The small barbecue joint at Eighth Street and Clay Avenue was not officially open Wednesday, but that didn’t stop a steady flow of customers from stopping by to order plates of smoked ribs and brisket and pass the time with “Mama B,” half of the Mama & Papa B’s Bar-B-Que tandem.

Most who followed the sweet smell of smoked meat into the 34-year-old establishment heard a “Hello, baby” from Mama B, whose real name is Hallie Bilton Henderson. She’s a petite, 81-year-old woman with a surgically repaired knee and a smile that shines through the fog of problems that beset her in recent months.

“God is good,” Henderson said. “I say that all the time, because he loves me and protects me the way he does.”

Last September, a fire that was likely sparked by a smoldering barbecue pit heavily damaged her place of business. Undaunted, she found a contractor from Austin to make repairs. But after Mama B paid him and his crew a $13,000 advance to buy materials, they worked less than a week and left Waco with Henderson’s cash in their overalls.

Word got around that Mama & Papa B’s found itself in a pinch, and friends, family and customers began to respond with donations of money and discounted labor.

With work complete except for touch-ups here and there, the little joint that could will toss out the welcome mat Friday.

“Did I ever consider not opening back up? I sure did not,” Henderson said. “Everybody was looking forward to a reopening, and I was with them. . . . I enjoy seeing customers come through the door hungry, so I can feed them.”

Papa B, whom Henderson calls “the boss,” is 77-year-old Johnny Henderson. They married after the death of her first husband. He serves as pitmaster, churning out ribs, sausage and brisket for topping with his own special sauce. Mama B boils beans on a stove-top pan and dips chilly potato salad from a container in the refrigerator.

“I just take what I have and do the best with it. Not really any secret recipes,” Papa B said, understating his skills at preparing barbecue.

Mama B responds with a look that says there is more to the process than Papa B suggests and that he does keep details of preparation to himself.

On Wednesday, construction workers Dylan Bernardi, 41, and Bo Jones, 48, made a pit stop at the restaurant. They are regulars who found the seven-month closing for repairs almost unbearable. They ate a lot of hamburgers, they said, and were excited to hear that Mama & Papa B’s is serving again.

“It’s what I would call Southern- style barbecue,” said Bernardi, who frequently orders a beef-and-pork plate, other times sausage and ribs.

Jones responded, “It’s all good,” and then raised his voice and jokingly said of Mama B, “I keep waiting for her to tell us it’s all free today.”

Others stopped by to request orders to go and to enjoy the good news that things would be getting back to normal in a couple of days.

Changing neighborhood

Much has changed in the neighborhood where Mama & Papa B’s operates, and it should spell continued success. Magnolia Market at the Silos, 600 Webster Ave., has become a tourist magnet since it opened last year, reportedly attracting 20,000 visitors a week to an area within walking distance of the restaurant.

More than 200 town homes and apartments have gone up at nearby Tinsley Place, and continued development downtown and along Interstate 35 between South Ninth and South Fifth streets is bringing new restaurants and retailers to the area of Mama & Papa B’s.

For many years, the restaurant has courted trade from Baylor University, with a sign saying, “If the Bears kill it, we’ll cook it.”

A screened-in area housing the barbecue pit is trimmed in green and gold, and much of the rest of the building will receive a new coat of paint in those colors as volunteers and construction crews complete the transformation, said Cassandra Horsley, a granddaughter of the Hendersons who helped get the eatery reopened.

Elvis Brown, 68, a master electrician and friend of the Hendersons, said he performed all of the electrical work the renovated structure needed.

“They got ripped off twice,” Brown said. “They lost their money, and the first contractor did not do the work properly.”

Brown said the couple mean a lot to the community, and he wanted to do anything he could to assist with the restaurant’s return to operation.

Nathan Goff, 32, said the Hendersons are longtime friends of his and his grandparents, Don and Mary Routte, who own Buckeye Bingo in Waco.

“Mama comes into the Bingo hall all the time, and everybody loves her,” said Goff, who assisted with remodeling and hauling off debris, including a damaged barbecue pit.

As he worked at the site, Goff said, longtime fans would drop by to inquire about progress being made.

Mama B said her business was insured, but she faced financial challenges and out-of-pocket expenses because of her brush with fraud.

She acknowledged she received monetary donations from at least one organization, “but I don’t know that they would want me to reveal their identity.”

With work wrapping up, she said, the cost of putting the place back in running order is approaching $45,000.

Several friends of Mama B said she is generous to a fault, often giving food to the down and out and assisting people in other ways.

“But that’s nothing compared to what’s been done for me,” she said. “I often wonder why God has been so good.”

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