The young waiter — nervous, fidgeting, turning a little red under his peach fuzz — twice returned after taking our order: “Sorry, we’re out of that beer.” Then, “Sorry, we’re out of burgers.”
The third time, it was the cook who came to the table. The waiter couldn’t face us again.
“Sorry, we’re out of the meatloaf,” she said, gray hair held up with maybe a dozen pins. She showed her waiter mercy because he’s also one of her 18 grandkids.
Line cook Molly Ruppert is 84.
And in an extraordinary act of love for her family, a determination to fulfill all her dreams and the absolute inability to sit still, she and her husband opened a restaurant in Deale, Md., on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, last year that is staffed almost entirely by generations of their offspring.
“We start with the youngest ones in the morning. They come in and set the tables, set everything up,” said Jim Lober, a civil engineer who married into a weekend job tending bar and doing maintenance.
“Then the older ones come in, and they’re the wait staff, the cooks.”
Caroline Lober, 12, graduated to the late crew this summer.
“I’m on the fryer. Chicken, zucchini fritters and fries,” she explained. When she returns to school this week, she’ll have one of the fattest bankrolls in eighth grade. “That part is nice.”
The part she hates? “Smelling like the fryer,” she said. She does not want to go into food service when she grows up.
At least this summer, she was relieved of “mess” duty. Now a younger cousin is the one who has to “clean up every mess, no matter who made it.”
The grandkids are getting the precious lessons that a gig in food service reliably provide: grit, stamina, multitasking and public interaction.
And their teachers aren’t just doting grandparents with a crazy idea. They’re sort of a big deal.
“How a mother-and-son duo shaped Washington’s art and food scenes,” said the headline of a Washington Post Magazine story.
Molly and her son Paul Ruppert were at the forefront of D.C.’s current culinary and artistic blossoming in the 1990s — opening a “foodie” restaurant, establishing avant-garde theaters and pop-up art shows that launched scores of careers. The chef they hired was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs in America in 1997.
“And he supported all of it,” Molly said, poking at her husband, Raymond “Cappy” Ruppert, who makes it clear that he’s still 85 and will not turn 86 until next week.
Cappy — a name that he inherited from his family as a kid but that suited him nicely as captain of their little weekend boat on the Chesapeake — always ran businesses in D.C.
The Historical Society of Washington honored the Rupperts as a Washington Legacy Family, honoring six generations of Ruppert influence in the city, beginning with Henry Ruppert’s emigration from Germany to D.C. in 1856.
One of Henry’s sons, Frank, opened a hardware store in the 1000 block of Seventh Street NW in 1889. In 1936, that became a real estate management company, where Paul and Cappy worked for years.
“Then she made me move upstairs,” Cappy said, poking Molly back, explaining that he moved the real estate business upstairs so Molly and Paul could open that restaurant.
Molly married into this, but her family is fourth-generation Brookland-born.
When it came time to leave the D.C. businesses and their lives in the city — they finally sold the Seventh Street property after 120 years — they didn’t retire quietly to the little house on the Chesapeake Bay where their kids ran barefoot, learned to catch crabs and helmed their 20-foot runabout.
Whenever they boated up Rockhold Creek, they saw the remains of the old crab shack that had been there years ago but fell apart, piece by piece, into the water.
“We know lots of people were saying, ‘Someone’s going to pull that restaurant out of the deep,’ ” Molly said, in a break between the lunch and dinner rush on their last day of the season. “Why not us?”
When I first met her — the meatloafless night in June — and she told me a little about her story, my mouth gaped open, thinking of the quiet life my 76-year-old mother prefers.
“I can’t stop,” she said. “I get bored. I can’t sit still.”
Did any of the kids try to stop her?
“They may have said something between themselves, but not to us,” she said. “And my parents are dead, so I didn’t have anyone telling me this is a stupid idea.”
So they bought the property, then spent three years in planning and zoning purgatory to make their dream come true.
It’s a stylish, modern place, with ample dockage for boats and expansive deck seating. Instead of the crusty fish nets and plastic crustaceans that haunt too many seafood joints, it’s bright and airy with huge art pieces that Molly loves to talk about.
She keeps the menu tight. They’re known for the fat crabs they get from a local crabber, meatloaf, summer cookout salads like beet and corn, and for Molly’s insane fried chicken. “It’s some kind of complex recipe,” Cappy explained.
Cappy is at the bar, deft in all the drinks he’s learned to pour.
Nora Lober is an engineer most of the year. But during the summer, she, husband Jim and their kids work at Cappy’s.
“Nora won’t talk to you,” Molly said. “But she really runs the place.”
They haven’t made money yet in the two seasons they’ve been open. But they’re okay with that; they planned for it.
“We’re only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Molly explained, laughing. “Because we need the other four days to recover.”
And Sunday was their last day open this year. A chunk of the staff went off to college. The rest have sports, rehearsals and homework that gobble up their weekends.
That’s one of the problems, when the staff is family. And it explained that funny first weekend in June when we met the waiter who couldn’t stomach serving up another “no” to our table.
“It’s our first weekend. We had to open later this summer because of all the graduations,” Molly explained to us that day. “And we’re just not all the way there yet.”
They worked out those opening-weekend kinks, we learned on a return visit in August. The grandsons working the floor were all deft and confident, darting between tables with plates of food and drink refills.
Molly didn’t love closing for the season on Labor Day weekend but hopes that next year, they can add some distant cousins or maybe some non-Rupperts to work so they can stay open all year.
She wanted to make Monday their last. But the small union that is her offspring rebelled.
“They said: ‘We want one day of fun, come on!’ ” she said.
So she agreed to their demands and they got Labor Day off, after signaling the end of the summer with a family bonfire on the shore of the bay.