Ruffino's On the River owner Ruffino Rodrigue

Ruffino's restaurant owner Ruffin Rodrigue

Ruffin Rodrigue Jr., a former LSU football player who opened the Ruffino's restaurants in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, died unexpectedly from a heart attack Tuesday night. He was 53.

Before founding Ruffino’s, Rodrigue was a starting offensive lineman for the Tigers between 1986 and 1989, a dynasty era that saw the team notch SEC championships in 1986 and a shared title in 1988.

“He loved football ... and he loved Louisiana,” said former teammate and starting quarterback Tommy Hodson, who lived with Rodrigue for five years while they were in college.

Rodrigue moved to Montreal after graduating with a marketing degree to play for the World League of American Football until an injury ended his career.

When he returned to Louisiana, he put his marketing background to use, working for food and beverage companies before taking over Ruffino's in 2000, which had been owned by then-LSU coach Gerry DiNardo under his own name.

The popular Italian-Creole fusion eatery in Baton Rouge saw success under Rodrigue's ownership, which led to him and his business partner Peter Sclafani opening a second restaurant in Lafayette in 2013.

A year later, they were named restaurateurs of the year,  one of the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s top honors.

News of Rodrigue’s unexpected passing rippled through the restaurant industry Wednesday as friends and restaurant peers exchanged texts and memories.

"He had an infectious smile, an infectious personality and just bent over backward to serve people," said Restaurant Association President and CEO Stan Harris. "The restaurant business was a good fit for him."

When Louisiana was under a stay-home order because of the coronavirus, Rodrigue sought to uplift customers from the stresses of the pandemic by including a bundle of cotton candy with every to-go order. During that time, he could be found at all hours of the day covered in blue and pink sugar as he perched over the candy machine he set up in his office.

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Ruffin Rodrigue makes cotton candy during the coronavirus pandemic in his office at Ruffino's. Cotton candy is included with each takeout order. Rodrigue also made a music video, where he sings 'The Candy Man' while making the cotton candy. PROVIDED PHOTO BY RUFFINO'S

“Good lord. There’s no way you couldn’t love him,” said Jim Urdiales, the owner of Mestizo restaurant in Baton Rouge. “He was always the life of the party.” 

Harris said he spoke to Rodrigue Tuesday afternoon following Gov. John Bel Edward’s announcement that restaurants and other businesses will have to scale back capacity.

“He died too soon,” he said.

For his restaurant guests, he was known to burst into singing in the restaurant. Friends and peers recalled his larger than life personality and a strong voice for locally-owned restaurants.

Fellow restaurateurs frequently turned to Rodrigue when they needed a hand with lobbying at the Legislature or in Congress.

“If you needed him as a voice, he would be there in a heartbeat," Urdiales said. "We lost a pillar of the industry that helped reshape it in the last few years."

Rodrigue had been advocating for grants and relief for restaurants hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. He was able to keep his staff on the company payroll through money generated through take-out orders.

His restaurants remained open Wednesday to cater to patrons’ Thanksgiving needs and “to Celebrate Life the way Ruffin would have wanted,” the restaurant said in a statement Wednesday.

"He’d want us to push on and make pretty remarkable experiences," said Megan Klock, director of operations at Ruffino's. 

Rodrigue is survived by his wife and two children. Funeral arrangements were pending. 

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