By Deb Cornwell
It’s rude to rush barbecue. Cooking it should be slow, and it should be savored. At Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, anything else is practically illegal.
“Low and slow are the key words in preparing our barbecue,” says Don Sommer, general manager/ catering director of the Dickey’s in Winchester. “We smoke all of our own meats on site at a very low temperature, and two are smoked overnight. The pork goes in at 8 p.m., and the brisket goes in at 11 p.m. After 12-14 hours for the pork and 10-12 hours for the brisket, we ‘temp’ the meat to make sure it is done. Then we do a ‘break test’ to make sure it is falling off the bone.” The other meats are smoked during the day.
Sommer says, on occasion, he will tell a customer that the meat will be done in fifteen minutes. To which the customer replies, “Oh, I’ll take it now, no worries.” Sommer then has to explain that per the franchising agreement, they must serve meat that is so tender, so succulent, it must fall off the bone. However, there is always one customer who doesn’t see it that way. “Once, someone ordered ribs to go and called to complain that the meat was falling off the bone. The person wanted meat tough enough to strip from the bone with their teeth,” Sommers marvels. In 1941, Travis Dickey opened the first Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Dallas.
His sons Roland and T.D. took over the business in 1967, expanding the restaurant throughout Texas. Franchising began in 1994, and now there are over 500 Dickey’s Barbecue Pits across the country. The third generation of the Dickey family has taken over operations with a fourth generation waiting in the wings.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit was eager to join forces with Maricela Messner in expanding the Dickey’s brand across Virginia. Messner, of Charles Town, plans on owning and operating not only one Dickey’s in Winchester, but has future plans for three more locations. The closest Dickey’s to the Winchester restaurant is Fairfax. Messner and Sommer were friends in Houston. When Messner’s husband transferred to Washington for his career, she continued her work in corporate America in Tysons Corner. Wanting to start a family, she decided to change direction and began exploring options. Familiar with the quality of the Dickey’s restaurants, she made a call to her friend Don Sommer to see if he would move to Virginia to work with her, and then she secured the Dickey’s franchise for the area in November 2012. The restaurant opened in April 2013 after Messner and Sommer renovated the former Quiznos.
Barbecue is often a regional cuisine found in mostly southern states, but Dickey’s offers a consistent, hickory smoked meat as it continues to expand from coast to coast. Customers are wooed by the homestyle flavor and family friendly atmosphere—something that Messner and Sommers take very seriously. “We strive for perfection every day with every bite,” states Sommer. Messner adds, “We don’t rush people. Whether it is a family or someone who wants to work on their laptop at a table, we are welcoming.”
Dickey’s serves beef brisket, pulled pork, ham, sausages, turkey breast and chicken, with an extensive array of home-style sides from barbecue beans to macaroni and cheese. Buttery rolls are served with every meal along with complimentary ice cream and dill pickles. Ask about their Kids Eat Free on Sundays program. “After church lets out on Sundays, we can have 40 or more kids here throughout day. We love it,” Sommer says.
As if Messner’s time in corporate American or the US Army, or her Master’s Degree in strategic leadership wasn’t enough, Messner and Sommer both graduated from Dickey’s Barbecue University— an intensive month long training program. It seems to be a recipe for success. The duo went to Texas; worked in stores eight or more hours a day waiting on customers; studied for exams; watched supplemental videos on topics such as proper smoking techniques, how to cut ribs and briskets, proper taste and texture of barbecue, and took tests. Every Dickey’s owner/operator and general manager are required to graduate from Barbecue University. Once the store leaders are certified, they can help assistant managers take online courses.
Dickey’s is based on nearly 75 years of tradition. The tea recipe is the same as Miss Ollie Dickey made it. The original recipe barbecue sauce was hotly debated in the Dickey family decades ago, but once it was agreed upon, it has never changed. Although a franchise, Dickey’s is not a chain owned by stockholders. There is a tremendous amount of pride and history that the Dickey family passes along to their franchise owners. Sommer notes, “We get out from behind the counter and do table touches. We want to know if the customers enjoyed their meal.”
That pride also extends to customers. Messner says there is a battery store nearby that is a regular customer for catering as well as individuals dining in or carrying out. Dickey’s soda comes in plastic cups, and the battery shop employees have saved about 150 cups so far. Speaking of catering, Sommer says the Dickey’s catering van is one of their best advertising tools like a billboard on wheels. Whether clients need platters for pick up or delivery or full service catering, Dickey’s can handle it.
Something about Dickey’s must inspire pay it forwards. One day, there were two tables of first responders dining. A woman at the counter wanted to pay for their meals, but they had already paid so she bought $10 gift cards for each. Another day, a man noticed the Army Corps of Engineers name tag of another man in line. The first man left a $20 bill at the counter to cover the other man’s lunch. “He was flabbergasted,” said Sommer. “He was only going to order a sandwich but could now afford a drink and a side plus he got enough change to cover his meal for the next day.”
