Florence’s Chuckwagon turns friends into family

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
Christmas may have come and gone around the world, but not at the Chuckwagon in Florence.

It’s like Christmas every day at the Main Street restaurant, where a decorated tree stays up outside the restaurant year-round and friends gather daily for family-style meals at all hours.

The line between friends and family is blurry here, said Chuckwagon owner Linda Britton-Heath.

And that idea’s reflected in the restaurant’s motto, displayed in a plaque hung on the back wall.

“Friends are the family one finds along the way,” Britton quoted. “We kind of go by that.”

The lifelong Florence resident opened the restaurant eight years ago after working 22 years as a welder in Hesston.

“This seemed like it’d be more fun,” Britton said.

And it has been, she said, largely because her goal has been to maintain a relaxed atmosphere where patrons can sit around and “shoot the breeze” for several hours at a time if they so choose.

“It makes it seem a like a little home around here-for everybody, not just for me,” she said.

In fact, the corner cafe has become a second home for some residents who sometimes stop in for several meals on any given day.

Britton spoke of one older gentleman in particular who can often be seen at the Chuckwagon throughout the day.

“This is his other home, a place to hangout,” she said. “He’s not bothering anybody-he’s being with people.”

And then there’s what Britton calls the Liars’ Table, where anywhere from six to to 10 farmers-including her own Joe Heath-meet early each morning to enjoy Britton’s biscuits and gravy and each other’s company.

“Most of the time it’s pretty repetitious,” she said.

“They gather around the Liars’ Table every morning, and they each have their own chairs.”

Hours are extensive-6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

And Britton said the Chuckwagon menu warns patrons they’ll find “Good Food, Grumpy Cooks and Half-Fast Waitresses” here, so they shouldn’t be in any hurry to get their food or to rush through their meal and then leave.

“This is the place for socializing and meeting the friends,” she said. “And we make good food, but mostly it’s the socializing.”

The good food includes the Chuckwagon specialty-broasted chicken-as well as the ever popular chicken-fried steak and pork tenderloins, Britton said.

Their cheese-steak sandwich is also a favorite, she added, with its roast beef thinly sliced before it’s fried with onions and loaded with both swiss and American cheese.

That and her double cheeseburger, which goes for $5.65, are two of the most ordered but bigger-than-average sandwiches, she said.

“Not very many women eat that,” Britton said.

Most of their food is offered daily, with Mexican food on Thursdays being the only one-day special.

“Our whole menu’s actually pretty special,” Britton said.

“It’s all good.”

Ingredients are bought locally and most of the food made from scratch, she said.

“Most of our meat we buy from the grocery store across the street,” she said.

For dessert, Britton boasted of her co-cook Marge Osgood’s coconut cream pie, just one of several mouth-watering varieties available for $1.75 apiece.

Soft-serve vanilla ice cream is available in a cone, cup or shake, she said, as well as in a chocolate or strawberry sundae or in a cyclone with a variety of mix-ins.

Breakfast is served from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and all days long on Tuesdays. It includes combinations of pancakes, waffles, eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, hash browns and the ever-popular biscuits and gravy.

A kids’ menu is available with a special treat at the end to encourage children to clean their plates.

“Kids get suckers if they finish their meals,” she said.

Young to old, there’s plenty of room for everyone, Britton said

“We can seat 1,000 people-32 at a time,” she said with a smile.

Including Britton, a dozen employees are on staff to serve customers, and they’ll go out of their way just to make sure everyone can get into the building.

“We have automatic doors,” she said. “If somebody in a wheelchair comes in, we automatically run out there and open them.”

Each person that works at the Chuckwagon does a little bit of everything, Britton said, even though they each have their preferred roles.

“I like the cooking and I like being one of the girls,” she said.

“I definitely hate being the boss-it always falls back on me, but I don’t like it.”

But even if she won millions in the lottery, Britton said she’d keep running her restaurant.

“You have to have a reason to get up every day,” she said. “And this is a reason.”

Britton already has several pictures on her walls of old friends who have passed through and passed on, and she’s going to put up some more soon, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of people that come through here, and almost 11 out of 11 of them are good,” she said. “I’ve thought about sitting down at my computer and writing about some of them.

“Some of them are gone-but they’re not gone,” she added.

“You always remember them.”

And having a place like her restaurant to call home has even given some a reason to keep going, Britton said, like a friend she found out might have committed suicide had he not found a family at the Chuckwagon.

“Things like that mean a lot,” she said.

So for the stories like that, as well as the less dramatic ones of friends who just enjoy good food and good company, Britton said she’ll keep doing what she’s doing.

“It makes it worthwhile, to have a place where people can come,” she said. “This is the place to be.”

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