From surfing to the kitchen, Bud & Alley's restaurant celebrates 35 years in Seaside

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

SEASIDE – Dave Rauschkolb remembers being 24 years old walking in and getting his first look at the building that would soon become one of the first restaurants in Seaside and someday a staple of the 30A community, Bud & Alley’s.

It’s the same view people see today.

An old photo shows Bud and Alley's diners enjoying an evening in the restaurant's outdoor seating area adjacent to the beach.

Rauschkolb has left history untouched. He has barely changed a thing in the restaurant over the course of the past 35 years, minus the annual fresh coat of paint. It still has a bar at the entrance that segues into dining tables and a direct view of the Gulf of Mexico.

More:Bud & Alley’s mixes old with new

As Rauschkolb embarks on an upstairs renovation for the anniversary, his plan is not to change what he knows no one wants to see change, but instead to marry the old with the new.

Dave Rauschkolb talks about how Bud & Alley's got its start in 1986. Rauschkolb and Scott Witcoski were headed to south Walton County to go surfing and stopped to meet Seaside founder Robert Davis. Davis asked them if they wanted to open a restaurant together. The two young entrepreneurs did, and they named the restaurant after Davis's dog and Witcoski's cat.

The “enhancement project,” features a renovated roof deck, entrance plaza to the east and west, full-service bar, three-story tower entrance to the roof deck with an elevator, 10 new restrooms and a rooftop view of not only the Gulf of Mexico, but also Seaside’s Central Square.

“I love how this design now has brought the life of downtown Seaside into focus,” Rauschkolb said. “We can do weddings. Can you imagine Fourth of July night, everyone up here looking at the fireworks and parades? In the past, it’s always been oriented toward the beach and now we have the best of both worlds.”

Bud & Alley’s daily sunset celebration was enhanced, too.

More:Chef’s Best: David Bishop of Bud & Alley’s

“The new tower is poignant,” Rauschkolb says, “Finally, there’s a proper place to house the vintage sunset bell we’ve had all these years.”

At its heart, Bud & Alley’s will remain the same.

An artist's rendering sits in front of a new tower at Bud & Alley's restaurant in Seaside. When completed, the tower will house a vintage railroad bell that will be rung at sunset every day.

“Yes, we could just completely transform this place and change it, but why would we ever want to do that?” Rauschkolb said.

‘The beginning of Bud & Alley’s’

Rauschkolb never planned on opening a restaurant.

He was supposed to join the U.S. Air Force like his father. Richard, a veteran of three wars, died when Rauschkolb was only 19.

“To me, I just saw my dad work so hard and work toward retirement and then die,” Rauschkolb said. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to do it backwards. I’m going to have fun and I’m going to enjoy as much of my life as possible as if every day is my last day.’ That sort of has defined my life.”

Looking back (2016):‘Something needs to change’ South Walton incorporation talks about to get serious

No, Rauschkolb was in no hurry to start real life.

The herbs used in many of the dishes at Bud & Alley's used to be grown in a small garden next to the restaurant's outdoor seating area, located next to the beach.

In fact, he prolonged college for as long as he could at what was then Okaloosa-Walton Junior College, now Northwest Florida State College, in Niceville so he wouldn’t have to do anything of the sort. He did serve at restaurants, though, such as The Back Porch, The Hilton and Les Saison’s, a French restaurant in Destin.

Les Saison’s was where he worked with his future business partner, Scott Witcoski, and met Robert Davis, the developer of Seaside. Davis drove all the way to Destin to eat there because the food was so good.

Davis asked if they were interested in opening a restaurant in Seaside. Rauschkolb couldn’t care less.

“When Scott Witcoski and I came into this building that first time, we were going surfing and I was mad at him because he wanted to stop and talk to some guy about a restaurant,” Rauschkolb said. “I didn’t want to stop. We stopped, and I’m like looking at my watch, ‘Come on, let’s get this over with.’”

Dave Rauschkolb and Mark Rush in an old newspaper clipping.

Then Witcoski asked Rauschkolb if he wanted to open the restaurant together.

“I was like, ‘I’m already five years into college and my mom will kill me if I go home and tell her that I’m going to drop out of college in my last semester,’” Rauschkolb said. “I went to my mom and said, ‘What do you think?’ She said, ‘When are you ever going to get a chance to open a restaurant for crying out loud? You can always go back to school.’"

That’s how his mom was.

His mother, Olive Christine, who went by “Olly,” died in 1998 when when Dave was 38. She was influential in his life.

“I was so fortunate that she said that to me,” Rauschkolb said. “If she put her foot down, I probably would not be sitting here right now. That was the beginning of Bud & Alley’s.”

