With places set, plates of food at the ready and a small crowd gathered outside, Chuck Chronis brought out his best football voice.
“Tell everybody in the kitchen to get down here,” the 74-year-old growled as he stood at the front parlor of Chronis’ Restaurant and Lounge, preparing to open the doors for those gathered for a free, hot holiday meal.
The 15 or so volunteers, many of whom started at 6:30 or 7 a.m., clustered up front at his 9:55 a.m. call.
As a former Vancouver high school football, track and basketball star, you could easily forgive those present for feeling like this was the huddle before the big play — even if the call was coming from the running back instead of a quarterback.
“The most important thing, you have to greet these people,” Chronis barked. “We want them to feel at home. Give them a smile, maybe a little sarcasm. We want them to feel like they’re at a family dinner.”
He dedicated the day to his longtime friend and co-founder of the 30-plus year tradition of handing out free meals for the holiday, Judge Rich Melnick, who looked a little irritated that the honor went to him instead of somebody else.
After the speech, Chronis issued his final order to the team.
“Everybody take their places,” he said as he went to open the door, greeting the first comer — an elderly woman with a walker — with a smile, a hug and a booming “Merry Christmas young lady.”
The feast lasted from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with enough food for 500 guests.
Despite the gruff orders, Chronis and his troop of volunteers are a really a caring, selfless bunch. Most shift their own Christmas celebrations to the evening or to another day so they can spend the holiday serving others.
“Every year, it’s sad that we do it, but it’s great that we do it,” Melnick said earlier in the morning as he prepared a tray of ham slices by trickling brown sugar and pineapple across the top. “Overall, we’ve never had a problem in 30 years. People come in, they appreciate it, and they’re on their best behavior.”
The kitchen and upper area were especially busy before the team opened the doors. Friends and family of both men cooked potatoes, sliced about 50 pies and scooped apple sauce into a host of small cups, among other things.
As Chronis chatted in the kitchen at around 8:30 a.m., his grandson, Jason Roberts, walked up behind him and gave him a quick, loving shoulder rub.
“Ham is in, beans are on, what about the gravy?” Roberts asked.
“We won’t make the gravy for another half-hour,” Chronis decreed.
The concoction, called red eye gravy, is a special mix that’s popular in the south, Chronis said.
It includes smoked pork hocks, celery, carrots, onions, brown sugar, pepper, garlic, two cups of coffee, Tabasco sauce and vinegar, along with a few things that Chronis said were part of his secret recipe.
As he sat at the counter for a short coffee break, Chronis wife, Sandy, strolled out of the back with a variety of headbands adorned with reindeer antlers and decorative Santa hats.
“Girls, who wants to wear antlers?” she said, putting one of them on a volunteer’s head.
“Maybe the boys want to wear them,” Roberts said, tongue firmly in cheek. “What about us?”
Volunteer Kim Nigg, who works at the courthouse with Melnick, dipped her head as Sandy Chronis adorned her with her own set of antlers.
“I’m not really fond of wearing these little things, but it’s OK,” she said afterwards. “Doing this, though, volunteering? It’s a small part of giving back to people in the community. It’s not a lot but it means a lot to people. And it’s fun.”
Throughout the preparation hours, volunteers exchanged stories of their visitors in past years. There was the woman who saved all year and insisted on giving Chronis’ $2 for her meal — even though he tried everything to get her to keep it. And the big guy who came back and told Roberts how grateful he was for the meal because it was something he never thought he’d need.
Stories about volunteers who died over the years also rang through the air. Melnick and Chronis fondly reminisced about Jim Larson, Ray Alvarado, Cindy Davis, Dick Coffman, Jake Jollota, Jack Bridger, Richie “Dino” Dyer and Jim Steiner, among others.
“A lot of our older volunteers have slipped away,” Chronis said wistfully.
Chronis is feeling some of age’s effects himself, having suffered a few small strokes in recent years, along with some older nagging injuries. But he said none of that will stop him from continuing to provide the free meals for those that need them next Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“As long as I’m in business, I’ll do this forever,” Chronis said.