Jesse Rice and Family Brings Bistro Dining to Sopchoppy
Backwoods, Uptown Sopchoppy’s Jesse Rice and family beat back a tough economy with good food and a personal touch By Lee Gordon Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
Jesse Rice and his father Randy have a fairly typical father-and-son relationship. Randy Rice is reserved and conservative, while Jesse Rice is a bit of a risk-taker, making more spontaneous decisions. Working together, their styles are proving to be a perfect combination.
The Rice family owns Backwoods Bistro in the small Wakulla County town of Sopchoppy. Don’t be fooled by the name —the restaurant is anything but backwoods. Open the menu and you’ll find basic fare such as pizza and sandwiches alongside more sophisticated items like Monkey Creek Lasagna — a meat lover’s dream with ham, sausage, pepperoni and four types of cheese.
The man behind the grill is 24-year-old Jesse Rice, creating the perfect dish and always trying to outdo himself.
“(Becoming a chef) was never something that was in my head,” he said. “I always thought I’d be a pilot or in math or science.”
The other half of the team is Randy Rice, better known as the taskmaster. He is the bookkeeper, dishwasher, maintenance man, host, and just about anything else the restaurant needs.
“I started out just doing the books, but the more I came down here, I realized I love engaging the customers,” he said. “I take care of all the regulations and government stuff.”
Backwoods Bistro is a family-run business, and that means Randy, Jesse and Winky Rice (Randy’s wife and Jesse’s mom) are in charge of the day-to-day operations. Randy Rice has two other sons. Alex works for Facebook and lives in San Francisco. The youngest of the bunch is Tyler, a student at the University of Florida. The two help out when they can, but for the most part, it’s Jesse, Randy and Winky Rice running the show.
“We do go out to eat dinner once a month to have a planning meeting,” Randy Rice said. “We are interfacing all the time, so day-to-day operations go smoothly.”
History of the Building
Backwoods Bistro is housed on the site of the old Sopchoppy Drug Company, which was built in 1912 and was home to a pharmacy, soda fountain and doctor’s office in the 1940s.
The business continued until the 1950s, when Coryne Hodge opened up a dress shop and sold over-the-counter goods like five and dime items. The first ice cream in the county was served from the location. It also was the site of an Emergency Alert Center during World War II.
The historic brick building sat vacant for more than a decade until Nelson Martin bought and renovated it, complete with the unique alligator-tile counter that currently adorns Backwoods Bistro. In 2002, Martin and partners Robert Seidler and Dave Pierce opened up Sopchoppy Outfitters and Backwoods Pizza.
The restaurant was a welcome addition and brought new life to Sopchoppy’s downtown area. However, their inability to attain a liquor license took a toll on its owners’ bottom line; in January 2006, they closed the restaurant and moved on to other endeavors.
A Family-Owned Bistro is Born
Jesse Rice had spent his high school years working at Backwoods Pizza and knew its value to the small community. So just before the parlor made its last pizza, he tried to step in and help.
“He tried to talk them into letting him manage it, and they didn’t want any part of it,” Randy Rice said.
After graduating from high school, Jesse Rice went to Tallahassee Community College for two years. During the summers, he interned for a pair of five-star restaurants in Nashville, Tenn. That’s where the idea of becoming an entrepreneur came to life.
“When I was on my second internship, I called my mom to check in, and she asked what I was learning,” Rice recalled. “I told her all the stuff I learned, and she said, ‘You can cook!’”
So Jesse Rice had an idea. Why not open his own restaurant? He would be the head chef, but he would need help.
“Jesse brought it to me and my wife,” Randy Rice said. “I was in transition; I got laid off in the dot-com crash. I went back to several jobs, and the market changed completely. Jesse said, ‘Do you want to do this?’”
The answer was an easy one. The Rices pooled their money to lease the building and open a family-style restaurant, to be known as Backwoods Bistro. Randy Rice was more than happy to do his part, but he didn’t realize how much his “part” would entail. The 58-year-old had spent his entire career in computers and didn’t know the first thing about running a restaurant.
“I jumped on the bandwagon before IBM came out with their first PC in 1982,” Randy Rice said of his early success. “I was working on industrial microprocessors in 1978. I saw the trend of PCs going into business applications and started business-application programming. I was setting up control applications for businesses similar to those that could be used in restaurants.”
But setting up a restaurant was a completely different animal. Jesse Rice had experience in the kitchen, but outside of that, the food-service business was foreign to the family.
“I love Jesse for the opportunity that he’s given the family,” said Randy, “We leased the building from the Backwoods Pizza group and ran from there. We started out with the same menu, adding entrées and higher-level, more sophisticated menu items, bringing it to more family dining. Something better than what you normally find in Wakulla County.”
