A rounded bustling bar, the smell of fried chicken, crowds of people chatting and sipping on mimosas, and a fenced-in outdoor patio shaded by a sprawling oak tree – these are just some sights one may catch if they are able to get a table in one of the most popular new restaurants in Baton Rouge, SoLou. Aptly named for its traditional Southern Louisiana-inspired menu, SoLou has quickly become the latest in a line of successes for Chef Peter Sclafani. By day, a trendy brunch spot worthy of anyone’s Instagram or Snapchat story, and by night, a casual-elegant dining experience. Coming off the heels of his decade-long business venture with Ruffino’s, including being the head chef and co-owner, Chef Peter is branching out into several new business ventures and jumping at the opportunity to expand the palette of Louisiana’s capital city.
In the new pandemic era, the restaurant business has become a complex game of sink or swim. Attempting to balance low attendance rates and inflation driving up the cost of food is a daunting task that has resulted in many establishments, both local and chain, closing. Some restaurant owners have taken the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent their restaurants amidst mew health concerns and capacity limits. One of the shining examples of an adaptive restauranteur in Louisiana is Peter Sclafani, former head chef and co-owner of Ruffino’s Italian Restaurant in Baton Rouge. The third-generation chef hailing from New Orleans had years of successful culinary ventures in Baton Rouge prior to his empire expansion and rebrand. Throughout the entirety of Chef Peter’s career, he has always maintained pride in the quality of his food. The backbone of Sclafani’s continued success for so many years has been his unwillingness to sacrifice the quality of his cooking. Whether serving on white tablecloths or at casual dining establishments, Sclafani has always believed that “you don’t have to sacrifice the quality or the culture.” Sclafani’s continued ability to achieve success as both a chef and culinary businessman are due to his ability to adapt to the times while providing delicious food no matter the price point.
Sclafani is perhaps most known for his decade-long business venture with Ruffino’s, a fine dining establishment that brought together classic New Orleans seafood dishes with authentic Italian cuisine to create a unique dining experience with something for everyone. Ruffino’s, the creative offspring of Sclafani and his partner Ruffin Rodrigue, quickly cemented itself as a Baton Rouge dining essential – with Peter Sclanfani’s name becoming synonymous with the business. Rodrigue and Sclafani both purchased what would become Ruffino’s from T.J. Ribs owner and Sclafani’s future business partner T.J. Moran in 2009. Sclafani and Ruffin set out to solidify Baton Rouge as a food capital after spending so many years in the shadow of New Orleans. Since then, Ruffino’s has boasted a robust menu of high-quality fare and a casual elegant dining style that would attract customers from all over Louisiana. In 2018, Sclafani left Ruffino’s after a career-defining decade which earned him national recognition and status as one of the top chefs in Louisiana’s capital city.
Sclafani’s tenure at Ruffino’s attracted state-wide recognition – earning several local awards and recognitions including two Fleur de Lis Culinary Awards gold metals from the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience among others. He was also named Restauranteur of the Year for two successive years by the Baton Rouge chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and later he and Rodrigue were named Restauranteurs of the Year by the state-wide Louisiana Restaurant Association. But Chef Peter’s notoriety extends beyond the state of Louisiana. In 2013 and 2014, Sclafani garnered national recognition and was invited to the world-famous James Beard House in New York City to showcase Louisiana cuisine. All of Sclafani’s success led him to publish his first cookbook in 2013, the wildly successful Seasons of Louisiana. Seasons is Sclafani’s love letter to Louisiana and the cultivation of his award-winning career all wrapped up into an exposition of southern favorites. If anything, Peter’s cookbook stands as a symbol of his commitment to quality over cost, ensuring that readers did not have to dine out at Ruffino’s to get a taste of his work; and that they could make it in their own homes.
Maintaining relevancy in the food world has proven to be a tough task, even for some of the greatest culinary figures in American history. Despite his national success, Chef Peter continues to expand his brand, further reaching audiences by adapting to the changing landscape of the gastronomic industry. When Sclafani was starting out, social media was in its infant stages, but quickly grew in tandem with his success at Ruffino’s. But as many culinary figures faded into obscurity with the dawn of social media platforms, Chef Peter continued to stay in the public eye with regular television appearances, both local and national, and by further reinvigorating the Baton Rouge food scene through his work in several different establishments. After parting ways with Ruffino’s, Sclafani moved to T.J. Ribs and Phil’s Oyster Bar, revamping the latter and reviving the restaurant after its closure in 2017 making it into yet another Baton Rouge staple. Despite being Executive Chef of Phil’s Oyster Bar, Chef Peter was also the part-owner – proving once again that it was never his goal to just remain in the kitchen. Combining his mastery of the culinary arts and his savvy business techniques, Sclafani has worked to not only maintain relevance but expand his empire even further.
