- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - The smell of barbecue hits while you’re still outside, inducing an almost Pavlovian smack of the lips.

Be there at noon, though, and you’ll realize that Mission BBQ is bigger than just lunch.

When midday strikes, customers drop their pulled pork or slathered ribs, push back their chairs and stand at attention, facing a flag that hangs from the ceiling in the center of the room.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a recording on the loudspeaker begins, “please join us in honoring our country as we do every day at noon with the singing of our national anthem.”

Some people put their right hands over their hearts. Others stand tall, arms at their sides or offering a salute. Staff members make their way out of the kitchen.

“We call it the best two minutes of the day,” said manager Steve Lippert. “No one’s thinking about their food.”

The restaurant, off Independence Boulevard near Town Center, opened in early October. It’s the first in Hampton Roads and the seventh in a chain started by two partners who had a love of barbecue and a yen for something that also fed the soul.

Bill Krauss worked for years at Underarmour, the sports clothing company that’s a favorite with soldiers. Steve Newton worked for Outback Steakhouse. Neither of them ever served in the military, but both liked the idea of a restaurant where American-style food meets unabashed patriotism. They combined their brand and restaurant know-how to create the concept.

“Here was our chance to serve,” Krauss said. “Here was our chance to give back, to say thank you.”

The walls are covered with photographs and paraphernalia from local firefighters, police, military and 9/11. A sign reads, “The American Way.”

They opened their first Mission BBQ in Maryland on Sept. 11, 2011 - the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Since then, the company has opened 12 more, including one in Virginia Beach, where Newton was once regional manager for Outback. He reached out to a manager he knew there, Phil Boyer, who came on board to direct operations in Hampton Roads, where they’re planning to open more restaurants.

“This is a chance not only to do what we love - serve food - but also to focus on something a little special,” said Boyer, the son of a Navy submariner.

Over the summer, with construction underway, Mission BBQ made the rounds to military units, police and fires in Virginia Beach, distributing free lunches from a mobile smoker dubbed “BamBam.”

One lunch at a time, they built relationships, got the word out about the soon-to-open restaurant and showed the company’s support for those who serve.

They hired staff, who say they like what the place stands for - folks like Nicole Sitton, whose husband is a sailor working for SEAL Team 2 at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek. His unit was one of the recipients of the summer lunch deliveries.

The playing of the national anthem, she says, is the highlight of the day.

“We want to make sure everybody knows every day that we are thankful for what you do,” she said. The anthem “is just something I am proud to do.”

Every morning, the staff at Mission BBQ gathers around for a team meeting. Lippert reviews the menu then goes over the restaurant’s mission statement to “get people’s minds right,” he said.

Then at noon, he and Boyer each choose a spot in the restaurant where they can look out over the whole dining room. They pick out the veterans or those in uniform, then strike up a conversation.

“It’s really an opportunity for us to go out and talk to our American heroes,” Lippert said.

At one table during a recent lunch time, Virginia Beach Police Lt. Scott Humphrey was celebrating his 45th birthday with two fellow officers he’s been working with for more than 20 years.

The venue was Humphrey’s choice.

Let’s meet early, he’d told his buddies, to make it in time for the national anthem.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com

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