And the customers are loyal. Take, for instance, Debbie Chase, who once owned a restaurant of her own in Fort Lauderdale. Her family eats at Backwoods Bistro every week, coming back for the food and the camaraderie that the Rices provide to all of their customers.
“I’ve been going there for years,” Chase said. “My kids love it; they never get tired of it. It’s more than that — it’s where everybody goes to hang out. A lot of local people go there, and it’s a point that brings everybody together in the area. There aren’t many places in this area that are like that. It’s almost a destination to some people.”
Economy Takes a Toll
Things weren’t always so positive for the Rices. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they had launched Backwoods Bistro at a most inopportune time. A few months after the restaurant opened in November 2006, the banking crisis began putting a beating on small businesses nationwide. The Rice family was in for a rough stretch.
“Our first year was a struggle,” Randy Rice said. “Then the banking thing happened, and we really struggled and needed a line of credit of $10,000 at the end of our first year.”
That loan helped keep the business going. The next year, a very strange thing happened. Restaurants around the country were closing, and banks were crashing — but the lines at Backwoods Bistro grew. Three years later, things are so good that the Rice family is looking for a second location. They hope to add another restaurant somewhere in Wakulla County but far enough from the water that they won’t have to worry about flooding or hurricane insurance.
“Every year we’ve been growing by 20 to 25 percent, to the point that we have a packed house and are trying to wrestle with what to do,” Randy Rice said. “We don’t want to turn people away.”
The Referendum Vote
Right now, Backwoods Bistro has no liquor license. It has a “BYOB” policy, meaning diners can bring their own alcoholic beverages to have along with their meals. But if the eatery is to expand, it will need a beer and wine license. A referendum for the license has been placed on the June 8 ballot in Sopchoppy.
“Right now we … might get our beer and wine license in June,” Jesse Rice said. “That’ll determine a lot of things. If we do get that, we’ll get a lot of things.”
In November, 2007, the family’s first request for a beer and wine license was turned down by the city commission in a 3-2 vote. They decided not to push the issue until now.
“There was no change in commissioner after the end of our second year so we skipped asking that year,” said Randy, “At the end of our third year (Nov. 2009) we backed out of the request at the request of the commissioners in lieu of their support to take it to referendum during the June 2010 ballot voting.”
Jesse Rice says the commission had been skeptical about giving the license in such a small community. Randy agreed but says the family has never been given a conclusive reason as to why.
“Back in the day of Camp Gordon, Sopchoppy was the closest town to the camp and many ‘Jip Joints’ were opened to cater to the GI’s,” said Randy Rice, “It has been reported as a wild scene. Another contention was local politics between how Backwoods Pizza was managed and the citizens of Sopchoppy. Another was the proximity to a church. Although, this is all speculation based on hearsay.”
“This time, it was clear we had (commissioners’) support,” Randy Rice said. “However, it was also clear that they did not want to chance a political backlash from the minority of Sopchoppy residents who are opposed to it. They said they would support our request to take it to a referendum during the June elections. We felt that if they did that, we would have the majority of the popular vote supporting us. So we withdrew our request for a commissioner vote in lieu of request and approval of a referendum approach.”
According to Randy Rice, Backwoods Pizza, the previous restaurant located on the site, had forced a referendum on Sopchoppy five years ago. Out of the 200 registered voters at that time, approximately 30 were opposed, with 20 supporting. It was a heated issue, and the Rice family felt that the commissioners didn’t want to face a possible backlash from that first vote. But they believe that this time will be different.
“There are 250 voters in Sopchoppy,” Jesse Rice said. “I feel pretty confident about it. A lot of people have changed their mind. They voted the other way before; now they are for us.”
A Bright Future Ahead
Backwoods Bistro was awarded the Wakulla News Reader’s Choice Award for best dinner in 2008 and best lunch in 2009. The Rices say the family business has been fun but trying at times. And after four years, Randy and Jesse Rice have some words of wisdom for anyone trying to open a restaurant in the down economy. As usual, Randy Rice takes more of a conservative approach while his son is ready to jump in headfirst.
“One of the biggest downfalls in the restaurant (industry) is not having adequate controls over your food cost and going into it not knowing what your overhead is, your insurance is, the utilities, and all those static monthly fees,” Randy Rice said. “That’s the biggest thing I find, really; what does the food cost me? Food costs will eat you up if you aren’t managing it right.”
“Never give up,” Jesse Rice advises. “No matter how bad it gets, keep doing what you love. You only live once.”