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From The Virginia-Pilot

ARGUMENTS OVER WHICH state's barbecue is best - Virginia or North Carolina - have been waged for years. Often, they've been as fierce as similar chest-beating comparisons of barbecue between the Carolinas (you know, yellow vs. red).

The mettle of great barbecue is the sauce. And the roots of one of the favorite sauces in Virginia are neither from Virginia or North Carolina. Pierce's Pitt Bar-B-Que Sauce was created in Flat Creek, Tenn., about 70 years ago. Julius C. "Doc" Pierce brought his mother's secret recipe to Virginia. Lucky for us that, in 1971, Doc Pierce tired of working for restaurants owned by others. With the help of his wife, Verdie, and son J.C., he built a drive-in - well, walk-up - barbecue restaurant on a portion of the property occupied by their home. It was his small, humble stake for fame and fortune.

Everything the family had went into the barbecue stand. In fact, Doc had to borrow $20 from a friend to make change on opening day.

Every penny counted. Doc chiseled the price for his sign down so far that when it arrived and the word "Pit" had two "t's," the sign maker reportedly said, " . . . If you don't like it, give me another $25 and I'll fix it." Now you know why Pierce's Pitt has two t's - frugal Doc Pierce.

Pierce's Pitt Bar-B-Que sits on the same site it occupied in 1971 along Virginia Highway 168, fronting eastbound Interstate 64. A scant four miles west of Williamsburg, it is one of the busiest barbecue restaurants in Virginia, if not the entire eastern seaboard.

Doc's roll-of-the-dice paid off. The family sold everything they smoked that first day and have never looked back - except appreciatively to their employees and customers. Today, Pierce's is a thriving enterprise beloved by its customers, employees and purveyors.

So popular is the restaurant that, for the third year running, it's been voted one of the South's best barbecue restaurants in Southern Living magazine's "Readers Choice Awards."

Oh, there was one hiccup along the way. In June 1979, according to Virginian-Pilot columnist Guy Friddell, " . . . the State Highway Department built a fence at the crossover between Interstate 64 and the orange and red barbecue shack on parallel Va. 168."

"I could scarcely believe my eyes," Friddell wrote. "I actually got out of the car and laid my hands on the fence to make certain it wasn't a mirage."

Some motorists resorted to climbing the fence rather than drive the hard-to-find route to Pierce's. Fridell shared a story from J.C. Pierce about an elderly woman who caught her skirt on the fence and, when freed, remarked defiantly that she refused to travel that extra distance for a barbecue. The highway change made it about a 5-mile detour.

Sales slumped for a short time after the fence went up. Soon, though, business was again smoking. Customers found the extra drive a nuisance, but the food made it worthwhile.

The original building still stands. It is now surrounded on three sides by expansions. Today, there is inside seating for about 100; outside there are plenty of picnic tables.

The original pit behind the family house was replaced in the early 1980s, just about the time Doc Pierce passed the ownership baton to son J.C. Today, there are six smoking pits enclosed in a building that also houses the butcher shop. Pierce's, which was "grandfathered" in regards to some modern-day restaurant regulations, is the only open-pit barbecue restaurant in Virginia.

Since assuming day-to-day management of the restaurant, J.C. Pierce has built his father's gamble into an empire.

The younger Pierce indulged dreams of empire building, common in the late 1980s and early 1990s, only to retreat to a more rational and fulfilling lifestyle. At one point, there were five locations, plus a booming catering business.

"I looked up and found I had driven 96,000 miles in 18 months, spending little time at home and not doing as well as I could have on the promise I made to my dad," J.C. Pierce says. "Before he died, Dad asked that my mother live out her life in the house by the restaurant, never moving to a home. My mother has crippling arthritis and requires 24-hour care. I wasn't able to coordinate that effort as well as I wanted.

"I needed more time. I'm a hands-on manager and I just couldn't do justice to all of the businesses and my mom."

The expansion that began in 1981 with a stand in the Waterside Festival Marketplace in Norfolk was reversed. Pierce began closing the satellite locations as leases expired. He started closing stores in late 1995 and concluded in April 1997 when the last of two Richmond locations was closed.

Consolidating operations into the one restaurant and concentrating on the growing catering business appears to have helped focus Pierce's attention on growing his core business. Plus, he was next to his parents' home, so he had the time to care for his mother.

Today, Pierce's Pitt Bar-B-Que is smoking more Boston pork butts than ever. In August, they smoked more than 30,000 pounds of Gwaltney's pork and used about 115,000 rolls from Mary Jane Breads.

There is fierce loyalty at - and for - Pierce's. They have 46 employees, including multiple members of a couple of families; in fact, some families have spanned three generations of workers at the restaurant. Pierce's general manager, Andrea Hutchinson, has a daughter, Kim Harris, who is Pierce's assistant. And her son and daughter worked for the company when they were in school.

Mary Lou "Maggie" Bonafe spent 28 years working at the restaurant until she retired in May. During that time, her mother, sister and several of her children also worked at Pierce's.

In 1976, Doc Pierce persuaded bread deliveryman George Lemnious to leave Mary Jane Bread and work for him. He's been the pit master ever since.

"I had been in the restaurant business before and thought I'd give this a try," Lemnious recalls. "I kept my home in Chesapeake, figuring in a few years I could leave and open my own place. I'm still driving 120 miles a day, 22 years later. They've treated me too good to leave."

Lemnious loves what he does, smoking the meat, then pulling it apart and chopping it up before adding the sauce. which is made on-site. He and his three-man crew have smoked as much as 7,000 pounds of meat in a day.

In the summer, they smoke every day. This time of year, they can smoke all of the meat the restaurant needs in a couple of days a week.

The secret is not the sauce alone, but the slow smoking of the meat and the natural smoke flavor the process imparts.

Pierce's burns at least two cords of hickory and white oak each week, more in the summer. As with most of their supplies, they buy firewood from only one source. Loyalty pays dividends: Pierce's uses the same vendors, year in and year out.

The Pierces have always believed that consistent quality means as much to the business as favorable pricing. What's important is the end result - the barbecue.

Doc Pierce's gamble paid off. His little walk-up restaurant sells a smoky and tangy barbecue, has loyal, content employees and draws a legion of customers who keep coming back for more.

At Pierce's, you'll get no argument about whose barbecue is better. It's impolite to talk with your mouth full.

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Store Manager, Tonya Johnson.
Tonya started at Pierce's in 1990.

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