Music pumped from the backyard at The Pitts on a recent Thursday evening, the beats reverberating over the tall wooden fence and out into the packed parking lot. On this sticky July night, men and women danced in the sandy grass under a small tent while karaoke singers belted tunes.
Bon Jovi, Sir Mix-A-Lot, the Stylistics – the music varied as much as the people holding the mic. Black and white, mostly older adult men and women, friends and strangers alike.
The Pitts, at 2220 Broad Rock Blvd. in South Richmond – just down the street from McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center – is a barbecue joint, a dive bar, a true neighborhood place. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 3:30 to 9 p.m., it’s the sort of place where regulars occupy their favorite spots at the bar and newcomers grab a beer and blend in. Out back, patio tables with mismatched chairs spread across the yard, inviting everyone to find a place, kick back, take a load off.
On this night, The Pitts owner Lisa Ann Peters sat at a table near the back of the yard, taking in the scene before her as a traveler staying in Richmond on business bent her ear. Just minutes before, he was dancing with a regular – Flo Alexander, better known in this yard as Mama Pitts or Queen of The Pitts. This was his first time to The Pitts and he didn’t know a soul, he told Lisa Ann, and he was having a ball.
These moments are bittersweet.
Lisa Ann and her husband, Michael Peters Jr., opened The Pitts in November 2018. Now, they’re selling it along with just about everything they own, including their Lakeside home. They’re moving to South Carolina to catch their breath, to reconnect, to find something that’s been lost in hectic pace of their lives over the last year. The pandemic’s impact didn’t force The Pitts to close – they adapted, changed, evolved – and those decisions, as made by so many other restaurateurs around the nation, have kept them afloat.
But the pandemic sharpened Lisa Ann’s focus on what really matters, and it’s not the daily sprint around town buying liquor to keep her liquor cabinets stocked, or buying food to keep kitchens stocked, or making bank deposits or wasting time with job applicants who don’t show up for interviews for the rotating list of open positions. Most recently, a chef and a bartender quit.
The pandemic “really began to put things into perspective…for a lot of people,” Lisa Ann said. The daily grind has worn her down, mentally and physically.
“Every mile is a little harder now.”
Over lunch recently at one of her favorite spots – SB’s Loveshack on Lakeside Avenue, not far from her home – Lisa Ann looked around the bustling restaurant and remarked how she originally envisioned The Pitts would be, well, sorta like that place.
The Pitts was the back-up plan – a revenue source to support their family for the future. Plan A was and still is the Locker Room, the unapologetic dive bar on Forest Hill Avenue that’s been in Lisa Ann’s family for nearly four decades. It was owned by her uncle and her mother and when they died in 2014 and 2016, respectively, Lisa Ann and her brother, Larry Pitts, agreed to carry it on.
The Forest Hill Avenue corridor was getting some much needed improvement. Lisa Ann figured at some point, the circa 1950s building where the Locker Room is located – a building it shares with a violin shop – would be sold.
“You can’t take a dive bar and put it in a brand new space,” she said.
New ownership – potentially with new lease and higher rent – could mean the end of the Locker Room, a no-frills hangout that’s popular with restaurant folks – servers, cooks, bartenders – who show up after their shifts serving, cooking and bartending elsewhere. She doesn’t own the building and with recent development nearby, including The Veil Brewing Co., she couldn’t afford to.
The building that houses the Locker Room, at 5035 Forest Hill Ave., was assessed at $450,000 about a decade after her family opened it, according to city property records. The assessed value surpassed $1 million in 2009 and since 2019, the figure has reached nearly $1.1 million.
So they turned their attention 3.5 miles south of Forest Hill and found a flat-roof former restaurant building ripe for attention – and in a far more affordable section of South Richmond. They bought The Pitts building in 2018 for $200,000 – over its then city-assessed value of $142,000. It was something they could build on, Lisa Ann said. But there was something else.
