- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

Campaigns mean something to Virginia’s small-town eateries, where candidates largely avoiding national chain restaurants traipse through diners and dives trying to convince eligible voters of their Main Street credibility.

A little more than a year ago, with just 15 minutes’ warning, two high-profile Democratic candidates showed up at Short Sugar’s Pit Bar-B-Q in Danville, Va., where the barbecue is cooked over hardwood coals in its own brick building out back.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama, at the time a candidate for president, ordered a chopped pork sandwich and two pounds of pork ribs for the people on his campaign bus. Mark Warner, then a candidate for U.S. Senate, ordered minced pork.

The Obama effect was immediately visible, General Manager Kevin Ainsworth said.

Danville, a city not far from the North Carolina border, has been rocked by the recession. Unemployment was 9.3 percent when Mr. Obama visited last August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We went from eight people to 200 people in 15 minutes,” Mr. Ainsworth said of the restaurant where people can order the slow-cooked barbecue slathered with their secret Short Sugar’s sauce, with a taste of sweet sugar and a kick of vinegar. The restaurant’s roots are in North Carolina, where they have a drive-in, so eaters can order Southern staples like slaw, hush puppies and sweet tea.

The economic stimulus for the Bar-B-Q pit didn’t end when the candidates left: For the next two weeks, the restaurant saw an increase in sales as people stopped by, wanting to eat what Mr. Obama had eaten and sit where he had sat.

It’s no surprise to the owner, Donnie Jones, that politicians stop by.

“Local politics and barbecue intermingle,” he said.

Even though Mr. Jones put the word out to Republican candidates, his political visitors have been mostly Democrats, who tell him the place is a good-luck charm.

“We just had [Virginia Democrat R. Creigh] Deeds, who was running for governor. He said, ‘You must not feed losers,’ ” Mr. Jones said.

Tim Gibson, who mans the barbecue out back, said so many politicians have come in that he can’t remember all of their names.

“They come in, eat, sit and talk,” he said.

During a whirlwind tour of the state leading up to the gubernatorial election in 2005, Gov. Tim Kaine, then a candidate, stopped by Skeeter’s in Wytheville. He’s returned again and again - as has Mr. Warner.

Rick Patton, the owner of the “world famous hot dogs” joint, said the place opened in the 1920s and has ties to the White House. Edith Bowling Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson, was born upstairs here.

Business increases when politicians walk in the door, Mr. Patton said. They bring their entourages and the community shows up, too.

The owners of Jess’ Quick Lunch on Main Street in Harrisonburg, where folk can purchase an all-beef hot dog for $1.40, are still bummed that during the campaign, Mr. Obama canceled a visit because the crush of the crowd had him running too late.

“Everyone was calling all day long. Next thing I know, he’s a no-show. I was so disappointed,” George “Gus” Floros said.

That isn’t to say they haven’t had their fair share of politicians. “The big bombs come here,” he said of the national political figures who have stopped in.

Then-Virginia Sen. George Allen read a statement on the Senate floor in 2005 honoring Mr. Floros’ father, Gus Floros, for his 50th anniversary in this country.

“I often stop in to see Gus and have one of his tasty hot dogs or hamburgers whenever I am in Harrisonburg. You can always find quick, friendly service and a satisfying meal at Jess’ Lunch, and Gus is always there, working just as hard as he did back in 1955,” he said.

The restaurant, which serves plates of thick-cut fries alongside hot dogs and burgers that can be topped with mounds of chili and chopped onions, also hosted Mr. Allen’s opponent, now-Sen. Jim Webb.

The owner’s wife, Angeliki G. Floros, said there were no hard feelings.

“George Allen thinks this brings luck, this place,” she said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell earlier this month stopped for breakfast at Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery in Staunton, another popular grazing spot for traveling politicians.

Bernie Craig, the manager at Mrs. Rowe’s, said the restaurant is blessed with a great location midway through the state off Interstate 81, which attracts travelers and residents alike.

Known for its home-style cooking, the restaurant boasts “just everything you would fix at home,” Ms. Craig said. Specials include stuffed peppers, chicken-fried steak and chicken pot pie.

“It works out real well for us,” she said of the political visits, so many she can’t keep track of who has been there and when. Their visitors are mostly Republicans.

“We even have the Republican Party ladies on Saturday mornings,” she said.

Mr. McDonnell also stopped by Famous Anthony’s in Salem on another morning, where he dined on a breakfast of eggs, toast and breakfast tomatoes washed down with some orange juice.

He grabbed a turkey wrap with french fries at the Depot Grille in Lynchburg.

The Republican candidate typically stops and eats at least one meal a day with potential voters on the campaign trail, his staff said.

Mr. Deeds is a little more adventurous with his orders. He recently stopped at the Texas Tavern in Roanoke and ordered a “Cheesy Western,” a hamburger for the serious eater that includes an egg, cheese, cabbage relish, pickle, and onions.

The owner, Matt Bullington, describes it as a cheeseburger omelet on a bun.

Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the restaurant is a great equalizer, Mr. Bullington said. It truly is a place where “the governor is sitting next to a guy who just got out of jail, who is sitting next to a little old woman.”

“I have the widest variety of customers, socioeconomically, of any restaurant in the city,” he said. That is why he thinks such restaurants appeal to politicians, because they are populist institutions wherever they are located.

As to whether the visits help business, Mr. Bullington said they certainly don’t hurt.

“We’re not complaining,” he said. “It’s brought good publicity.”

Sometimes the visits are less about the campaign than the cuisine.

Shortly after winning the state’s Democratic primary in June, Mr. Deeds stopped by the Silver Diner in Arlington for an appearance with Mr. Warner, where he met with supporters to discuss his candidacy.

After most of the assembled crowd chowed down on burgers and enormous shakes, Mr. Deeds left the diner and went quietly down the street to eat at Ray’s Hell Burger, a local hamburger restaurant made famous in recent months after Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. dined there.

On his Twitter feed June 12, Mr. Deeds wrote, “Digesting a Ray’s Hellburger. Had a fun event this afternoon at the Silver Diner with Sen. Mark Warner.”

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