The name started as a joke.

The partners had just signed the deal on opening the place and were walking back to Davis’ office when the subject arose.

Bud & Alley's owner Dave Rauschkolb shows off a new section of the  restaurant's rooftop bar which overlooks County Highway 30A and Seaside's Central Square.

“(Davis) said, ‘Well, what do you think we should call it?’ and Scott said jokingly, ‘We should call it Bud & Alley’s after your dog and my cat,’” Rauschkolb said.

Scott had a cat named Ally. Davis’ dog, Bud, lived to be 21.

The name didn’t catch, Rauschkolb said. They had a long list of others, but didn’t discuss it again until they placed it in the yellow pages.

Then, it escalated into an argument, until the woman working in the administration office spoke up.

 “We just heard a voice at a certain point, because we had to get it in the Yellow Pages by 12 o’clock that day and we were getting nowhere,” Rauschkolb said. “She said, ‘Well I kinda like Bud & Alley’s.’ We stopped and we looked at each other and we instantly just said, ‘Screw it. That’s what we’re gonna do. That’s what it will be.’ It was almost like a resignation. That wasn’t even one of the ones on the list anymore. That’s how spontaneously this thing came together. It was crazy.”

‘Fine dining and fun’

Seaside was nothing back then.

An early picture of Seaside shows the town's post office, when it was still located along County Highway 30A in front of what would later become the town's Central Square.

Rauschkolb could count the number of restaurants and businesses in the area on one hand – the Perspicasity shopping bazaar, a little sandwich grill next door called the Seaside Grill, The Lake Place Restaurant, Paradise Café in Grayton Beach (now the Red Bar) and Wheelhouse Restaurant – to name a few.

30A had no stop signs.

“That’s why we used to drive down 30A, because you could drive really fast and check the surf out on the way,” Rauschkolb said. “The first night we opened, we had about 20 people come in on Jan. 15 of 1986. I remember we were up 24 hours trying to get ready and we were so excited about our big opening night.”

The restaurant there prior, The Bistro, closed after only four months. It was French restaurant – stuffy and pretentious, Rauschkolb said.

Dave Rauschkolb surfing.

“Their logo was a checkerboard with a white plate on it and it said, ‘The Bistro,’” Rauschkolb said. “I still have matchbooks from that place. Remember matchbooks? Who uses those anymore? We decided to do the opposite of what he did. We wanted to have really great food, really great service and be unpretentious. It was a fun place. Fine dining and fun.”

They haven’t changed the concept of the menu. The theme has always been Gulf- and farm-to-table, procuring local ingredients wherever and whenever possible, Rauschkolb said. He credits Frank Stitt of Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill and Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club of Birmingham.

“That was a unique period in the culinary world to be in the restaurant business,” Rauschkolb said. “It was a transformative period. A lot of new things were being done and it was getting back to the roots of great cooking and bringing that great food to the masses and raising the culinary bar not only locally, but across the world.”

Food is like art, he said.

It regenerates and new things are always happening. That’s what makes it exciting.

And while the menu changes every season, certain things are a menu mainstay, such as crab cakes and sweet potato fries.

“People come here because they want it to be a certain way,” Rauschkolb said.

‘An anomaly’

And while Rauschkolb has left the restaurant unchanged; there are parts of himself, too, that remain the same.

This old photo of Bud & Alley's is one of many that line the walls of the restaurant in Seaside.

Surfing was and still is his first love.

Rauschkolb started when he was 15 and won the Gulf Coast Surfing Championship in 1981 when he was 18. He will surf until he can’t walk.

“Riding a moving mountain of water is – no matter how big it is, of course the bigger the more exciting it is – something that is incredible,” Rauschkolb said. “It’s always changing and every wave is different.”

Dave Rauschkolb and Scott Witcoski pose in front of BUd & Alley's in the 1980s

Rauschkolb loves the democracy of surfing. There is a pecking order and people have to follow the rules together, he said.

“People look at surfers – at least in the ‘60s and ’70s – as being slackers,” Rauschkolb said. “You have to work so hard. You’re paddling like 85 to 90% of the time to catch that one thrill, that wave. Almost every surfer I know is very good at what they do and they’ve been very successful in life. You want to encourage your kids to surf for sure.”

Rauschkolb is at Bud & Alley’s almost everyday, if not surfing or running his other restaurants. He has done everything except cook.

“My former partner wanted me to cook there, he said, ‘Let me teach you how to do the grill,’ and I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I have a short attention span. You don’t want me on the grill,’” Rauschkolb said. “That was the perfect thing to say. I have ADD, but that’s one of my greatest gifts I think, because I can multitask and there’s nothing I don’t think is possible.”

