I have yet to walk out of Ritter’s dissatisfied.
Having returned four additional times after my exclusive interview with bro-and-sis owner duo, Jessica and Mike, I couldn’t find any fault in the culinary offerings. Nor could I be displeased by their non-traditional service model (order at the counter, take a number, grab your own drink, and BYOT—bus your own table). The Ritter siblings have turned a promising street-corner into a bustling, grab-n-go/sit-down eatery to bring a new, hybrid restaurant concept to downtown Salem.
It is no surprise that they have already ushered in a successful soft opening, ramping up to an even more successful Grand Opening last week on Wednesday October 5th. Most people recognize Jessica Ritter as the co-owner (with sister Cecilia Ritter James) of the Wild Pear on State Street downtown. With a solid background in restaurant management, Jessica is no amateur at this. However, while a grab-n-go, casual second establishment was always a part of the Wild Pear’s growth plan, the Ritter sisters hadn’t anticipated being hand-picked by Gayle Doty to assume ownership of the space previously housing Gayle’s Market.
In order to ensure the success of their second restaurant, the Ritters had to come up with a niche business plan that would be unique so as to not compete with other downtown businesses (many of whom are friends of the Ritters), and also to not cannibalize the Wild Pear just down the street.
“Since we’re right down the street from the Wild Pear, we were trying to establish a really clear identity [with Ritter’s],” Jessica explained to me during our interview. “That’s why we’re doing counter service, and why we have eliminated soup and cakes and pastries, because you can just go over to the Wild Pear and get those things.”
While most of the details seemed to easily fall into place for the new restaurant, the Ritters faced an unexpected development: Cecilia’s abrupt need to step down as co-owner of Ritter’s in the months leading up to opening their doors. With her son’s sudden passing in April, Cecilia had to tearfully, and understandably, pull back from being involved with Ritter’s Eatery to focus on her family, letting Jessica and Mike carry on the torch in her stead. (For the sake of clarity, as there are many rumors still floating around Salem, Cecilia is still co-owner of Wild Pear with Jessica, and is also still partnered with her husband at ACME Cafe off Liberty Road South,. She made the tough decision to withhold from a third commitment after the devastating loss of her son. While parting with Ritter’s was bittersweet, Cecilia has chosen to let her siblings assume full ownership of this business venture going forward.)
Jessica and Mike have ploughed ahead, keeping the original dream alive to bring to downtown a restaurant that was fast and casual, but still upheld the same quality of food as the Wild Pear.
“The pizza oven was here from Gayle’s Market, and that wasn’t going anywhere,” Jessica laughed, “so pizza automatically became a part of the business plan. And the salad bar is something that we all love. But this time, we’re serving it for you—it’s easier and more sanitary that way, and people like that. And the ice cream—well, we all love ice cream. There really isn’t a hard ice cream offering downtown other than the mall or frozen yogurt. Since there aren’t any privately owned scoop shops around, we thought that would be a fun feature.”
In addition to made-to-order meals, Ritter’s also has appetizers, a grab-n-go case of food and drink items (with options expanding in the future), and a full bar offering, courtesy of their talented lead bartender, Jason Wenger. They’re also huge fans of sourcing their products and ingredients locally. And, come November, the public will have an opportunity to take a gander at their incredible event space downstairs. Co-planning with major supporter, Gayle Doty, Ritter’s will host a party to celebrate the McGilchrist-Roth Building’s 100th anniversary/birthday, appropriately themed around what was “in” 100 years ago. They’ve certainly hit the ground running, and it’s no surprise to see how their success is already so evident.
Having tried the brick oven pizzas, their eclectic salad bar, savory sandwiches, the killer ice cream selection (yes, I shamelessly tried ALL the delicious flavors), and a few specialty drinks at the bar, it’s safe to say the Ritter siblings continue to further their vision for a greater food culture in the Salem area. But for the Ritters, it’s about so much more than food:
“It’s definitely a community here; we wanted Ritter’s to be about food, family, and community,” Jessica explained. “We feel so honored because so many local businesses have sent us flowers and congratulations. They have been so supportive not just in word, but also in showing up and repeatedly coming back.”
Open for merely a week and the Ritters have once again earned the love and respect of the downtown community. It’s exciting to see Salem continue to flourish under the devoted care of hardworking locals like Jessica and Mike. A forever-advocate for our city’s growing flavor, I’ve definitely whet my appetite. Thanks, guys, for the tasty introduction.
Open 8am – 8pm Mon-Sat, 102 Liberty St. NE