A Madison County landmark and regular community-gathering place for the past 30 years will close at the end of the month.
Bill’s Bar-B-Que, located at the corner of Hwy. 29 South and Fortson Store Road, will serve up its last plate of pulled pork sandwiches, stew and chicken mull on Saturday, Dec. 28.
Brothers Tom Patterson and Bob Lance say they’re excited, and a little nervous, about closing up the place they’ve lived and breathed since opening it with their older brother and the restaurant’s namesake, the late Bill Lance, on Sept. 9, 1983.
“It’s just time to hang it up,” Lance said. “I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do after being a part of this for so long. Really, truly I dread it.” His wife Brenda still works part-time and he jokes that “she may go full-time” when he’s home all the time.
Lance retired from a phone company after 36 and half years; before that he worked his “day job” then came to Bill’s at night to cook and work the counter. After retiring from the phone company, he settled into working more at Bill’s.
His half-brother, Tom Patterson, will continue running Patterson Farms with his wife Carol. The farm on Sanders Road is a sheep farm where they also train sheep dogs and runs annual sheep dog trials.
And especially as they prepare to close the doors, the brothers remember their older brother Bill Lance, who died ten years ago.
Though Bill retired in 1998, he remained an integral part of the operation until his death, and his memory remains very much alive today.
“We still laugh and talk about things he did or said, he was a card,” Lance said. “It still seems like he’s here sometimes.”
The brothers said Bill still came to the restaurant often as long as his health would allow even after he retired, even sometimes filling in for one of them if they needed to be off.
Things have changed a lot since the three brothers decided to build and operate a barbecue restaurant on the site of an uncle’s former car lot. When they opened, the restaurant sat across from Fortson’s Store, another landmark that is no more.
“Ms. Helen gave me my first job pumping gas at the store,” Patterson said. “She was a good lady, kind to everyone.”
Bill, the brothers say, was the impetus for the restaurant; after all he was an experienced restaurateur, having run the Riverside Café (now Weaver D’s) in Athens for 17 years.
Other than Fortson’s Store, the area was mostly wooded back then. Since that time of course, the intersection, known locally as “Dogsboro” has grown into a busy commercial intersection.
They remember their first customer – a lady by the name of “Mary” who ran a beauty shop in a small building next door.
“We have been blessed since we opened the doors,” Patterson said. “Customers have remained loyal to us as the area has grown up and more places have opened. For that we are truly grateful.”
Over those 30 years, many “regulars” have also come and gone.
“There’s a whole table of folks who used to come every week and sit right there,” Lance said, pointing to a table up front. “They’re every one of them passed away now.”
Both brothers said it’s easy to grow attached to people you see every week.
There are others who came as kids with their families and have moved away. Sometimes those parents will come by to pick up some barbecue or chicken mull to send or take to them.
“That makes you feel good,” Patterson said.
One “regular” who still comes by as often as possible is Carl Epps, a former Athens mailman.
“He is probably our most loyal customer these days,” Patterson said.
They’ve also had many loyal longtime employees over the years and two of those ladies, Angie Allen and April Hawks, will be on hand to help them close up the business.
“It’s bittersweet,” Patterson said.
The brothers hope someone will ultimately decide to buy the building and keep a restaurant going, though they know it won’t be the same – after all there is only one “Bill’s Bar-B-Que.”