Restaurateur's Legacy will Continue
By John C. Stevenson
As diners in Charleston begin to take advantage of relaxed coronavirus rules to return to their favorite restaurants, at least one well-known Charleston restaurant will remain shuttered.
R.B.'s Seafood Restaurant's owner Ronnie Boals recently announced his retirement, while the restaurant that bore his initials has been sold for $7 million to Atlanta-based Geyer Capital Management LLC. Boals opened the restaurant, which was located on Shem Creek, in 1979.
While some might consider it the end of an era, others noted that some of Charleston's leading restaurateurs learned the business while working in one of Boals' restaurants over the years.
"I was the second manager at R.B.'s, and I learned the restaurant business from Ronnie," said John Keener, a Charleston restaurateur and president of the year-old Lowcountry Hospitality Association. "He was a great teacher. He knows the business inside and out. He knows how to make money and how to run a restaurant."
Maybe it's because restaurants have always been a part of Boals' life; "food is in his blood," as Keener put it. Boals' mother was a Bessinger, a name instantly recognizable to barbecue fans in the Lowcountry and beyond.
"He (Boals) grew up flipping burgers in a Piggy Park," Keener said.
Even before Boals flipped his first burger, the 76-year-old retiree said he started out serving sweet treats in an uncle's Piggy Park location.
"I was a young boy - fifth or sixth grade - when I worked for my uncle," Boals recalled in a recent telephone interview from his Lowcountry home. "That was in the late ’40s and ’50s. Piggy Park was strictly a drive-in, and I made sandwiches, banana splits. That was my first job - the fountain. I must have been around 12 or 13."
After striking out on his own, Boals would open R.B.'s and several other Charleston-area restaurants that catered to locals and tourists alike, according to Keener.
"Ronnie was a great innovator - he was one of the top guns in Charleston," Keener recalled.
R.B.'s itself started small, Keener said. "We had 13 umbrella-top tables outside, and six booths and a bar inside," he said. "We served fried seafood. Ronnie built R.B.'s into a 360-seat restaurant with two bars."
Along the way, Boals opened other successful restaurants in the area, and even operated a fishing boat for tourists, Keener said.
Keener added that while some locals might remember Boals as a tough businessman, he was often "misinterpreted" by others.
"Ronnie is one of the most caring, kind, giving people I've ever known," he said. "He's fed thousands of people for free when they were in times of need, and he was never asked to do it. He was a tough businessman with a kind heart."
For his part, Boals said he misses the life of a restaurateur, but acknowledged "I needed to get out. I've been in (restaurants) since I was 18. I loved that business to death. But nobody at my age should be in the restaurant business."
Boals' retirement, however, doesn't mean an end to his legacy or his influence on the Charleston culinary scene. As Keener observed, several local restaurateurs who are thriving today got their start in properties owned by Boals.
Boals himself speaks fondly of his former employees.
"There are five or six of those boys I trained who have gone into the business and done well," he said. "I wanted to see that. I always loved my employees."
And while R.B.'s is closed, the property is expected to remain a restaurant when it reopens, according to C. Kendrick of Charleston Commercial, which brokered the sale of the property.
"We viewed R.B.'s as an irreplaceable piece of real estate and we wanted to keep the legacy going," said Kendrick, who added that it's his understanding the new owners plan to renovate the property and are looking for another restaurant to go into the waterfront location.
Geyer Capital Management LLC did not return a request for comment on its plans for the location.
Boals is now focused on his health, but of the restaurant business that occupied so many decades of his life, he said without hesitation, "I enjoyed it more than you can imagine. Sometimes I didn't want to leave. You've got to love the restaurant business."