Columbus, Ohio USA
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Ten Years and still making a splash
by Karen Edwards
Photos by Rick Borgia©
Richard Stopper, owner of R.J. Snappers Restaurant, with his son Ryan.
On a good day, a day when business is humming and everything is running smoothly, a day when the financial statements are enough to bring a smile to his face, Richard Stopper, owner of the Short North’s R.J. Snappers Restaurant, may head for the golf course.
“I’m not working all those long hours I used to,” he says.
He deserves the break. From the age of 16, the New Jersey-born Stopper has worked in restaurants nearly non-stop, taking a break only to enter the business college at Michigan State University where he earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management.
After college, Stopper managed a Detroit-area restaurant for a time before returning to Columbus and management work at Engine House #5, at the time the brightest jewel on the Columbus dining scene and well known for its seafood.
Following his stay at Engine House #5, Stopper spent time opening restaurants as president of the “55” restaurant group.
“Then my dad decided it was time to open his own place,” – Ryan Stopper picks up the story.
Ryan is one of four children of Richard and Suzanne Stopper, and the one who is closely following in his father’s footsteps. He has been working in his dad’s restaurants from a young age.
“I’ve done every job in here,” he says, looking around Snappers’ coral-walled dining room, its tables covered with fresh white linens. He’s bused tables, served customers, swept the floor. Now he’s president of his dad’s company. He has his degree in marketing from Indianapolis’s Butler University and currently oversees the day-to-day operations of Snappers and Alta on High, the Stopper family’s other Short North restaurant.
And, oh yes. His full name is Ryan Joseph. R. J.
His father added Snappers. “The Snapper is a fish,” Richard Stopper explains. He had already decided the restaurant he would open would have a seafood theme. After all, he had managed some of Columbus’ best. So, in 1976, he went looking for property.
The search is on
“I considered several areas,” Richard Stopper continues. North Columbus, Grandview, even German Village where the Engine House had been located all made his short list, but he decided finally on the up-and-coming Short North area.
“It was a good deal,” Richard recalls now about the property he was offered, then adds, “I knew the Short North was on its way up and that it was going to keep getting better and better.”
The property he eventually bought, 700 N. High Street at the corner of Lincoln and High had been many things prior to its transformation into R.J. Snappers. It was once a church, and also had a run as the popular jazz club, the Major Chord. There was a kosher kitchen upstairs, and the property also had the good fortune of coming with an adjacent lot. The kitchen vanished when the upstairs portion of the property was gutted and turned into offices and a private party room, but the adjacent property was kept as a parking lot, a bonus for Snappers’ customers since the parking problem in the Short North was difficult then – and, as time would tell, would only grow worse.
Suzanne Stopper had her hand in decorating the new space. Then, with staff in place, R.J. Snappers opened its doors. It was 1997, and Richard says he can’t remember doing any extensive marketing for the grand opening, but the restaurant was busy enough that first week, and word-of-mouth soon helped swell the crowds. Before long, it was one of the Short North’s most popular eating spots, and the area’s go-to place for seafood.
Cyrus Dioun and Laura Kruse enjoying Alaskan King Crab legs, oysters on the half shell, and filet mignon at the new granite bar. "Absolutely great!" says Cyrus.
If you haven’t been to Snappers, there are two things you need to know.
First, it serves excellent seafood, among the best in the city. Fish arrives at the restaurant every day, fresh, and from both U.S. and international ports, says Ryan Stopper.
“The great thing about fish is that it’s healthy, and it can be prepared lots of different ways,” adds Richard Stopper.
Richard plays a key role in designing the menus. He collaborates with the restaurant’s chefs on each new dish, analyzing it from both a taste and cost perspective. Then, the dish will go to an in-house tasting panel before it’s placed on the menu as a “special.”
“We’ll run new dishes as a special, first, to see what customer feedback is,” Richard Stopper continues.
