Jay Pierce’s father, Julius C. “Doc” Pierce, imparted this wisdom to his son: “Don’t tell anyone you have the best of anything; you let someone else tell you.” For 50 years, that philosophy has carried the family forward as they have developed and strengthened their half-century legacy, Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que.
If you drive along Rochambeau Drive in Williamsburg, you’ll come across a yellow and orange building nestled among lush green trees that has sat in the same spot since its opening day. On October 15, 1971, the 14×16-foot building opened for business with “Doc” at the helm. Jay Pierce described it as a drive-in inside of the horse pasture next to his family home — a fitting location considering Pierce’s lifelong love for horses. He was only 16 when he first started working at the restaurant, and he continues to maintain its success as its primary owner today.
“People thought my dad had opened a fruit stand, that’s what it looked like,” he says of the original building. “It had a walk-up window, bathrooms and one room. Sandwiches were 75 cents, fries were 30 cents and you could get a drink for a quarter.” As the years went by, a stronger building was constructed around the original foundation.
Pierce stated that his family had “no money” before the restaurant opened, so on its opening day, the family borrowed $40 from a friend to make change with. That day, they made $80. “My father told us, ‘We made 100 percent. We’re going to make it,’” Pierce says. Since then, Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que has risen to national success, with features in dozens of media outlets, from local Virginia newspapers to National Geographic and the Travel Channel. Despite its overwhelming amount of accomplishments, Pierce stresses the importance to “remember where you came from.”
Pierce describes barbecue as “regional,” meaning that it looks different everywhere. And he would know: “Doc” was originally from Tennessee and his wife, Verdie, hailed from Alabama. To create Pierce’s, they brought their passion for cooking, their individual flavor palettes and their past experience of owning restaurants to the metaphorical table. Pierce has since taken over the business from his parents and continues to uphold their vision in all he does. He says that some of the employees at Pierce’s are second and third generation, speaking to the culture of kindness and mutual respect that the restaurant cultivates and the legacy his parents have left behind. “They work with me, not for me,” he says.
Pierce’s is a testament to the sentiment that through hardship comes success. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses had to adapt quickly in order to stay afloat, and Pierce’s was no exception. “We had to change everything in a matter of 24 hours,” Pierce says. He considered closing down until the pandemic was over, but his employees encouraged him to keep the restaurant open. Together, they operated out of a tent where they served pick-up orders to customers and turned their outdoor acre space into an open-air dining room. “That credit goes to my employees,” Pierce says.
The intentionality that Pierce’s puts into its food shines through in all it does. The restaurant has no ovens; instead, employees slow-cook all meat outdoors over hickory and oak wood to give the food a smoky, full flavor. Pierce emphasizes that the restaurant should be considered “quick service,” not “fast food.” Much of its food is supplied from organic farms like KelRae Farm in Toano, showcasing Pierce’s commitment to “keeping food clean and green.” Customers can expect all the essentials typically found at barbecue restaurants — such as chicken, brisket, ribs and a smattering of side dishes — but with a unique taste that can only be found at Pierce’s. Its homemade original sauces add to the experience. If you can’t get enough of Pierce’s, you can bring the familiar flavor home by ordering its original barbecue, other products and bottles of sauce on its website, www.pierces.com.
Recently, Pierce’s has developed new sauces including Honey and Hot, as well as developing a partnership with a bottling company. “I have no intentions of going anywhere,” Pierce continues. “I love what I do and I love new ideas. We are constantly looking for growth and new things.” Given their momentum since their humble beginnings, that shouldn’t be difficult to do.
When asked to sum up Pierce’s in a few simple words, Pierce says, “Respect, love and pride… Be proud of what you’ve done and what you are doing. We put love into our food. I could cut corners and make more money, but it’s not all about making more money. Success will come with that, and that’s worked for 50 years for us.”
TO THE POINT:
Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que
Address: 447 E Rochambeau Dr., Williamsburg, VA 23188
Contact: Jay Pierce
Business: Restaurant, barbecue