On Christmas Day, eateries cook up sharing & friendship

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
The jolly ole elf called Santa Claus doesn’t always wear a fuzzy red suit and sport a white flowing beard.

In Marion County, he comes in all shapes and sizes, because his spirit lives in many generous people who call this section of The Land of Oz their home.

The owners of The Big Scoop in Marion and the Chuck Wagon in Florence open their hearts with the spirit of Santa Claus when they offer to share food with others on Christmas day.

Luci and Amy Helmer, owners of The Big Scoop, and their family unlock their restaurant doors Christmas morning to serve breakfast to anyone who walks in.

“We’re offering breakfast and fellowship for people who don’t have any other place to go on Christmas morning,” Luci Helmer said of a free meal.

Linda Britton, owner of the Chuck Wagon, cooks a full-spread dinner on Christmas day to share with others. And it’s also free.

“Everybody told me I should be doing this at Thanksgiving,” Britton said.

“And I said, ‘No, Thanksgiving is a time for family. Christmas is a time for giving. And I don’t want anybody to be alone for Christmas.'”

The Helmers took over ownership of The Big Scoop in April of 2000 and decided eight months later to begin the tradition of offering a free Christmas breakfast every year.

“Our family doesn’t do anything on Christmas morning,” Luci Helmer said.

“We do things together later in the afternoon on Christmas. So anyone who wants to come in here for breakfast, we told customers, friends, workers and anybody who didn’t have any place to go on Christmas morning to come in and we’d make breakfast.”

Allowing daughter Amy the luxury of sleeping in Christmas morning, Helmer usually plans to arrive at the restaurant around 9:30 a.m. that day.

“Once we get here, everybody starts helping us cook, because we don’t have it done ahead of time,” Helmer said.

“So we can eat around 10 a.m. or so. We stop when the last person walks out the door. That’s usually around 11 a.m.”

Anyone with an appetite and no where to go is invited to the free breakfast buffet at The Big Scoop.

“We’ve had a few people who just come in, and they don’t know what’s going on,” Helmer said.

“They just see that there are cars here, and it’s open, and they just come in. And we tell them, ‘Yea, come on in. Everybody’s invited.'”

Four years ago, about 30 people attended the breakfast and last year, that number grew to about 80.

Guests are invited to help cook, serve and clean up if they choose to volunteer that morning.

“A lot of them come back and help in the kitchen,” Helmer said.

The buffet-style meal varies each year, but typically includes pancakes, egg casseroles made ahead by Helmer, eggs and bacon, french toast made by Amy, biscuits and gravy and sausages.

Last year, one employee’s father came by and asked if he could go back into the kitchen to be in charge of making the pancakes.

“It’s so neat,” Helmer said. “We told him, ‘OK, the grill is yours.'”

Also last year, a local pastor was in charge of making the toast, and another volunteer jumped in to make the biscuits and gravy.

“There was a lady from church, and she had never been down here for this on Christmas morning,” Helmer said.

“I asked her Christmas Eve, ‘Are you going to come down?’ And she asked if she could be the hostess. It was so great, because she was out there, she took over and welcomed people who came in.”

Although the Helmers own the restaurant, the generosity of a free breakfast meal on Christmas morning is a family affair.

Daughters Traci Waner from Marion and Terri Bina from Pilsen show up to help, as does their dad, Ladd Helmer. Son Charlie is with them in spirit, because he joins the family celebration later in the day after driving from Haven.

At the suggestion and urging of breakfast diners every Christmas, Helmer agrees to put out a donation box. All money collected in the box is given to a worthy cause.

“One year, we had somebody that had a fire in town, so we took the money over there,” Helmer said. “So we always find something to do with the money.”

Even as the last crumbs of pumpkin pie were dusted off clothing in November, the Helmers began reminding people of their Christmas breakfast.

“We tell them, if you’re not doing anything Christmas morning, come in and join us,” Helmer said.

“Last year, we had family groups, younger families, singles and older couples-just everybody.”

Helmer dismissed the thought of doing this to thank customers or bring in new ones. That’s not the purpose of what they’re doing she said.

“This is probably my most favorite thing in the whole year to do-is the Christmas breakfast,” Helmer said. “I think it’s just a place for people to go if they don’t have any other place to be. It’s neat.”

Britton, with the Chuck Wagon, has been operating the Florence restaurant since 1997. And, since that time, she and husband Joe Heath have offered a free meal on Christmas day.

“Those people who are alone that day, I want them to come and be a part of our family,” Britton said.

“To me, this if for people who are alone. If you have three or four kids, you’re not alone for Christmas. This is for singles, seniors or husbands and wives who don’t have any children and don’t want to be by themselves.”

The buffet meal is ready at 11 a.m. The food, including return trips to the buffet line, is available until about 1 p.m., or whenever it’s all gone.

The meal includes turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, regular and oyster dressing, salad, green beans and desserts.

“Some of the ladies around here bring other stuff, too,” Britton said. “I’ll do pumpkin pie, and I don’t know what the rest of them will do.”

Friends, patrons and even strangers-anyone who is alone is welcome for the meal.

“Last year, we had a couple come through, and they said ‘Is there anyplace open that we could stop and get something to eat?'” Britton said.

She invited them into her restaurant to enjoy the Christmas meal, and the couple asked how much she was charging. Britton told them it was free.

Well, people just don’t do that, the wife said shocked.

“I said, ‘They do here in Florence,'” Britton said with a smile in her voice.

The first year, Britton fed about 25 people. Last year, she saw about 70 in her restaurant Christmas Day.

Britton usually is in charge of preparing the turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, two dressings, vegetable and salads. Two employees also help that day.

“I have one lady who says ‘Bah, humbug’ on Christmas,” Britton said. “But, she comes in and helps, too. They help with the dishes and make sure everybody has coffee or tea or whatever.”

Portions are not limited, Britton said.

“It’s family style. We set it on the table. You come by, get as much as you want, come back and get more if you want. It’s all there until I run out of food.”

The mood during the meal is festive, and the restaurant is usually filled with laughter and conversation.

“We just sit around and have fun,” Britton said.

“That’s what it’s for-to sit around and talk.I have a plaque on the wall that says ‘Friends are family one meets along the way.’ And I firmly believe that.”

Before getting back to her restaurant chores the first week in December, Britton said “I just want to wish everybody a Merry Christmas and Peace. That’s all.”

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