Her youngest child from a previous marriage, 19-year-old Aidan, has autism and epilepsy. He needs to be monitored around the clock and needs help getting through each day. Aidan is a sweet soul, a happy young man who loves pop music, the likes of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, and sings out loud whenever he hears those songs. His language is spotty, though he’s able to communicate when he needs something.
He’s emotionally attached to his mother, who spends most of her days with him now. If she’s at the bar late at night, he doesn’t go to sleep until she gets home. Her oldest child is her 21-year-old daughter, Ryan, who no longer lives at home.
The Pitts, Lisa Ann said, was a place where Aidan could help her, maybe learn some job skills. Folding and sorting silverware and other jobs. She could keep him close.
Like with many new eateries and bars, that first year for The Pitts was challenging, she said, not the least of which was because her brother died shortly after they purchased the building.
Their plan, she said, had been to offer a casual spot for breakfast all day as well as barbecue and all the fixins’ seven days a week. The Pitts is just minutes from the veterans hospital and Lisa Ann said she assumed that she could draw a lunch crowd.
It was the appeal and potential of the fenced-in backyard that attracted them to that building on Broad Rock Boulevard. After they bought the place, they expanded the backyard area a bit by getting permission to move the fence line back over an easement on the property behind them. Colorful pennants and string lights crisscross the yard from telephone poles above and kitschy stuff is everywhere, from metals signs on the fence to the 7-foot Sasquatch lurking in one corner.
Then there’s the sandy area in front of the makeshift karaoke stage where people dance, next to the outdoor bar – a nod to Lisa Ann’s love of the beach.
“It was always about the backyard,” Lisa Ann said, adding that early on, they put a big projection screen out there and showed movies. Now, there’s karaoke on Thursdays, but also comedy nights, open mic nights and more.
But breakfast, lunch crowds – none of that materialized in that first year. Rather, customers showed up a bit later, like afternoon and happy hour. Breakfast didn’t go over well but the barbecue and ribs and spicy chicken sandwiches – even her vegan items like nuggets and barbecue – did.
(She’s vegan, by the way, and wanted a place where all tastes were welcome – a theme that’s evident beyond her menu.)
The one thing that happened as she envisioned was the backyard – it was an instant hit with customers as soon as the weather turned nice.
“It took a turn I didn’t see,” she said, about the overall restaurant, but it worked and a little more than a year in, they caught their stride. She’d been in and out of restaurants her whole life, and while she didn’t necessarily want to take over the Locker Room a few years before, she said, she’d made peace with it. By the time they purchased The Pitts, she’d resigned herself to restaurant life once again.
“Here I am, I’m in my 50s – this is what I am now,” she remembers thinking back then. “I started to fall back in love with the whole thing.”
COVID-19 changed everything. The pandemic wave was about to crash down on Lisa Ann and The Pitts.
The Pitts closed twice for months at a time during 2020 and 2021, starting with the initial pandemic panic in March of that year. The first time they re-opened later that spring was for take-out only. There was no indoor seating. The backyard was closed. For convenience and safety, they converted a door in a boarded-up room on the side of the building to a take-out window. They offered delivery service.
They also bought a food truck and in December 2020, when the restaurant closed for the second time, they moved their staff to the truck. It was a good move, she said, one that kept them going during the winter months.
“Everyone I know has had to make unbelievable changes,” she said about her restaurant peers. Take-out windows, food trucks – “everyone was doing something a little different to stay alive.”
The restaurant industry was among the business sectors most affected financially by the pandemic. Nationally, the industry has lost $290 billion in sales since March 2020, according to July figures from the National Restaurant Association, and roughly 90,000 restaurants have closed for good. The Virginia chapter of the restaurant association estimates that 20% of Virginia restaurants have closed during the pandemic and won’t reopen.
The Pitts re-opened on St. Patrick’s Day – this year – for the backyard only. When mandatory statewide restrictions on congregating lifted ahead of Memorial Day, they opened the bar again. But they cut back from seven days to Wednesday through Saturday because of staffing issues. With the exception of a few loyal employees, her turnover rates increased, she said. More alarming were that applicants weren’t showing up interviews.
