HOLMBERG: Bill’s Barbecue should blame front office, not Oval Office

Posted at 12:13 AM, Nov 02, 2012
and last updated 2012-11-02 07:59:54-04

RICHMOND, VA. (WTVR)--You have to be a blind supporter of President Obama’s to say the economy hasn’t been tough for the past four years.

But you also have to be a blind critic of the president to blame him for the closing of Bill’s Barbecue.

In my view, this longtime Richmond institution has no one to blame but itself.

A new, sad and heartfelt Romney/Ryan campaign ad getting national attention shows Bill’s owner Rhoda Elliott tearfully blaming the economy, and President Obama’s handling of it, for the death of this family-owned institution.

“That’s a bunch of frackanackle bull!” said Agnes Hawkins, a lifelong Richmond resident who estimates she has eaten at Bill’s more than a thousand times. She says the business has slipped in recent years, with poor service and prices. She blames bad management, not the Oval Office.

Joe Franklin also grew up eating at Bill’s. He says he stopped frequenting it regularly sometime after “the Reagan administration. To be honest, I think that probably was when they were in their heyday.” He said the business didn’t adjust to changing times and growing competition.

Graham Scala said the campaign video was “decidedly politically motivated. Most of the people who see that ad aren’t from Richmond and don’t realize that place wasn’t very good. You can’t rely on legacy to stay open and compete with all these other places.”

I’ve also eaten at Bill’s many times. I did like the paper-wrapped barbecue on the little white rolls, and pouring the lip-smacking  vinegary sauce out of salt shakers.

But over the years I ate there less and less. The service wasn’t real friendly or brisk, the prices a little big for small sandwiches.  The places on the Boulevard didn’t feel clean – they felt old, tired. I had a hard time figuring out when the Myers Street store was open. There were health code violations, although not too extreme. (You can look for yourself here:

I do believe the family was loyal to its employees. But that alone won’t keep a restaurant open.

It’s an industry that requires you to be on point, nearly all the time. It’s a tough, risky business, which is why restaurants close every day.

While Bill’s was struggling, Alamo BBQ opened in Church Hill three years ago. It’s been thriving in what was once a rather tough business location. I believe the Texas-style roadside diner has helped transform that part of the Hill.

The video’s blame game is the type of message that is risky and liable to backfire, said  Virginia Commonwealth University advertising professorAshley Shoval. “You open yourself to commentary from the whole peanut gallery, in addition to educated commentary . It’s a risk you run.”

Reaction to the campaign video is split, seemingly based on the politics of the observer.

Me? I went to Bill’s from time to time for 30 years, mostly to support a local business.

I recall looking around the N. Boulevard restaurant five years ago, thinking “this place is doomed.”

Was that George W. Bush’s fault?


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