The pandemic halted virtually every industry, including the food industry, with forced closures and capacity limits. While many restaurants did not get to live to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Sclafani had his hands in more projects than ever before. By March of 2021, Chef Peter had jumpstarted yet another culinary franchise with Portobello’s founder Kiva Guidroz and now helps operate both restaurants, P-Beau’s in Denham Springs and SoLou, Baton Rouge’s newest trendy hotspot. There is perhaps no greater indicator of Chef Peter’s ability to adapt than SoLou, a restaurant that appeals to a much different audience than his previous business ventures. The eatery, which is very clearly aimed to attract young social media influencers and tourists to have a taste of Louisiana culture, proves that Peter’s original message about quality still holds true. SoLou is affordable while still maintaining an element of elegance that helps the customer feel as though they are having a fine dining experience while surrounded by neon signs and eye-catching art. SoLou has been a massive success for Sclafani amidst the pandemic, with reports that revenue has been greater than expected. Phil’s and SoLou have truly helped further cement Chef Peter’s status in the Baton Rouge food scene and the wider Louisiana culture by showing just how well a restaurant can succeed when adjusted to the times.
SoLou is really the first of its kind in Baton Rouge, providing an experience that many foodies travel to New Orleans to have. The restaurant opened in March of 2021, a time which marked one year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but also came with a sense of optimism for the future of the restaurant industry as guests began returning to indoor dining. With masked staff and an outdoor patio for a safer dining option, SoLou opened its doors to the public. Two years prior, restaurants sat empty, but now it is difficult to find an empty chair during SoLou’s brunch hours on the weekend. And it was a major success from the start. The brunch and happy hour menus have helped to attract even more attention to the saporous lunch and dinner menus. Despite the more fashionable atmosphere of t he place, Chef Peter never chose to sacrifice the quality of the food. Especially in a “camera eats first” society, maintaining a standard for food is vital to the success of a business; because at the end of the day, looks do not beat out taste. SoLou offers a much different menu from Ruffino’s but holds many of the same sentiments – cultivating an experience with comfort food that leaves you wanting more. Of the food at SoLou, Sclafani told 225 Magazine, “We want to serve craveable food… the kind of dishes you’re still going to be thinking about the next day.” Further in line with Sclafani’s message, SoLou is affordable with great quality food, offering Louisiana classics such as shrimp and grits, soft shell crab, and chicken and waffles. The establishment has prided itself on affordable comfort food with a twist, with Sclafani and his partners putting their own spin on famous southern-style foods such as their beignet puffs or the boudin quesadilla. The broad menu has become a staple of a Peter Sclafani enterprise, with SoLou offering something everyone can enjoy including locally sourced food, adult beverages, and vegetarian options.
Sclafani’s current project sees him returning to his roots with the revamping of Baton Rouge’s fine-dining favorite Juban’s Restaurant & Bar, with fellow SoLou founders Kiva Guidroz and Michael Boudreaux. The trio formed Making Raving Fans Hospitality Group, the latest in a line of business ventures to help Sclafani and company expand their brand. Sclafani has already proven his ability to reinvent an already iconic brand by tightening its inner-workings and bringing his own restaurant philosophies – both business and culinary – to the table. Part of his success in these revamp operations has come from his willingness to not only preserve but also add to what made the establishment so loved. Juban’s, described as “elevated Creole cooking,” has a more fixated menu, focusing specifically on Louisiana fine dining seafood options like crab, salmon, scallops, and fresh fish. The beloved Hallelujah Crab and Fish Adrian remained on the menu while also adding several new dishes. The atmosphere differs from that of SoLou, choosing elegance over chic, but maintaining many of the enticing elements like a seated bar and a lit outdoor patio area. Sclafani and company have worked closely with Xdesign, Inc. on advertising their new establishments, including designing seamless websites which assist in boosting delivery and takeout orders. The pandemic created a landscape in which restaurants needed safe dining options for patrons while also continuing to be affordable given the economic hardships of the time. The Making Raving Fans Hospitality Group adapted to solve these issues by maintaining its food standards, continuing to keep food affordable, and offering both outdoor seating and takeout options to keep food accessible.Accessibility to food has been a large issue in the past decades. The greater Baton Rouge area itself has a large gap in its socio-economic makeup. Sclafani’s restaurants like Ruffino’s and SoLou prove that fine dining is not just a luxury of the wealthy, and that food can be good and affordable for more people to enjoy. Bridging the divide of wealth disparity in the food industry will no doubt continue, especially given just how successful Chef Peter has been in his 20-year career and his values regarding food quality remain foundational aspects of each of his business undertakings. From overhauling Juban’s and Phil’s Oyster bar, to founding Ruffino’s and SoLou, Peter Sclafani has proven that his hands-on business approach, whether he is reviving a brand or creating a new one. His success could only have come from wearing two hats, balancing both the corporate and creative sides of casual fine dining, and creating restaurants that excite patrons and provide them with a unique and memorable experience.