A table of Virginia State Troopers enjoyed their lunch at Dickey’s on the day I was in the store. They each had pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw—the most popular combination of items at the Winchester Dickey’s. Sommer noted that although there is exact consistency from store to store across the country, there are regional preferences. In Winchester, customers love the pulled pork and tend to order their barbecue sauce on the side. In Texas, customers prefer the beef barbecue and the sauce goes directly onto the meat.
Our party of three ordered the three meat platter and pork ribs plus sides. And a dessert. Always a dessert. We selected turkey breast, Polish sausage, and beef brisket for the meat platter. Each meat on the platter plus the ribs were amazingly succulent and juicy, and, as promised, falling off the bone. There are no short cuts in producing meat this tender and flavorful.
The sides did not disappoint—dill potato salad, jalapeño beans, green beans, and potatoes. You can’t go wrong with beans and a green. The jalapeño beans were essentially barbecue beans with jalapeños. The side is not actually spicy, but there is a deeper, maybe tangy, flavor. Flat Italian green beans cooked with bacon chips were fantastic. Not actually mashed potatoes, the baked potato casserole reminded me of a loaded baked potato that was either mashed or twice baked. Potato fans will dig it. We all enjoyed the soft serve vanilla ice cream, and the pecan pie—both filling and crust— was delicious.
“The Dickey’s franchise fi ts into the culture of Winchester,” says Messner. “It brings the delicious flavors of barbecue with the convenience of a fast casual restaurant atmosphere to this great community. I hope people will think of Dickey’s Barbecue as a really friendly group of folks that are passionate about serving outstanding barbecue.” Dickey’s is located at Winchester Station2524 South Pleasant Valley Road which is just beyond the WalMart.
commuting between Ranson and Knoxville. Wanting to retire early and come home, the McDonoughs were looking to invest in a local business. This coincided with the owners of The Country Cafe looking to retire. McDonough says, “I’ve always loved cooking, and when there is a large family gathering, I’m happy to do the cooking.” This passion for cooking, plus the fact that Armstrong knew the operation, made the decision to buy the restaurant an easy one.
McDonough lived in Southern West Virginia and Maryland before moving to Jefferson County when she was in junior high school. Armstrong started working at The Country Cafe from a young age and has mostly cooked for the restaurant but has also served. “The fast paced pressure of cooking orders never bothered me,” says Armstrong. Her mother proudly notes, “Mandy was a bit shy, but when she started working here, she really came into her own.”
Between the purchase of the business and the re-opening, the McDonoughs had four days for renovations and changes. “We ripped up the carpet, laid a new floor, and painted,” says McDonough, astonished at the progress in such a short time. “We couldn’t have done it without the help of family–my husband, nephew, kids.” Prior to closing the deal, McDonough worked as a waitress at The Country Cafe to get the hang of things.
“We had a great opening and fall season,” observes McDonough. “It has slowed down for the winter, but we have faithful regulars. A few customers are daily–we’re like a second home to some.” During the other three seasons, The Country Cafe serves quite a few tourists. “We get referrals from our website, the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, the Town of Bolivar, even Harpers Ferry Park Rangers. One customer told us that the Ranger said we are the best place to eat. That makes us feel great. Our TripAdvisor rating has gone from number four to number two.”
The Country Cafe is a breakfast and lunch restaurant. However, McDonough plans on expanding hours for special events. Located across the street from Harpers Ferry Middle School, The Country Cafe would like to be open before or after theatre performances. Additional hours for seasonal events such as Valentine’s Day, Breakfast with Santa and Old Tyme Christmas are in the works for 2015.
McDonough has kept the favorites of her daily customers, has updated a few recipes, and has added some new menu items. She reports, “My husband ate here a few times previously and never realized how good the food is until he sat down as an owner and tasted it critically. We get compliments all the time.” In addition to good food, the Country Cafe is homey, not corny, and a place where everyone feels comfortable.
McDonough says they are trying to use more local vendors and look forward to the Harpers Ferry Farmers Market in the spring. “We want to support local vendors and hope they will support us,” says McDonough. McDonough and Armstrong also have their own garden and plan to use their tomatoes and green beans at the restaurant.
Several times a week, McDonough drives to a butcher in Hagerstown for fresh hamburger and specially made, foot-long all beef hotdogs. “My brother buys beef at Holsinger’s and recommended it to us. It’s really worth the trip. Our burgers are so much better than a frozen patty, and the hot dogs are very good– you can taste the freshness; the hot dogs do not have any fillers.”
McDonough was determined to sell footlong hotdogs like she used to get in Maryland as a kid. “I had a hard time finding the right hot dog and an even harder time finding the bun. The bun is also a custom order.” McDonough admits The Country Cafe is not fine dining, “We are what we are, and we are good at what we do. The food is made with love.” All their soups are fresh from scratch. “Nothing has a tin can taste. You can tell,” she says. They make their own desserts including cherry and fruit pies plus cakes and cookies. The daily desserts are chef’s whim.
During the interview, McDonough invited me to sample some of their specialties. The gorgeously golden French toast was made with Texas bread.