When Carrie and Ralph Roeger visited the Leatherneck Club in Las Vegas in January 2015, their plan was to just grab a bite to eat, have a couple of drinks and reminisce about their time in the Marines.
They weren’t expecting the visit to alter the course of their lives.
Walking through the Marine Corps-themed restaurant’s doors is like walking into a history museum that also happens to serve food and drinks, they said. But what really struck them was the instant sense of community and bond they felt with other people there.
“We looked at each other and went, ‘Why not us? How cool would it be if we did something like this back in our hometown?’” said Ralph, a retired Marine combat engineer.
Over the next several months, the Roegers toyed with the idea of opening their own restaurant despite having zero industry experience. They committed to their decision that March, found a building in mid-June and opened the doors to Semper Fi Bar & Grille in Woodstock, Georgia, on Aug. 9 that same year.
“The whole purpose of us starting this was to give our veterans a place to come to, to be able to tell their story,” Ralph said.
Seven years later, Ralph and Carrie are still going strong.
Filled with walls of military memorabilia and photos donated by locals, their restaurant has fostered an atmosphere where veterans feel comfortable sharing their stories of service with friends and family, some for the first time.
Reconnections of people who’ve served together are common.
It’s a form of therapy for some. The self-dubbed “Knights of the Round Table,” a gathering of a dozen or so Vietnam veterans, takes up a large section of the back room every Friday afternoon to stay connected with each other.
Carrie, a member of DAV Chapter 6 in Marietta, Georgia, admits now that five months was an aggressive timeline to bring a restaurant concept to reality. She later learned that 18 months is an industry standard. But her business background, their shared determination and an experienced manager and staff carried them through.
“We’re Marines. We get stuff done,” she said. “And we just made a decision that this is the mission, and we’re going to accomplish the mission.”
This tenacity is characteristic of Carrie, who served five years in the Marine Corps as a Russian linguist.
Now, she and her husband are taking on the new mission of franchising their restaurant under the name Rally Point Grille.
They want other communities to have a welcoming place where veterans and others can gather for a good meal, share their stories and preserve local military history.
But they also want to create new opportunities. Another goal of franchising is to provide veterans with a path to restaurant ownership, even if they don’t have the financial resources or industry knowledge. These restaurateur hopefuls will have the benefit of the Roegers’ experience to guide them.
After their own journey learning the ins and outs of running a restaurant and having their business survive the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re equipped to mentor others, Carrie said.
“That’s why I’m not afraid to take somebody who has never been in the hospitality or the restaurant business and help them do this, because we did it,” she said. “We’ve learned all the hard things. We learned all the things not to do.”
To help with this expansion and mentorship plan, DAV presented Carrie with the Arthur H. and Mary E. Wilson Top Venture Impacting Veterans Award at the Veteran Entrepreneurship Success Summit in Washington, D.C., in June 2022. The summit is hosted by Syracuse University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans & Military Families.
Carrie said the $10,000 prize that comes with the award was the catalyst they needed to take steps toward establishing their first franchise location, planned near Fort Benning, Georgia.
“When we get to the future and look back, we’ll see that the grant from DAV was instrumental in the growth and expansion of our company,” she said.
Carrie added that their decision to expand is more than providing other veterans a career opportunity. It’s also a calling to help struggling veterans who may visit one of their restaurants. They’ve seen it already.
“We have story after story after story where we have talked people off the ledge and brought them back, where they were going to go do something serious and something permanent,” she said. “So we know that there’s another one out there who’s going to walk in the door of one our restaurants, and we’re going to save their life. We have to do this. We can’t sit still.”