It was almost the end of an era. But Chuck Chronis ultimately decided to toe the line.
Chronis and Rich Melnick, co-conspirators behind the famously free Thanksgiving meal at Chronis’ Restaurant and Lounge in downtown Vancouver, were on the verge of giving it a miss this year. Instead, as it turns out, they’re going to continue to grow the tradition — offering food on Thanksgiving and on Christmas too.
“It was one of those how-can-you-say-no things,” said Chronis.
“We always come around to it,” said Melnick. “Unfortunately, there’s still a huge need for it.”
Then why consider stopping now? “I’ve had some health problems,” Chronis said. Last year, he shattered a toe with a sliding shower door, and he’d been hobbling around and undergoing multiple surgeries ever since. The most recent surgery was just last Tuesday, he said.
“The sad part is, I can’t step on my foot,” he said. So he’ll just have to manage the operations from a slight remove, he said. “I’ll be there but I’ll be in a wheelchair with my foot elevated. The good news is, we’ll have people like Rich Melnick there — he’s one of my favorite young men.”
Melnick, 56, a Clark County Superior Court judge, also happens to be a killer turkey chef and server, Chronis said.
Come one, come all
The Chronis tradition has been under way in Vancouver every Thanksgiving Day since 1984. Everyone is welcome, no questions asked. If your bank account is stuffed but your heart is hungry for community, come on down — and don’t even think about paying.
But Chronis confessed that a couple of times he’s bent the rule about accepting no payment:
Once, a teeny little old lady approached him and said: “Mr. Chronis, I want you to know I’ve been eating here for 10 years, and it is my favorite moment of the year … and I saved all year to pay for my meal.” She thrust her savings at Chronis — it was all of $2.
“That was hardest $2 I ever accepted,” he said. “She didn’t show up last year. I wonder about her.”
Another time, there was a “big guy” sitting at a table with new friends. It was the first time in 15 years he’d shared a Thanksgiving with anyone, he told Chronis.
“He thanked me and I thanked him and he started to cry,” Chronis said. A different fellow pulled Chronis aside and insisted on handing him $20 — breaking the official rule — but instead of refusing, Chronis had an idea:
“Do you care what I do with it?”
“No. Give it to someone who really needs it.”
So Chronis went back and handed it to that big lonely guy.
“Somebody wants you to have this,” he said. And they both cried.
Planning for more
In previous years, Chronis said, a typical turnout might be 400 to 500 diners. In this year’s economy, he’s figuring on something like 600.
“We always overbuy,” he said. “Everything is planned on the basis that we are never going to run out. We are never going to turn anyone away hungry.”
Leftovers are distributed to local charities and food banks, Chronis said — especially to the YWCA Clark County and its programs for women in crisis and victims of domestic violence.
The first time Chronis and Melnick added a free Christmas dinner was 2009, in observance of the extra-tough times as well as in memory of some longtime volunteers. This year will be the third time for that, too.