Rhonda Winfield sat in Jake’s Bar and Grill in Waynesboro recently and just shook her head.
“This is just the craziest, no-nonsense story,” she said about the journey that made her the owner and operator of a tiny, hole-in-the-wall, western style eatery.
Sadly, on Friday afternoon Winfield made the announcement the popular restaurant that has come to be synonymous with military service and great burgers will close its doors because of financial concerns. The restaurant will say farewell to the community on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a farewell brunch to customers, military and emergency services personnel and veterans.
And when 4 p.m. arrives on Sunday, Winfield and the story of Jake’s will end like many a good western, by riding off into the sunset.
Although the restaurant doors will soon be shuttered, Winfield said she has no regrets. Indeed the intertwined stories of Jake’s Bar and Grill and Lance Cpl. Jason Redifer are worth hearing as they are all part of the Gold Star Mother’s continuing journey.
Although she knew nothing about the restaurant business, the idea of having a place like Jake’s popped into Rhonda’s head in 2013 when her youngest child was getting ready to leave home and she was facing being an empty nester for the first time since she was 17 years old. Winfield, 53, was working full-time herself as a funeral home director, a job that she loved but which often came with some heavy emotional strain.
“Sometimes I would bring home something that was heavy on my heart. I knew with my new-found alone time, I might get into a dark place," she said. "One day while driving to work in Charlottesville I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a hole in the wall place to sell hotdogs and beer? How cool would that be to have a little something that was just mine to contrast with the funeral home?”
If anybody knows about being in a dark place and how to turn that darkness into light it is Winfield. On Jan. 31, 2005, her 19-year-old son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Redifer, was on his last mission in Iraq when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. Redifer, who was to come home in nine days, and two other Marines, did not survive. Instead of coming home, Redifer was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery on Feb. 8, the 114th service member killed in Iraq to be buried in Arlington.
The days and weeks after Jason’s death were heart wrenching for Rhonda and for those who knew the family and knew Jason, a graduate of Stuart Hall who had joined the Marines in order to serve the country after 9/11. And her grief became palatable to those who never knew the family when a photo of her gently touching the cheek of the kneeling Marine at Arlington who was handing her the flag from her son’s coffin ran in the Washington Post.
“I lost it right afterwards,” Winfield said of those dark days following Jason’s death. “I couldn’t go back to my job at the post office; I just couldn’t. It wasn’t until two more Marines in our area were killed and I went to be with their mothers and went through their journey with them that I felt a purpose and some comfort. It was what I was meant to be doing.”
Her personal journey in healing soon became professional. She began training to be a funeral home director so that she could give comfort to others.
“Short of having children, working at the funeral home was the most gratifying thing that I have ever done. It was a good way to work through my own grief and offer something to people from a different perspective — as a woman, a mother, and someone who had lost a child, I had some insight into things that guys didn’t have,” she explained.
And during her time in the funeral home business, if there was a veteran who was to be buried at Arlington, she was given the honor of overseeing that process.
“Every time that I presented a flag to the family of a service member, a piece of my heart went to that person,” she said.
As the days and weeks after Jason’s passing turned into years, Rhonda has found ways to turn her grief into positive action and deal with the dark places when they try to overwhelm her.
“For as many days as I have left on this earth, when I feel it, it is going to be soul wrenching, but now I know the sun will come up,” she explained.
A lot of her strength comes from Jason, she added.
“I have felt him kick me back into play. I have a peace and faith that has grown exponentially and with such a certainty that I know that Jason’s just hanging out and perfectly at peace.”
Enter Jake’s Bar and Grill, something that Rhonda saw as a way to counteract the sadness that often comes with being a funeral director. When the idea, that even she admits was a little crazy, popped into her head, she said it “was like knocking over dominoes and just kept gaining momentum.”
Her mind’s eye went to the Schooner, a hole in the wall place in Waynesboro with a reputation for being kind of rough, that had been boarded up and out of business for several years. She peeked in the window and saw the lamp hanging over the front booth and fell in love with the place despite its seedy appearance.
“I tracked down the owner and had to talk her into letting me do it. Rightfully so she asked me ‘Do you have a background in restaurants?’ I had to tell her no,” Rhonda said with a crazy laugh.
The amount of work that the defunct restaurant needed in order to be brought to life again was almost overwhelming. The electricity was antiquated, the decorating tastes questionable, and the layer of nicotine build-up on every surface proved challenging.
“One day after a lot of work I stopped and looked around and I saw what I had envisioned. We signed the lease in April and opened in December of 2013. The first night was surreal. The logo was on the window and I just sat across the street and looked at it and thought ‘Now the next chapter is unfolding,’” she said.
