Saturday, December 3, 2022

Friends Reunion: Two Generations of Local Restaurateurs Talk Past and Present

First and second generations of family-owned Williamsburg restaurants gathered in one room to share stories. (WYDaily/Molly Feser)

WILLIAMSBURG — Three families gathered at Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que on the afternoon of Monday, March 28 to swap stories about their experiences over the last 50 year running family businesses in Williamsburg.

Over half of a century ago, The Cheese Shop, Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que and New York Deli and Pizza Restaurant all opened for business, and have since become landmarks in the Greater Williamsburg community.

Jay Pierce, whose parents, Julius C. “Doc” and Verdie Pierce, opened Pierce’s, located at 447 E. Rochambeau Dr., in 1971, reflected on being among the only established family-owned operations still in business in Williamsburg.

Pierce recalled the time after his father passed away and he had a conversation with Tom Power, Sr., who co-owned The Cheese Shop in Merchants Square with his wife, Mary Ellen Power.

“Our parents all knew one another,” Pierce said. “I always looked up to all of your families. The day after my dad passed away, I ran into Mr. Power in the parking lot and I sat down and had a long talk with him, and he said, ‘I know this rattled your family, but you can do this. We‘re here. If you need me, you call me. Whatever you need help with.’ That kind of support just is something that makes me really proud to know that we’ve all survived, and we’re all second generation.”

The families have been friends for years, but this was the first time that members of the family had all collectively been together in one room.

Bobby Lappas, who runs New York Deli and Pizza Restaurant, located at 6546 Richmond Road, said that the families have all been supportive of each other’s businesses over the years. Lappas’ parents, James and Kiki, first opened the College Delly in Williamsburg in 1968. The business has operated as the New York Deli at its current location in Lightfoot since 1987.

“Growing up as a kid, it was pretty neat, having William & Mary right next to you, going to football games,” Lappas said. “And everybody knew everybody, walking down Richmond road. It’s a cool town. Even now you can’t go into a grocery store without knowing somebody and having a conversation with somebody. People always ask, ‘What is the biggest thing you like about what you do?’ And I say the relationships you build. You can’t get these kind of relationships behind a desk or a cubicle.”

The families stated that not only locals and out of town guests have visited their establishments, many celebrities and public figures come into their businesses over the years including Christopher Plummer and Sting.

“It didn’t mean as much to me as when regular faces walked through the door,” Pierce said.

Relationships with one another, the community, and a strong work ethic were credited for seeing these restaurants through hard times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, all three are still dealing with employee shortages.

“Unless you run a business, you have no idea the number of bodies you need to just to be open,” said Cathy Power Pattisall, who runs The Cheese Shop, located at 410 W. Duke of Gloucester Street in Merchants Square, with her siblings, Mary Ellen, Jr. and Tom Power, Jr.

“We did what we had to do, and it makes you feel really proud to say we grew up that way because we had to fight,” Pierce said.

Through the good times and bad, the families credit the support of loyal customers and each other.

“We need to have each other’s backs,” Lappas said. “Without supporting each other, it’s a tough situation.”

The families said that they continue to support each other through visiting one another’s restaurants and giving employee references.

“It’s so much nicer when you can talk to somebody and they can give you some real insight,” Pattisall said. “That’s one of those things that you can’t do with very many people.”

The downside of growing up in the local family-owned restaurant industry? There was little trouble that they could get into without their parents finding out about it.

Lappas noted that his own daughter is now having to experience this. While the families are not certain that the third generation will want to take over the family business, for now, the second generation of restaurateurs will continue to carry on their families’ legacies.

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