“We’ll schedule 25 interviews and get 25 no-shows,” she said. “I’ve really lowered my standards – I think we all have, just to have a warm body [but] nobody wants to do that.”
Restaurants across the country are facing staffing challenges. The National Restaurant Association reports that 1.5 million jobs have not been recovered since March 2020 – and many are expected to never come back as thousands of workers left the industry during COVID shutdowns. In Virginia, “leisure and hospitality” businesses accounted for about 10% of the state’s non-farm jobs at the beginning of 2020, according to state employment data, but they suffered 45% of the state’s losses during the pandemic through spring 2021.
At The Pitts, Lisa Ann is looking for just about every position – kitchen, front of the house, food runners, bartenders. Just weeks ago, on a day when she had 13 applicants scheduled for interviews, only one showed up. She hired him – she needed anyone she could find, she said – but he never showed up for his first day of work. Part of it could be location, she said.
The cheerful, tangerine-colored building sticks out among a quiet stretch of Broad Rock Boulevard in south Richmond. A truck rental business flanks one side, a small hardware store on the other. Across Broad Rock Boulevard, one-story homes line the road.
“We’ve got a really peculiar location,” she said. “Broad Rock is not Short Pump, it’s not Scott’s Addition – it’s not a trendy place to be.”
“People say location, location, location, and I think there’s something to that,” she said.
The pandemic’s impact on Lisa Ann, however, went beyond business. Her world became Aidan’s world.
The pandemic shuttered Virginia’s schools in March 2020 and Glen Allen High School, Aidan’s school, closed along with the rest of Henrico County schools. But in addition to that, Lisa Ann lost her in-home care for him. Caretakers didn’t want to be in their home during the pandemic and she suddenly found herself scheduling her days around him. His school day used to afford her the opportunity to take care of the businesses and then be home with him in the afternoons.
The limited help she had went away. The stress stayed and got worse.
Working women like Lisa Ann were disproportionately affected during the pandemic as virtual school and shuttered child care centers left millions of parents with no outside help for juggling careers and children. More than 2.3 million women left the workforce between March 2020 and March 2021, according to a March 2021 report, “The impact of COVID-19 on women” from the National Women’s Law Center. Comparatively, 1.8 million men left the workforce in the same period.
For the last year, Lisa Ann’s days have been a blur.
“We’re constantly going – we’re picking up liquor, we’re picking up food, we’re picking up supplies,” she said. “I try not to go all day when I have him – I can’t drag [Aidan] around like that.” Lisa Ann’s husband, Michael, a self-employed contractor, began dissolving his company in recent months to help her full time with the bar and food truck.
The business is sustainable, though admittedly, it’s taking its toll. Lisa Ann said doesn’t sleep well. Her joints ache a bit more. She worries about the stresses she’s putting on her son.
“I love The Pitts – I love it, ” she said, and “35-year-old me would’ve crushed that – I would’ve been there everyday, and that’s what it needs.”
At 53, however, Lisa Ann said the constant drumbeat is too much at this stage in her life.
“I just don’t want the stress anymore.”
That, and the lure of uncomplicated days on the beach – in an environment where her son could possibly thrive – was too good to pass up.
Last month, Lisa Ann and her family went on vacation. They returned to Garden City, about 30 minutes south of Myrtle Beach. It was their second time going there on vacation, which is something she never does, Lisa Ann said.
While they chose that area originally because they’d never been, they came to find out that Garden City is certified as autism-friendly by the Champion Autism Network, a national nonprofit that works with localities to offer sensory event planning and other educational resources to help families who have children with autism experience normal outings and vacations.
While on vacation, they wondered what it would be like to move there. Almost overnight, she said, they made a decision to find out.
“A lot of that came from reflection during COVID-19 about what was important – sanity, family,” she said.
Another factor is what she’s heard among the autism community, that children with autism seem to do better health-wise when living near the ocean.
