FERGUSON, Mo. — The phone at the cash register didn’t ring. The lights were dim, the glass doors cracked. Worst of all, the windows were still boarded up, trapping the sweet smell that once drew customers to the Original Red’s BBQ.
If only more people were driving on West Florissant Avenue, perhaps they’d realize that Red’s had reopened on Sundays. But the pulse of the retail corridor was faint, the area wounded by nights of looting, fires, tear gas and gunshots that left a line of burned-out buildings.
“Steven, let’s close down in an hour,” Varun Madaksira, the restaurant’s owner, told his employee. “No one’s coming.”
“Let’s keep on,” Steven Nelson urged.
The restaurant was once a go-to spot in north St. Louis County. The legendary ribs used to be sold from a truck that traveled around the city.
But the legend has been overshadowed by location.
Red’s had the misfortune of being around the corner from where Michael Brown, 18, was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. It was the closest business to the QuikTrip convenience mart that was destroyed by looters.
That store was charred beyond recognition. So Madaksira considered it a miracle that his business could reopen.
Reopening has been a complex question for some business owners here. The community they thought loved them ended up looting them. And many businesses are waiting for a grand jury to decide whether to indict Wilson before they make any moves. Like many others in the area, they fear another wave of destruction if there are no charges.
Madaksira is pushing forward.
“I’m going to stay,” he said. “People are now saying how Ferguson is unsafe, you should be scared to go to Ferguson. My mother in India was never worried before, but now she’s scared. And the more they say those things, the more I want to show this community has good people.”
He moved to the United States from India for college, and Red’s is his first business venture. No one sees Redmond “Red” Harris, the original purveyor of the barbecue, around here anymore — he is jailed in connection with a vehicular-homicide case.
Madaksira is 28, with a mop of hair and a straightforward manner. Since the shooting, he has laid off two employees and picked up a second job. He has spent $8,000 on the restaurant’s cleanup.
“I don’t blame my customers for being upset,” Madaksira said of the shooting and the outrage that Brown’s body remained in the street for hours. “Do I blame the city of Ferguson for not having it together to deal with people? Absolutely. The police, they don’t care about my customers.”
Government agencies have offered him loans to rebuild the business, but he has declined. If anything is going to rebuild the restaurant, he figures, it should be the business generated from the community.
Madaksira was returning from a trip to India when he learned that the neighborhood was on fire.
“I thought, how could this happen?” he said. “And I was so nervous because I saw the QuikTrip down, and thought my building would be next.”
Dozens of young men descended on his parking lot on the night of Aug. 18, ready to clash with police. They held bottles and gasoline.
“Burn it down!” one yelled. And they did.
Red’s was looted at least three times over the next few weeks.
The morning after the fire, Madaksira used red spray paint to scrawl a message on the store’s plywood: “We Will Be Back!”
And Red’s has come back, albeit slowly. First, the charcoal grill was set up outside for one day a week, then two. The grill then came back inside. It looked as though business was beginning to pick up, until Brown’s memorial caught fire.
And Red’s was looted again.
In recent weeks, protesters have moved their demonstrations to an area near the police station. Madaksira is sleeping a little easier.
But he and others know that the little things, parts of the daily ritual, have disappeared.
Alexis Vaughn, 23, misses being able to go to QuikTrip for candy and seeing friends on the street. She misses being able to sleep with her windows open and having no fear of tear gas seeping in. QuikTrip. Red’s. Friends on the street. These were the things that made her community.
“Day to day, we are still hurting,” said Vaughn, who works in consumer services.
Meanwhile, civic leaders have reached out to store owners, trying to encourage them to get back on their feet — and stay. West Florissant can’t flourish without business investment, they’ve said.
Capt. Ron Johnson of the State Highway Patrol — who during the height of unrest helped bring temporary calm — tried to reach out to the local barber as someone to assist in rebuilding trust between residents, businesses and police.
Antonio Henley, owner of Prime Time Barber Shop, isn’t sure about participating.
“It feels like a coverup, to be honest with you,” Henley said. “Like they are trying to be nice to keep everyone calm. I want business to improve. But I also want justice for Mike Brown.”
Henley said his business has decreased 60 percent since the shooting. So has business at the barbecue place.
Another weekend arrived. Madaksira bought 1,000 pounds of chicken, beef and turkey, one-third of the usual order. Nelson, Madaksira’s employee, started at 6 a.m., seasoning the meat and slathering it in sauce.
That Saturday afternoon, Wendell King, 25, wandered in. He had driven to the neighborhood from Columbus, Ohio.
“The [shooting] hit me hard, so I need to see it for myself,” he said. “That could have been me on the street.”
“Thank you for being open,” another customer, Amanda Moss, 45, told the owner.
Tyrone Stokes, 49, vowed to “keep supporting this place as long as the meat stays so tender and the prices stay low.”
The doors were still shattered, the windows boarded up. But T-shirts for the St. Louis Cardinals had started to mix in with “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” shirts. And the phone began to ring.
“Hello? Yes. I have rib tips, chicken wings, turkey, beef Polish,” Madaksira said.
He thought for a moment before adding: “I would suggest you put your order in now. Today, we might run out.”
Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.