A picture is worth a thousand words, but a closed Bill’s Barbecue has proven to be worth a million stories. It was never just about the barbecue (but maybe the pies…or the limeade).
Update #1 — November 1st, 10:25 AM
Mitt Romney’s campaign has released an ad discussing the history and closure of Bill’s Barbecue. The ad features owner Rhoda Elliott discussing the restaurant’s history and blaming its closure on the failed economic policies of President Obama.
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Original — September 26th, 7:00 AM
It’s been a bitter farewell–more like a vinegar-infused farewell–to yet another iconic Richmond business this month: Bill’s Barbecue. Whether it was the bad economy, bad luck, or bad locations, whatever ultimately shuttered 82-year-old Bill’s Barbecue has left Richmonders with mixed emotions.
But now that Bill’s is going away, people are talking; there’s even a Facebook page dedicated to Bill’s Barbecue where people can share their memories on its timeline. The stories span from having an infatuation with their various pies, to one daughter taking her father there before he died, for a nostalgic last meal.
For many people under 30, the only memories of Bill’s they have are of eating there with their parents. If you grew up in Richmond, and had parents that grew up here too, you most likely have had a similar experience of eating at the old restaurant: ordering the subpar comfort food and sitting there, listening to your parents talk about how they used to eat there as a treat in the good ol’ days.
However, I was able to speak to a couple Richmonders about their own stories from dining at Bill’s.
Richmonder Gene Harris, dwelled a bit on his time there in the 60s. “I just remember hanging out there with my buds in our cars on Friday nights…we’d NEVER go inside–not cool. Always stayed outside in the drive-in slots where the servers would come to us in our cars with trays.” Simply put, it was a tradition that many high schoolers at that time had on Fridays and Saturdays.
And 40 years later, a certain tradition has stood the test of time: going to Bill’s with the family after a Braves game at the Diamond–when we still had the Braves, of course. Crossing the street to grab a bite with the parents sure did beat waiting in traffic for the parking lots to empty.
A former employee of the barbecue joint, Tonya, reminisced about having to stay past seven during the holidays to deal with the pre-ordered pies people were obsessed with having on their tables for Christmas. Only a high school graduate at the time, she told me a few stories of crazy people dumping condiments all over the place, but something that has stayed with her involved a particular customer: Mr. Jerry.
He would come in every Friday, sit at the end of the bar, and order a chocolate milkshake. He always left a 35-cent tip, without fail. Keep in mind this was 1990, and 35-cents had become a very questionable tip. As Tonya put it, he had them all fooled when he came in around Christmas and left each of the employees an envelope. Inside was $20. He was a great conversationalist, an old-fashioned tipper, but a generous guy after all. She still remembers him 20 years later.
Because it was here for two decades shy of a century, Bill’s Barbecue naturally became an important part of the community’s traditions. Except for those who still have a few frozen remnants of the goods from this restaurant, all we have now are the memories: whether it was a Christmas miracle, family treat, or the answer to post ballgame hankerings, the memory of Bill’s will not go away easily.
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Got your own Bill’s Barbecue story? Leave it in the comments below!