the quality and service. To get that you need to imprint a consistency of delivery in your team - from your chefs to your suppliers and everyone involved with the restaurant.
27. Where do you like to eat in Jacksonville?
First of all I like French Pantry for a great lunch. What Tom Gray has done at Bistro Aix is incredible. I also like BB’s in San Marco for lunch or dinner and Pele's Wood Fire for pizza.
28. Anything else you'd like to add?
We want to make Nippers your local home town vacation. When you walk through the door we want you to escape from the cares of the day and kick back to enjoy the sights and the sounds and smells. It's really important to us that you enjoy the whole experience. If we're able to do that it will be something we can grow and when people visit Jacksonville it will be the restaurant they don't want to miss.