The renovation from seedy dive to family-styled western bar and grill was amazing. In the end, just about the only thing that she retained from the original Schooner décor was that lamp hanging over the front booth that had won her heart.
And, although Jason was not the inspiration for the restaurant, he was always a part of the process, she explained. The name Jake’s, for instance, is a nickname that was wrapped into a little saying that Rhonda would use to get her two older boys up and moving when the family needed to go somewhere.
“It has been a cool way to bring Jason along with the sort of western kind of dive like you see in the movies,” she said.
Jason loved horseback riding and is still remembered by many in Stuarts Draft as the kid who rode his horse through the Hardee’s drive through line.
“It’s just the kind of western dive that he would have liked and I was able to incorporate a lot of his things, not in a memorial kind of way, but just as a way to kind of bring him along,” she said.
One of the first things that she added to the décor was a silhouette photo of him on a horse.
“It was never the intent to make it something about him. It was just a hobby business to counteract the heaviness from tragedy and to give some balance,” she added.
From the beginning the idea was for the restaurant to be family friendly and local. Although she originally had an idea to serve hotdogs, that menu item lasted about six weeks. Soon the joint became known for its juicy beef burgers from the family farm.
The “hobby business” required her full-time attention, and it was not many months into the experiment that she had to leave the funeral business in order to manage Jake’s.
“I knew that it wasn’t going to be a huge source of income, and there was more stress than I thought,” she said of jumping into the operation of a restaurant.
“But I would absolutely do it again. It is exactly what I was supposed to do. It is so fulfilling. The people that I met and the stories that I have heard and the lifelong bonds that I have made would never have happened if I hadn’t done this. I am a better person, and more appreciative. In addition, the people that have come through this door have made a difference in my life,” she said.
Although she never intended for Jake’s to be a memorial to her son, eventually a large component of the restaurant evolved to honor the service not only of Jason, but of anyone who ever wore a uniform. As those who stop by on Sunday will see, the restaurant has an entire wall of honor with the focal point being a statue depicting a kneeling serviceman honoring a fallen comrade.
“The first step (in creating that wall) was the hardest. One of Jason’s best friends came in with the painted statue. I was going to take it home but I couldn’t lift it. I took that as a sign that maybe that is where it is supposed to stay so we made it an honor wall,” she remembered.
“When people came in who are or were in the military then we would take a picture of them for the wall. We kept a Polaroid camera here just for that purpose. When a young person in the military came in here in uniform they didn’t know that just for a minute he or she became my child. It was always a little gift for me and I am so proud of them,” Winfield said.
“Sometimes Jason is wrapped up in all of that. I feel him here all the time. As odd as it is, I have felt him here every step of the way,” she added.
Come January it will be 15 years since Jason’s death. In many ways it seems like just yesterday, and yet time moves on. Jason’s name is inscribed on a plaque on the courthouse, one name among the hundreds in this area who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country. His name is also on the bridge that crosses over the interstate near Augusta Health.
“When I drive across the bridge, I get a burst of pride and love every time. I know that in this community everybody matters,” she said, adding, “Sometimes when I see an individual in uniform, I think for a minute that he’s coming back and then I just thank goodness for him and what he did. He believed in stepping up and serving his country and I am settled with the fact that that is what he wanted to do. It’s how he was raised.”
Jake’s Bar and Grill then, was not a memorial to a young man from Stuarts Draft who gave his all for his country, but it was there because of who Jason was and what he did. It was the next chapter, said his mother.
“I got what I needed here and I enjoyed the experience. It was a way to put grief into action and find something positive. I talk to Jason all the time and this place was a nice thought to carry in my heart.”
For five years now, the most important week of the year at Jake’s has been the week around Veteran’s Day when big discounts were offered to honor service to the United States. The reason for the commemoration was that Nov. 10 is the Marine Corps anniversary, Nov. 11 is Veteran’s Day, and Nov. 14 is Jason’s birthday.
This year will be different with the farewell brunch coming on the Marines Corp anniversary and the first day of Winfield’s next chapter in her personal journey coming on Veteran’s Day. In many ways it makes a fitting closure to “retire the colors” symbolically speaking and move forward on such an important day for the nation and for her personally.
“I found what I was needing here at the exact time I needed it. For me, the key to surviving the loss of my child seems to have been in constantly reinventing ways to find a positive outlet for the pain. Here, something very special was born, and the past six years have been an amazing chapter in my life," Winfield said. "Now, though, I feel the restlessness of needing to move on. My heart says it’s time. My story’s not done. Jason’s story isn’t done. So, I guess I’ll go see if there are any more really cool lamps calling to me."