A LEGEND LIVES ON: Q Daddy’s buys iconic Pop’s restaurant in Grafton

Published 4:43 pm Tuesday, April 18, 2023

A beloved York County restaurant that closed its doors in March after 45 years will live on as Q Daddy’s newest location.

Joy Andrus, who handles catering and marketing for Q Daddy’s, says the Smithfield-based, family-owned barbecue restaurant is under contract to purchase the former Pop’s Drive-In at Route 17 and Denbigh Boulevard in Grafton.

Q Daddy’s opened its Smithfield restaurant in 2017 at a converted circa-1969 Texaco gas station and auto body shop on South Church Street that’s changed hands several times over the years. In 2019, Q Daddy’s purchased the decades-old, former Tasty Treat in Wakefield and opened a second location, making Pop’s its soon-to-be third.

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Bringing new life to iconic old buildings is “becoming our hallmark,” Andrus said, perhaps nearly as much as Q Daddy’s barbecue itself, which is cooked in a pit “the way our dad taught us.”

Roughly two years prior to opening the Smithfield Q Daddy’s, Andrus and her brother, Jesse Witten, hatched plans to bring a barbecue restaurant to the town that’s home to the corporate headquarters of global pork-processing giant Smithfield Foods. Witten, Q Daddy’s head “pitmaster” or barbecue chef, had initially eyed the former Tastee Freez restaurant on South Church Street; it had served as Smithfield’s go-to place for fast food in the 1950s before McDonalds and Hardee’s came to town. But the deal fell through and the town government, in 2021, declared the building “blighted” and had it razed.

“We loved the old building,” Andrus said. “It was kind of iconic. … It just looked like a throwback place.”

It wasn’t long after the collapse of the 2015 Tastee Freez deal that Witten, driving down South Church Street, saw a “for sale or lease” sign at the former Texaco, which had most recently operated as the Come & Go Food Mart.

“It was in pretty terrible condition,” Andrus said, “but it had a hood vent in it that they had been cooking gas station fried chicken. We just loved it.”

When the family’s contractors advised against buying and trying to rehabilitate the dilapidated storefront, they bought it anyway and did much of the renovations themselves.

Q Daddy’s Wakefield location also dates to the 1960s and was “important to the town,” Andrus said. The Wakefield renovations, which took 14 months to complete, included the addition of a smokehouse and dining room.

“That’s been a great second location for us,” Andrus said.

The siblings and their mother, Q Daddy’s President Lynn Witten, had begun looking “a while ago” to open a third location in Grafton, Andrus said.

The unincorporated York County community has a “similar vibe” and “small-town charm” to Smithfield, Andrus said.

Much like the Smithfield site’s origins, Q Daddy’s had initially eyed a different location than Pop’s, but the deal fell through. Then the family’s real estate agent called to inform them that Pop’s Allen family owners planned to retire and sell the business. Andrus and her family took advantage of the rare opportunity to tour the restaurant before it hit the market.

“We met with the owners, who have been working there for 45 years. … They sat in the dining room with us, told us their history and their legacy,” Andrus said.

It “reminded us a lot,” she said, of Q Daddy’s own journey over the past six years.

As Andrus retells the story, after hearing it from Pop’s current owner, Randall Allen, Pop’s began as a hotdog stand, named for its original owner, Pop Warnick. Allen’s father would deliver milk to the restaurant weekly. When Warnick retired, he sold the business to Allen’s father, who then ran it with his children for the next 45 years.

The original structure has undergone two additions under the Allen family’s management. In its dining room hung photos showing how the building had changed over the decades.

Andrus acknowledges she and her family will have large pots and pans to fill to live up to the expectations of the Allen family’s loyal customer base. Once the impending closure hit the news, Andrus said, there were lines of people around the block waiting to eat their final meal at Pop’s.

“It puts a lot of pressure on whoever comes next into that space,” Andrus said.

She and her family plan to add dining space, outdoor seating and a smokehouse to Pop’s, and possibly a drive-thru, pending approval from the Virginia Department of Transportation. She anticipates Pop’s reopening as Q Daddy’s in about a year.