RICHMOND — The smell that floats from the back of the Stop and Go diner dwarfs the tiny building from which it begins.
A slight breeze is enough to lift the hickory barbecue smoke from the ribs and pulled pork that marinates and cooks all day behind the eatery.
The scent, reminiscent of summer cookouts and holiday weekends, sneaks into the offices and banks that line Main Street in downtown Richmond and lures customers through the bright green door that chimes with every new visitor.
Across the narrow imitation marble counter near the fountain machine is Christine Chadwell, who knows everyone as "darling," "dear," or, on some occasions, "sweetie." She reminds customers during the first week in August that they have only Pepsi and Diet Mountain Dew, from 2-liter bottles. She remembers two weeks later that someone (not her, she's busy at the register) needs to run to the Family Dollar up the street to get napkins and ketchup.
And Chadwell, like the owners of Stop and Go and those who work there, says she remembers when blacks like them were turned away from the tiny diner.
Nowadays, college students knock elbows with men in overalls as an all-black ensemble of employees fixes pulled pork sandwiches, dresses cheeseburgers and serves rib baskets.
"It's just a total flop; a total turnaround," Chadwell said during a lull in customers. "I never thought I'd be in here."
Stop and Go is a breath of fresh barbecue into a once-stagnant downtown landscape. In the past year, at least three eateries have closed, adding to the empty storefronts that dot Main Street and the surrounding area.
But in recent months, more restaurants have sprouted downtown. Paddy's Irish Pub reopened just up the street from Stop and Go. JW's replaced Woody's as downtown's spot for fine dining. And folks had been anxiously anticipating the day Stop and Go opened.
"I've been waiting," said customer Jason Krueger over the hum of the fryer and the Top 40 playing on the radio. "I've been driving by every day."
Krueger, a 22-year-old Eastern Kentucky University student, had a pulled pork sandwich combo with fries on his first trip to Stop and Go. He compared his meals to something delicious he would sample in Memphis, the city where good barbecue is king. Between bites of the shredded brown meat, he wipes his fingers on his jeans.
It was only the second week of the restaurant's existence, but customers had already gathered on the diner's small porch earlier that day, five minutes before Stop and Go opened at 11 a.m.
Christina Thieleman and Andrea Kirby ordered ribs, fries, coleslaw and pecan pie during their lunch break. But the ladies began to study the menu again before they had even left the restaurant.
"It tastes like my granny's cooking," said Thieleman, 24. "And it's quick. You get a nice home meal quick."
Thieleman peeks into the small container that holds her hunk of pecan pie. It's shortly before 11:30 a.m. when she takes a bite.
Stop and Go owners Russell Cantrell, 50, and Robert Miller, 56, have been cooking longer than the two have been friends.
Cantrell and Miller were a few years apart when they both attended Madison High School, but became friends when they were in the band SPAN (Soul Pleasing All Night), from 1976-1978. Miller played the drums and Cantrell was the sound technician for the group that was formerly known as the Techniques.
It was during Miller's sophomore year in high school that he had one of his first experiences with the restaurant he would later co-own.
Miller descended the hill from his school down to the restaurant on Water Street, then known as Cain's Diner.
According to Miller, the owner, James Cain, still kept a sign on the wall that seemed to yell at blacks: "We have the right to refuse patrons."
Miller walked in and sat down at the counter. He says Cain called Miller and his friends the N-word and promptly told him to leave.
Miller's mother, Mary B. Turner, 83, remembers how disappointed her son was that day.
"I guess he was kind of shocked and surprised that he couldn't come and eat here," she said.
Stories like Miller's left a sour impression for many blacks in Richmond for many years.
Carlos Igo, who works behind the counter at Stop and Go, hadn't set foot in the restaurant until Cantrell and Miller hired him.
Igo, 35, said his mother wouldn't allow him to eat there, even after blacks began to patronize the restaurant.
"I better not ever catch you down there in that diner," she told Igo.
Virginia Cain, James' widow and co-owner of Cain's Diner, denies that the restaurant regularly turned away blacks. Cain, 86, said there were only two instances when they had problems with black customers.
"That's the way it is, ma'am," she said during a phone interview last week. "I wouldn't tell a fib, now."
But the troubled history is just a footnote to Cantrell and Miller.
"I don't even worry about it, because we can cook better than them," Cantrell said.
Cantrell and Miller take more pride in their food than the irony of their ownership.
The men weave their way through the diner frequently, bringing the smell of the smoke from their workshop in the back.
In the front, Chadwell and Clarence "Skeeter" Miller do a tango to get around one another in the narrow space behind the counter. Chadwell maintains the register and drinks. Skeeter hustles in front of the grill.
Chadwell writes on the pale green and white tablet and takes the cash (no debit or credit cards). She packs the to-go boxes in plastic bags, smiling as she hands them over to customers in a rush.
Most customers only see Skeeter's back during lunch hour. He hustles in front of the grill, which is lined with hamburgers and Polish sausage. He dumps the fries into a waiting vat of steaming grease. He piles the pulled pork onto the Sara Lee buns.
In a few short weeks, Stop and Go has already gained a steady cast of regulars, the employees say.
Business is good within the tiny establishment, despite talks of a troubled economy and financial bailouts that whirl around on the outside.
"When you got good enough food and good enough prices, there is no such thing as a slow economy," Miller said.
The barbecue gives customers permission to put their elbows on the counter, showing disregard for forks and knives as they load their mouths with rib meat. They study the menu like a map, planning their current destination, and then making plans for their next visit. The tender pulled pork sandwich today. The sauce-covered ribs on Friday. The crisp catfish and hush puppies next week.
There are a few who still haven't tasted the sloppy, saucy, meaty cuisine of Stop and Go. Mysterie Brown, communications director for the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, was about to go inside the diner and try a sample after she attended the business's official ribbon cutting last week.
"I'm liking what's going on down here," she said.
Brown often works through her lunch hour, so she hasn't walked down the block to pick up a meal. But she hears good things about the restaurant from other downtown workers.
"They smell it," she said, "and come running to find it."