“You can’t beat Wanda’s soups!” says Diane Whitehead, wife of BT’s founder Tom Whitehead. “Every morning I come in here, Wanda is in the kitchen chopping like mad. She makes all her soups from scratch.”
Wanda Rigney is the talented kitchen manager at BT’s and has been cooking up spot-hitting creations for many years. “You just can’t find too many places like this,” she explains. “BT’s is a big part of people’s lives.”
Located on Tyler Avenue in the heart of downtown Radford, BT’s ambiance is sure to lift your mood. Though its mascot is a frog, it could just as easily be a chameleon, the way the clientele changes throughout the day. From young families and professionals on lunch breaks, to grad students and business folks during happy hour, to the eclectic dinner crowd, which Diane says is “every age known to man” — and finally, when late night rolls around, the students take over.
The open floor plan has plenty of high-top dining tables and a separate billiards room for shooting pool, an outdoor patio lined with palm trees, a cozy bar with industrial style globe pendant lighting and an upstairs for hosting events. All was part of a recent remodel that, surprisingly, never shut down the restaurant. Hal Clary, resident construction expert, said yes to the undertaking on a leap of faith, which had him working from 3 – 11 a.m. for two solid months.
“It’s a neighborhood place AND a student hangout,” says Hal. “We have somehow managed to get that balance right.” Tom agrees. “There is no pretense. Professors meet students for lunch, the working class and the business crowd all drink and dine together.” BT’s has phenomenally loyal customers. “You can set your clocks by some of these folks,” Tom laughs.
“It’s like a Cheers!” Diane adds. “I am endlessly fascinated with the clientele.” Many of their regulars are born and raised here since Radford is less transient than other nearby areas. “We have parents who brought their kids here when they were little – who have since grown up and now bring their children. Students who meet here will get married and bring their kids, and long time employees often settle down and start families together.
Originally from West Virginia, Tom Whitehead came to Virginia Tech back in the ’70s to play basketball. Working as a waiter and majoring in business, Tom had the smarts backed by real world experience in the hospitality industry. “Back in those days, two places served beer and that was it, so we started a ‘liquor by the drink’ club where we got to meet all the movers and shakers in town and sit down with pillars of the community.”
Tom was also part of a Rock ‘n’ Roll nightclub on Main Street in Blacksburg where the Tech Bookstore is now. The club was called “After Sundown” and would bring a thousand plus people from miles around to enjoy the disco light show and bands such as R.E.M., The Bangles, Marshall Crenshaw and Modern English.
Tom put the “T” in BT’s when he founded the restaurant 35 years ago, with partner Bill Ellenbogen. “There wasn’t much here, and this place was in rough shape. It was definitely a college beer bar,” Tom remembers. But the pair worked together to remodel the restaurant. “We ran out of money twice and went back to the bank.” Though Bill moved on after just a year, Tom hunkered down and stayed the course. After more than three successful decades, he notes: “The times and the market may have changed, but our mission has never changed.”
From day one, BT’s has stayed true to its motto of Food, Fun & Friends. By offering patrons an affordable place to eat, a cozy place to meet and a fun place to mingle, they have cracked the code of the often-challenging restaurant industry. “Maintaining a talented and committed staff has been the key,” Tom shares. “And paying attention to the details.” Details like “keep a nice salad” go far in an industry where everyone offers a salad. “You need to make sure that yours is one of the best, because that is an easy thing for people to compare.”
And of course, the knock-your-socks-off soup. “Sometimes if I am going to an event I will just order up a big ol’ jug of it and take it with me,” Diane declares. “People are always pleasantly surprised!”
Diane has also been a key factor in the success of BTs. Her eye for design was crucial in the recent remodel, and she has influenced the ambiance of the restaurant throughout the decades. She loves showing off art she has commissioned such as the stained-glass pieces in the upstairs windows and the tee shirt murals inspired by the famous frogs on BTs shirt designs.
And at a recent wedding event where Diane and Tom were surrounded by the ever-growing families of their dedicated employees, the smiles of their loyal patrons and a boat load of all of their children, Diane and Tom witnessed how their love of food, fun and friends has truly given them a family.
Written by Emily K. Alberts, a bona fide witness of the wonderfulness of Wanda’s soups.
Text by Emily Kathleen Alberts | Photos by Always and Forever Photography