Harpersville landmark, Richey’s BBQ, up and running

The slap of the screen door that once greeted customers at Richey’s BBQ has been replaced by soft rock music pumped through digital speakers.

Touch-sensitive computer screens have taken the place of greasy notepads.

And diners who once ate their fries from a paper sack are opting for a booth seat.

It’s difficult not to notice the changes at the restaurant that has served as a landmark in Harpersville for almost 25 years.

Even the building itself is new &045; its predecessor demolished by bulldozers last month to make room for an expanded parking lot.

But as owner Pete Gerontakis is quick to point out, some things never change.

&uot;I kept the same menu, because that is what people are used to,&uot; he said, adding in his Greek accent that the meat is still slow-cooked in an open pit and the fried peach pies made from scratch.

Tradition is important to Gerontakis, who was born outside Athens and immigrated to the U.S. in 1959 at the age of 23 to help his uncle run a restaurant in Birmingham.

Although Gerontakis had no formal training, the experience paved the way for a long career in the restaurant business.

Beginning with The Smokehouse on

Finley Boulevard, he went on to own The Merritt House on Highland Boulevard &045; now The Veranda &045; and Uncle Bud’s in Alabaster.

Having always operated a &uot;first-class place,&uot; Gerontakis said he knew well before he ever purchased Richey’s that he would build an entirely new business &045; and he wasn’t just talking about laying brick.

He said he envisioned an establishment that was clean, with modern equipment where

customers could sit down and enjoy a quality meal from a varied menu.

Now a year-and-a-half and more than $700,000 later, Gerontakis said he views the time and money spent reinventing the restaurant as an investment in the area’s future &045; a future he predicts will only get brighter as growth continues to creep down U.S. Highway 280.

&uot;It’s going to pay off,&uot; Gerontakis said. &uot;Harpersville is a nice place. I love it. The people of this town should be very proud.&uot;

Gerontakis said he already is beginning to see a return on his investment.

Since the grand opening of the new restaurant three weeks ago, business has increased by more than 30 percent.

While part of the increase can be attributed to the novelty of the new building, Gerontakis also credits the expanded menu, including a steam table that offers customers a wide variety of fresh vegetables with which to pair their barbecue plate or cheeseburger.

Variety also extends to the dining area where Richey’s customers who once could only take their orders to go can now choose to dine indoors or under

the covered porch cooled by ceiling fans.

&uot;You’d be surprised how many people eat here now. It’s cut down a lot on our to-go orders,&uot; Gerontakis said.

But for those in a hurry, Gerontakis said Richey’s is still a great place to stop in for a quick bite to carry out, and a drive-through window is expected to open within the next few weeks.

With all the changes at Richey’s, some customers may find it difficult to recognize the restaurant. But if they can’t find the familiar in the menu, they can always look behind the counter.

Glenda Lackey has been working at Richey’s since the restaurant opened in 1977. Then-owners Shelbie and Quinton Richey offered her a job when she came

in to try out the new barbecue everyone had been talking about.

Almost 25 years later, she said it is strange to see the old restaurant gone that was so much a part of her past, but she is happy to be part of its future.

&uot;It’s kind of a shock when you look out there expecting to see it but nothing’s there,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s nice. It’s different, but it’s nice.&uot;

Even Shelbie Richey herself can be found spooning out baked beans at Richey’s more than 15 years after she sold out of the barbecue business.

She said she still remembers the restaurant as nothing more than a tiny building with a barbecue pit. And now?

&uot;I’m proud of it,&uot; she said, grinning