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The happy Grumpy's family

The roadside eatery off Highway 240 is known for good food, homey atmosphere
Monday, February 4, 2008 | 12:26 p.m. CST; updated 11:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Betty and Bill Woods started Grumpy's Bar-B-Cue after they retired. Their business, their smoke shed and all the food is made from scratch.

It’s 4:30 on Friday night and Betty Woods is running late.

She likes to have the mashed potatoes fixed by 4. And it’s not like she just gets them out of a box. Because at Grumpy’s Bar-B-Cue, Betty peels the potatoes, boils them in a pot on an old stove with coiled burners and worn knobs and has only one “secret:” butter and milk.

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Normally she’d put in canned cream, too, but it’s already past time to have them done.

“Yes, and they got lumps in ’em,” she says as she wipes her hands.

During a time in their lives when Betty, 70, and her husband Bill Woods, 66, could be traveling around the country in an RV or simply enjoying the slower pace of retirement, the couple instead opened a restaurant where they hustle all day for five days a week. And no one who makes it to one of the mismatched tables remains an outsider for long.

The immediate family includes the couple’s youngest daughter, Sandy Boren, and granddaughter, 5-year-old Keota. When Sandy asked her parents to move back to the Rocheport area 10 years ago when she was battling cancer, the couple was there for her. Since then, the family’s life has been a lot like Betty’s mashed potatoes — lumpy, but a homemade original, not out of a box.

On a given night, you could walk in and find someone you know — but even if you don’t, Bill finds a way to make you feel at home. He’ll find a commonality between where you’re from and who you know, or if the restaurant is full, he’ll have you share a table with two strangers from down the road. For the past five years, Grumpy’s has built itself up as a restaurant and created its own community — essentially from scratch.

The secret ingredients: Betty and Bill.

A place for real food

Grumpy’s sits just off Highway 240 squat in the middle of a triangle of towns — 13 miles southeast of Fayette, 13 miles northeast of Boonville and about 16 miles northwest of Columbia. Pop in for dinner, and you might meet someone from as close as tiny Gilliam or from as far away as North Pole, Alaska.

But mostly you’ll run into families returning home from work in Boonville or Fayette, or some of the neighbors who live in the rural homes nearby.

Gary Sulltrop drives over from Fayette every so often, either with his wife or for an excuse to get out of the house while she’s bowling. He’s been coming since Grumpy’s opened five years ago.

“I’m not a McDonald’s person,” he says. “I like real food.”

When Bill brings out his tenderloin sandwich — the “giant breaded tenderloin,” as it’s listed on the menu — the meat does not even come close to fitting on the bun.

“I told you: It’s real food,” Sulltrop says. “With all the fancy places to eat around here, people come here. Does that tell you somethin’?”

Betty stands at the register, handling the bill for Jack Ravenscraft and his wife, Barbara. The Ravenscrafts live over the hill just east of the restaurant. After digging for several minutes through the register, Betty tells Jack she finally found a Wyoming quarter for his collection.

Before Betty and Bill opened Grumpy’s, the Ravenscrafts would stop to buy homemade candy from Bill, who makes about 800 pounds of peanut brittle and peanut butter bon bons every year. He sells a one-pound bag for $5. Most bags usually end up being about a pound and a half.

Then there are Joe and Chris Dix from Kansas City, Kan., who happened upon Grumpy’s a few years ago when acquaintances in Rocheport recommended the pie. But when they got to Grumpy’s, the pie was gone. So the Dixes said they’d have to come back.

“They come about every two weeks,” Betty says. “And if we haven’t heard from them in a while, we call them.”

The past four Christmases, Bill and Betty have made sure they are home and have a meal ready on Christmas Eve or Christmas day when the Dixes pass through central Missouri on their way home from St. Louis. And the Dixes make sure they bring a gift for Keota.

Ron and Jonell Vandam became regulars soon after they moved in up the road about a year ago. One of the contractors working on their house suggested Grumpy’s because it was “in the neighborhood.”

According to Betty, it’s not really in the neighborhood as it’s a few miles away.

“But they kept coming,” Betty said. “And now they’re here every Wednesday afternoon, and if they’re not coming they call and let us know.”

Betty and Bill’s hospitality is returned in kind. Betty likes to wear hospital scrub shirts because she likes the pockets for her order pad. Her favorite scrub shirt, one with vegetables scattered all over it, was a gift from a woman in Marshall.

“She left this in the mailbox. The next time she came down, I tried to pay her. She said no,” Betty says.

Building from scratch

Betty and Bill buy their meat fresh daily from a butcher at C&R Market on Main Street in Boonville.