“It’s a phenomenon, no one really knows why,” she said, “but a lot of kids with autism seem to do better” near the ocean.
What keeps her going now is the lure of a slower pace, a happy, healthy Aidan, time for herself.
“Self care is out of my life now – there’s no time for it,” Lisa Ann said. The thought of switching gears, unburdening her life – “it’s so exciting I can’t even explain it.”
Poochie Scott sat at the small bar inside The Pitts on that steamy Thursday night, sipping her drink from a clear plastic cup. She wasn’t quite ready for karaoke yet – she was bummed about car trouble, she said.
To her right, Gerald Ward Sr. sat in his usual seat, the first seat inside the front door and right in front of the television behind the bar. Both people were happy to sit inside in the air conditioning, happy to congregate with each other again after a year of so many ups and downs.
The Pitts draws a largely Black crowd, but you wouldn’t know it on this night. At one of four booths against the wall, Ginger Loth – a petite white woman in her late 60s who comes at least once a week – chatted with Lisa Ann, who’d made her way inside from the backyard. Outside, Sam Johnson – called Boo Coo – readied himself to croon. He’s known around The Pitts for his singing voice. One regular said he sounds like Prince.
The newcomer who’d been talking to Lisa Ann – a middle-aged white man – was up and dancing again, this time with a different woman. One of his buddies joined him on the sandy dance floor.
When asked what made The Pitts special, Scott mentioned “Cheers” – the popular TV show – and then launched into a few verses of the show’s theme song. When she pulls into the parking lot, she said, by the time she gets inside her drink of choice is waiting on the bar.
“Everybody knows your name,” she said laughing. “If it’s 40 of us, we got 40 problems [but] everyone gets along.”
From his seat next to her, Ward chimed in that Lisa Ann created a space that’s meant for everyone.
“She wanted everybody to come here – it ain’t about race,” he said. “It’s not about black, white, green – it’s about everybody coming here.”
The regulars know their home away from home is up for sale. They understand.
“I love her and it’s her spirit that she brought here from the Locker Room,” said Loth, who mentioned that she started “stalking” the place ever since Lisa Ann bought it and began fixing it up. “She’s under so much stress – it kills me whenever there’s turnover.”
Loth had her usual glass of “cheap red wine” – wine that Lisa Ann buys by the case from Aldi just for her.
“There’s no pretense” at The Pitts,” Loth said. “It’s a happy place, the people are fabulous – I feel safer here than I would anywhere else.”
She joked that she could do without the sand – Lisa Ann’s addition in the backyard to make it feel more beachy. But she’s not complaining. “You could put a lot of money back here and doll it up, but then it wouldn’t be a dive.”
For Lisa Ann, there’s no going back.
She’s talking to brokers about selling The Pitts, and the food truck, or both as a package. They own the building, so they could also lease it out to someone new.
“We did what we wanted to do with it – we wanted it to be a happy place,” she said. “I hope that someone comes in and buys it and continues on with what we started.”
Their Lakeside home is on the market. She knows their brick Ranch-style home with the above-ground pool out back – a pandemic purchase, Lisa Ann joked, and one of Aidan’s favorite spots – won’t take long to sell.
Meantime, her husband has been making trips to South Carolina to look for a place for them to live. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne – their two miniature pinschers – will have to adjust to riding on golf carts rather than cars.
Lisa Ann is keeping the Locker Room, which turns 40 in December. It’s so established, she said, it “runs like a finely-tuned machine” and she can handle its operation remotely and come back to Richmond every couple months if needed to handle its business.
She daydreams often of what’s to come: unrushed mornings, having coffee on the beach, not worrying about chore lists that never end – that idea gets more appealing by the day.
“Just slow it down – that’s what we’re trying to do.” she said. She’s always wanted to live at the beach. Maybe they try it and it doesn’t work – or maybe it’s exactly what they need. They can’t wait to find out.
“The idea of the three of us together – at the beach,” she said smiling, “makes us happy.”