The staff hasn’t changed much either.

Michael Broadway, the general manager, has worked for Rauschkolb’s restaurants off and on seven years and Rauschkolb calls him a “short-timer.” Most of his staff has been with him for five to 10 years, he said.

Bud & Alley’s is a generational type of restaurant, Rauschkolb said.

“I’ve had children in my hands, babies, that wound up working for me,” Rauschkolb said.

Mo Moseley, the bartender, has worked for Bud & Alley’s for 21 years.

Dave Rauschkolb looks out the window of the restaurant in the early days

“He’s one of the most beloved bartenders in the whole region,” Rauschkolb said. “These are great personalities, amazing people … Kathryn Kenner, our special events coordinator, she says she bleeds blue and white. To be able to foster that kind of loyalty and that kind of family atmosphere is, to me, one of the greatest things.”

This is why Bud & Alley’s endures, he said. Rauschkolb takes care of his staff, he said.

“My chefs and managers, they’re not allowed to work more than a five day work week,” Rauschkolb said. “They’re mandated to take two days off in a row. That’s unheard of in the restaurant business. I don’t want them burnt out. They’re not walking on eggshells around me. No one is afraid of Dave.”

Paul Ferguson has served at Bud & Alley’s since March of 1999. He previously worked at a restaurant down the street and became familiar with Bud & Alley’s.

“There was no other choice,” Ferguson said. “I had to come here.”

A view of the new north side of Seaside's Bud and Alley's Waterfront Restaurant and Rooftop Bar, which will have additional seating and carry-out counter where customers can pick up food to go.

The restaurant is an anomaly, Ferguson said.

“Dave has made healthcare rather acceptable,” Ferguson said. “We have vision; we have dental. He encourages us all to have that. It’s very rare that a restaurant would offer something like that. The schedules are very fluid. He encourages us to have time with our family.”

'Pioneering position'

When Rauschkolb and Witcoski opened Bud & Alley’s, they didn’t do much business to stay in business, Rauschkolb said.

They were busy three or four months out of the year and that was enough. Over time, the restaurant got busier and busier.

They were great partners, Rauschkolb said.

A rendering of what the renovated Bud & Alley's will look like.

“He was a very talented chef and talented artist,” Rauschkolb said. Great at organizing. And a great partner. We really hit it off. I’m proud to say we were partners for 20 years and we’re still friends. At a certain point, he just was tired of the business, he said, ‘Dave I want out,’ and I ended up buying him out. We got one lawyer and we did it together. I miss him.”

Witcoski lives on the east coast now, still surfing as well.

Dave Rasuchkolb and Scott Witcoski in the early days of Bud & Alley's

Rauschkolb later came to own Pizza Bar, Taco Bar and co-own Black Bear Bread Co. His wife Carol, an interior designer, helped in every project.

Today, Bud & Alley’s is a staple of Seaside.

Every person who has invested in this area goes there, Rauschkolb said. And many visitors will eat two or three meals while there while they’re in town, he said.

“To be in a pioneering position in the very beginning and to play a role in inspiring other culinarians and inspire this food revolution that’s happened on 30A has also been incredibly gratifying and wonderful,” Rauschkolb said. “There is not a restaurateur on 30A who is not my friend, who I wouldn’t bend over backwards to help.”

Bud and Alley's Waterfront Restaurant and Rooftop Bar owner Dave Rauschkolb is celebrating 35 years serving customers in the heart of Seaside.

That feeling was fostered from the owner of Paradise Café, Johnny Earles, who welcomed them with open arms. Rauschkolb later paid it forward when Harriet Crommelin (who later opened Cafe Thirty-A) came to town.

“She used to sit at the bar every night,” Rauschkolb said. “After about a couple months, she said, ‘Dave, I think I’m going to open a restaurant here. I was like, ‘Awesome.’ I’m not sick of eating Bud & Alley’s food, but I would like some variety here.”

People always ask Rauschkolb, “You’re not going to change Bud & Alley’s, are you?”

Despite 35 years in business, the dining rooms at Bud and Alley's Waterfront Restaurant and Rooftop Bar in Seaside remain much the same as they were when the restaurant opened in 1986.

His answer: No.

“None of the old has changed and people love that,” Rauschkolb said. “People who love to come sit at the bar. People who come every year for their anniversary. People who have met here. People who got married here. And people who celebrate their anniversaries here. Same people. Those are the stories that are the most gratifying for me, when I run into customers and they just tell me just how much this place means to them.”