“We have the same butcher who cuts all the meat we buy. One butcher,” Betty says. “We call him every morning at 7, except for Thursday and we call at 7:30, because that’s his day off. But he comes in to cut our meat. … And if we don’t call him, he calls us to see if we need something.”

“And we usually do,” says Bill.

On days off, Monday and Tuesday, the couple isn’t really off. Instead they make their weekly trip to Sam’s Club in Columbia.

The Grumpy’s kitchen is set up like a glorified college student’s: There are mismatched sets of dishware — some bowls have a brown stripe on the inside, some plates a green stripe. The sink never lacks for dirty dishes. Two refrigerators hold several pitchers of sweet tea. The range always has a big pot of soup heating. Plastic shelves hold paper towels, Reynolds Wrap, dishes and to-go boxes. Pear cobblers cover the counter.

From the highway, it can be hard to tell if the place is open. The flashing arrow marquee near the road isn’t usually flashing, and letters are missing from the sign advertising Grumpy’s. Betty and Bill do fine with a homemade white sign next to the marquee, reading “Cafe Open.”

Even at that, it doesn’t look much like a restaurant. Grumpy’s is just two American Steel Buildings put together. The kitchen in back is separated from the front dining room and cash register by a wall that doesn’t reach the ceiling. The Western-style swing doors in the wall seldom close all the way because Bill, Betty and Sandy are in and out constantly.

Bill and Sandy put up paneling in the dining room, and Betty did much of the decorating. Each of the six tables holds horseshoe-shaped napkin holders and bright blue saltshakers. A sign hangs near the register: “A $10 surcharge will be added to the bill of grouchy customers. We’re the grumpy ones.” In true Grumpy’s fashion, the message is softened with a smiley face. All of the tables are round, except for one rectangle-shaped one that looks as if it belongs in someone’s home. Black skillets cover the walls.

Back in the kitchen, a magnet of Grumpy — from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — hangs on the fridge closest to Bill’s corner station, which boasts his crock pots filled with pulled pork, a griddle, mostly for hamburgers, and a fryer, which hardly stops sizzling during Wednesday catfish night.

As Betty and Sandy take orders, they call them out and put the tickets on the refrigerator, but Bill barely glances at them. On a busy night, it’s not uncommon for a plate to get tenderloin and beans instead of ham and beans. The women bring the incorrect orders back to the kitchen, roll their eyes, fix the mistake and try to keep up with sweet tea refills.

The dishes stack up in the sink, and Bill tries to tame them as he cooks. But if you’re not careful, he’ll try to coax you into dishwashing.

Friendliness real, too

A young couple from Grain Valley, who are spending the weekend in Rocheport, find their way to Grumpy’s. The restaurant is empty. Betty and Bill greet them and let them know they have their pick of where to sit.

They choose the dining room table. Betty takes their drink orders while Bill remains seated. As she heads to the kitchen for water and half-sweetened-half-unsweetened iced tea, the husband asks if Bill is “Grumpy.”

“You damn right,” Bill answers, then points to the kitchen. “No really, she’s in there.”

Then he starts working his magic, trying to find the connection that will turn these strangers into two new members of the family.

“We almost moved to Grain Valley,” he tells the couple. “But we didn’t.”

And when the couple has trouble deciding what to order, Bill suggests the night’s special.

“You guys want something good to eat?” he asks. “That roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans and homemade bread.”

Neither takes him up on the suggestion, but he’s quick off his chair to make their preferred dinners: tenderloin with fries and pulled pork with okra.

Bill tries to act gruff and grumpy, but within minutes of meeting him, you figure out how happy he is to be working. Betty pauses to watch him bring out the couple’s order, and smirks.

“He really likes bringing the food out,” she says.

Making the decision

Betty graduated from dietary manager’s school and then worked in nursing homes in Fayette and Marshall. Bill worked for Cooper and Saline counties running bulldozers and other machines. When the two returned to central Missouri 10 years ago, they ran the restaurant at the Farmers Livestock Auction sale barn in Boonville.

When it came time to retire, Betty knew her husband would go crazy dozing at home in his recliner.

“Bill doesn’t like TV and he won’t travel,” Betty says. “So I said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ We thought about it, and I said, ‘Let’s open a little barbecue place where they’ll pick it up and take it home.’”

They bought a camper, set it next to their house and built a smoke shed. Bill built a barbecue grill on wheels that can be pulled behind a truck. He never actually moved it anywhere, although a friend from Fayette borrowed it to grill for his nephew’s graduation party.

They agreed on a name, “Grumpy’s,” which the couple remembers coming from the movie “Grumpy Old Men.”

Bill hadn’t cooked barbecue before. “I burned two or three slabs of ribs up before I learned what I was doing,” he says.

