After a late-summer fire struck the Houndstooth Cafe, a greater tragedy claimed the life of its owner, Bob Cunningham. Still, his gregarious spirit emblazons Hanover County.
Leaves were just beginning to blaze orange along Route 5 in Hanover County when a young doe darted past the Houndstooth Cafe. She was being chased, or so we thought, by willful hunters who had jumped the gun. It was October and muzzleloading season was still a few weeks away. But if hunters loomed in the woods, we didn't see them. We were too taken aback by what had just happened.
It was Bob who called the game warden. He knew everybody in Hanover. And we were all limp with disbelief. In the dirt parking lot behind the restaurant, the doe sprawled lifeless. Swiftly, she had escaped danger only to meet death in a head-on collision with a garbage Dumpster. None of us could swallow or speak.
It's been six years since that bizarre accident in the Houndstooth parking lot, but I'll never forget that bitter pulse of sadness that made my heart pound. In the year that I worked waiting tables at the Houndstooth Cafe, it was the only time I saw Bob Cunningham speechless.
On Sept. 8, John Robert "Bob" Cunningham died while working on his yellow '51 pickup truck outside his home in Caroline County.
Less than two months ago, many Hanover residents were awakened in the night to learn that a kitchen fire had destroyed much of the Houndstooth Cafe, the popular country restaurant nestled at the corner of Routes 5 and 301. The Houndstooth had made owners Bob and Connie Cunningham Hanover celebrities. The 11-year-old restaurant is famous for its home-style cookin' barbecue, ribs, hush puppies, fresh seafood and Connie's specialty cheesecakes that made the pages of Southern Living and put Hanover County on the culinary map. But more importantly, the Houndstooth is known for another kind of comfort: the breezy intimacy that's shared by neighbors in a community where high-school football games, Wal-Mart debates and the opening of deer season are daily news.
Watches could be set by the lunchtime line that formed precisely at 11:30 a.m. across the restaurant's front porch. Located across from Hanover Courthouse, it was not unusual for Hanover Commonwealth's Attorney Ed Vaughn, Sheriff V. Stuart Cook and other officials to forget politics and policing to break for lunch over barbecue and iced tea. Dinner was even busier, and those who came brought, along with their appetites, any local fodder fit for table talk.
"The great thing about it," says Bob Cunningham's longtime friend W.F. "Snapper" Harris Jr., a Hanover native and retired banker, "was that people drove in from all over and were willing to sit on that porch and wait." And tipping back long necks while hickory smoke filled the air, they waited and spun yarns that stretched far beyond Hanover.
The night before the fire, Bob and Connie took their employees out to dinner at Full Kee restaurant on Horsepen Road. Nights out like this were common. After a busy Saturday night, unwinding over pizza and beer at Giovanni's in nearby Ashland was nonnegotiable. It was an offer that couldn't be refused. And Bob insisted on picking up the tab. He never said it, but those who worked with him knew it was his way of shedding his behind-the-line surliness. Always, underneath this exterior, there was the tender-hearted Falstaff, the rosy-cheeked storyteller whose eyes grew wide at the chance to reel people in.
The shock of the July 29 fire left Hanover listless. But Bob plowed ahead, determined the restaurant could be back on its feet in three months. "He had a hurt knee, his two days off weren't enough," says Caroline Akins, who worked with Bob at the Houndstooth. "We all thought the fire meant it was time for him to heal, and take a break."
It took a fire to get Bob out of the restaurant. "He loved working behind the line," says Harris. "It was his life." Even on this forced hiatus, Bob made plans to build another restaurant on the side lot, below trees where buzzards roost. "It was wishful thinking that he would retire and leave someone the restaurant," says Harris.
There is talk that Connie will reopen the Houndstooth, and it's possible that's what Bob would want. Still, it's hard to imagine a Houndstooth without his humor and indulgences.
Apart from Connie, this is something Harris realizes more than anyone. For years, Bob and Harris have been as inseparable as Huck and Tom. "He was so entertaining," laughs Harris. Together the two took afternoon rides in the back country, exploring. "He used to look behind barns to see if he could find an old car that he could buy and fix up," says Harris. And many times, he did. "I've known for some time that he's lived on the edge. He was a little boy all his life; as he acquired toys, he played with them."
Harris still holds a pair of tickets. "The last thing I said to him was 'Don't forget the Steak Feast.'" Every year Bob and Harris made a day of the event at Berkeley Plantation that benefits the Charles City Ruritan Club. "It's a place where men get together, drink beer and shoot bull," says Harris. At this year's event, sadly, there'll be more beer and less bull.
Hanover won't be the same without Bob Cunningham. He loved his Jack Daniels, had a four-a-year rule for haircuts, and swore he'd never found a college he couldn't get kicked out of. Bob also gave away extra food, lent his facilities and equipment to churches, took in stray dogs and poured countless cups of coffee for those who needed them. He gave his wife diamonds as heavy as marbles because, he used to say, every day he loved her more. And he thanked God that he could be so lucky. "He was an asset to the community," Harris says. "He brought people into the restaurant and money that was earned elsewhere was left here for the locals to share. And that's prosperity."
Hanover grieves the unexpected death of Bob Cunningham. And while September leaves begin to blaze orange along Route 5, somewhere his spirit's racing down the back roads he loved