And that’s the second thing you should know about Snappers. The service here is superb, and that stems not only from staff training, but also the Stoppers’ sensitivity to their customers’ wants and needs – a sensitivity that extends through the 20 front-of-house staff members, as well as the eight behind-the-scene managers and kitchen staff who work here. To better understand how deep this sense of customer service goes, you should know that each diner at Snappers is always presented with an evaluation form when he or she comes to eat. The form allows diners to not only rate their experience at the restaurant, but to make suggestions as well.
“Some of our menu items have come from our customers’ suggestions,” says Richard.
When was the last time you felt you had any influence on a restaurant menu?
Plain and fancy
Although Richard says he has no one favorite dish at the restaurant, he adds that a good portion of his customers order the grouper. And, like most of the fish served, it can be prepared simply or with a little culinary imagination. For example, you’ll find tilapia on the menu but also Sesame Panko Crusted Talapia; Pacific halibut but also Lemon-Scallion Grilled Pacific Hali-but. And don’t overlook the grouper, the Potato-Crusted Florida Grouper, that is.
In other words, Snappers respects the purists, but also recognizes there are fish lovers in Columbus who want their fish in a dish they are unlikely to prepare themselves. “If they’re going out to a fish restaurant, then chances are they want to order something they’re not going to make at home,” says Richard Stopper.
What Snappers strives for, says Ryan, is consistency, in service and in the first-rate quality food that’s served. That doesn’t mean they won’t change the menu, however.
“We change the menu seasonally,” says Richard. You may not think of fish as being seasonal, but it is. Fish migrate, after all, and there are some species – soft-shell crabs, for example – that have a specific season. For soft-shell crabs it’s late spring through August, and Richard Stopper says the new spring menu will indeed feature soft-shell crabs.
Last April, Snappers freshened up its décor, adding a larger granite bar in the process.
“It looks completely different now,” says Ryan Stopper. “It’s more modern.”
It also draws people who just want to stop by for a drink.
“A lot of our customer base is local,” says Ryan, “but we also see business people, conventioneers, and people who come here from the suburbs.” It’s an eclectic group that cuts a wide swath across the demographic spectrum. “We have families who come in, and then some of those family members bring their family or friends.”
Think of it as passing down a fine dining experience. When you find a place as good as Snappers, why wouldn’t you want to share it with those closest to you?
Gallery Hops, of course, can mean a very busy dining room at Snappers – depending on the weather, says Julie Elder, a prep cook who has worked at Snappers since June, and who worked at Alta before that. “The warm weather really can draw them out,” she says. On days like that, you can expect the dining room to fill quickly.
The restaurant’s busiest time, however, say both Elder and Ryan Stopper, are the holidays. Do yourself a favor. If you want a meal here during November or December, be sure to call ahead and make reservations. “The Holiday Hop can be really busy here,” says Ryan.
Of course, there is increasing competition in the Short North these days. Ryan counts 20 places between R.J. Snappers and the convention center to eat, and Richard says simply that “saturation is here” – but it’s hard to believe that the Stoppers’ Short North, newly renovated, decade-old mainstay will suffer. It’s simply too good.
The family will add a new restaurant to their portfolio this spring. Buenos at 89 E. Nationwide Blvd. (within shouting distance of the Hyatt Regency) will have a Southwestern theme.
Meanwhile, they’ll continue to take care of customers at Alta, their Short North Italian restaurant (formerly Abbracci), and, of course, R.J. Snappers.
“One of my greatest pleasures,” says Richard Stopper, “is to see people I work with develop and enhance their careers.” And you know he means it.
“If you go into the restaurant business,” Richard continues, “you’d better like what you’re doing.” The hours are long, the work demanding – and always there is pressure to be the best, or at least to outshine the competition.
It’s a lifestyle Richard Stopper has lived all of his life, and his son, Ryan, is living now.
And, except for the occasional game of golf, you have the feeling that neither Stopper would have it any other way.
R.J. Snappers is located at 700 N. High St. Call 614-280-1070 for reservations.
UPDATE: R.J. Snappers closed their business October 2008.
©2007 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.