But then customers who came for take-out wanted somewhere to sit and eat. Betty called American Steel Carports, ordered and set up a steel frame and put some picnic tables under it. They ran the business that way for two years, just during the four warm summer months.

When Bill coaxed Betty into buying a real building and operating year round, Betty hesitated at first, claiming she was “too old.” But before long they ordered a metal building from American Steel and attached the camper to the back of it.

Last summer, when the kitchen camper got too cramped, they bought another building, attached it to the first and eliminated the camper. The original building became the kitchen, and the new building became the dining room. They recently attached a small room to the back of the building with brown walls and a slanted roof: the outhouse.

After they tiled the new bathroom, a leak under the floor sent water gushing out onto the driveway one Friday night, forcing them to shut off the water while Bill dug up the tile to fix it. Betty and Sandy kept the restaurant running, figuring they only needed water to wash dishes, which, like almost every night, just kept piling in the sink.

“And how come we didn’t use paper plates I don’t know,” says Betty, who won’t make potatoes out of a box — no matter how rushed she is. “I just don’t like paper plates.”

The next generation

No matter how much customers might like Bill and Betty, it’s their granddaughter Keota who steals the show at Grumpy’s. Her name is spelled out in large wooden letters that hang above the cash register, with several pictures of her hanging underneath.

Bill and Betty have two children besides Sandy and four other grandchildren. But Keota is what Betty calls their “miracle baby,” spoiled by the family and by the regular customers who compete for the right to fuss over her.

Sandy had always wanted to be a mother. But during her first marriage, she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. She lost a second child when she miscarried. Then doctors found a tumor and diagnosed ovarian cancer. That was when she asked her parents to move back to Rocheport from Marshall to care for her during her chemotherapy treatments so her husband, James, could work.

After Sandy recovered, doctors told her she’d probably never have children.

But soon that became the least of her worries.

Not long after, her husband came home with a headache and was diagnosed with brain cancer. Again, Betty and Bill were right there, helping Sandy care for James at home instead of putting him in a nursing home.

“She never left him unless I was there,” Betty says.

After James died, Sandy met Dale Boren. And then, miraculously, there was Keota.

In her five short years, she has learned that if Mom says “No,” and Grandma says “No,” the person to ask is her grandpa, or “Pa-pa.”

“They say I spoil her, but I don’t. I just kinda get her what she wants,” Bill says. “She’s got things figured out around here.”

She’s also been the center of attention for neighbors who take her on shopping trips or play along with her when she grabs a pad of paper to take orders. She brings the guest checks to the kitchen covered with squiggled O’s — what she calls her shorthand. She even cuts the cardboard on the back of the ticket pads to fit the size of her small back pocket, so she can stick them there like her mother does.

Finding the right mix

Betty’s own mother never taught her how to make pie crust.

“The two of us didn’t jive,” Betty says.

When they baked together, they would argue, and Betty’s mother would tell her to go on, she’d just make the pies herself and freeze them.

So when she died, Betty had to find someone else to teach her: “I wasn’t gonna buy pie crusts. They’re just not any good.”

So she went to see the older woman who used to live across the road from Grumpy’s before she moved to a nursing home. Her name was Mrs. Sapp, and that’s how Betty will always remember her.

“She chewed Red Man chewing tobacco,” Betty says. “And I went to see her and I said, ‘I’ve got to learn how to make pie crust.’ She went into the kitchen, spit in the wastebasket, washed her hands and said ‘We’ll do it.’”

Betty had trouble rolling out the dough. Mrs. Sapp showed her how, and then sent her on her way. Betty got up the next morning and made pie crust.

And she’s been doing it ever since. The only fault Mrs. Sapp ever found with her crusts was that they didn’t have enough salt.

But Betty also learned that she wanted to pass whatever she can onto her own daughter. Not everyone has a Mrs. Sapp in their lives.

Now Betty and Sandy work side by side, almost every night of the week. Sandy quit her job at the Isle of Capri casino in Boonville to help her parents with Grumpy’s. They have their share of spats, but neither takes it personally. And Betty has come to lean on her daughter when she can’t work. Two summers ago, Betty had to take off for knee surgery, and Sandy just “took over.” Betty also knows she couldn’t get away with some of the things Sandy does for her father, because she’s her daddy’s little girl, the youngest of three siblings.

“You go to do something, like hang this paneling or something,” Betty says. “If I’d done it, it’d be wrong and he’d fuss at me for it.”

Betty knows they could hire staff to take some of the load off the family. But she says she’ll never do that, because that’s not the point of Grumpy’s.

The point for Betty and Bill is a reason to get up in the morning and a place to be close to their families, both blood and beyond.


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