I shut my radio off as I turned into the parking lot. There’s just something about the sound of that gravel that I like. I looked at my watch; it was about 10:30 AM. Dad would be here in about an hour. This was our spot to eat lunch when I passed through. Most small towns have that one place, I’m sure you know the type I’m talking about. Good food and good company were guaranteed at Ronnie’s. It was a beautiful Tuesday morning and most of the locals were at work. That meant I would have a little time to visit with the master chef himself.
When I walked through the door the familiar jingle of the bell announced my arrival. Ronnie came out of the back wiping his hands on a dish towel. When he saw me he smiled and greeted me with the usual “Well look what the cat dragged in!” I offered my hand and he accepted but as usual pulled me in for a good bear hug too. Ronnie and my dad were about the same age. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know him. He moved to my home town before I was born. Dad met him at church and the two had been good friends ever since. In fact I’m not so sure that Dad wasn’t the first customer Ronnie had at his restaurant!
We sat down at one of the tables. Ronnie always took time to talk with me when I stopped by. He seemed genuinely interested in me. I had answered the call to ministry early in life. It hadn’t been easy. There was only one Baptist church in our little town. That meant that I would have to find work away from home. And to be honest, I just never seemed to be happy no matter where I found myself. I managed to spread thirteen years of ministry out in four different churches. I was at a point in my life that I didn’t know what to do. I was tired of moving, and quiet honestly, I was tired of ministry. My family had been through a lot. I guess I was just looking for “that church”. The problem was I didn’t think my current church was “that church”. It was small and in a town that had little promise of growth. The people were decent and the kids seemed to enjoy the school, but I just couldn’t imagine ever having a thriving ministry there. I didn’t want to unload all of this on Ronnie. So we settled in for some small talk.
“I reckon your dad will be here in a little bit?” asked Ronnie. I told him we had an 11:30 date. He replied “Your dad has an 11:30 date in here Monday through Friday! I bet the only person that’s fed him more than me is your mama!” We laughed. He was probably right. “How long have you been here now, Ronnie?” I asked. “September was 41 years.” he replied rather proudly. I was struck by that reality. 41 years at the same job. I could not imagine that. And the truth is that “Ronnie’s” looked the same to me as it did when I sat at the table in a booster seat. I don’t think the place had changed much at all. But then again, neither had the town. The only thing big in my hometown was the hearts of the people…. and the appetites!
Before I realized it I asked Ronne a question for which I felt a little guilty. “Have you ever thought about moving on?” I asked. He paused and looked at me with an inquisitive grin. He covered it with his hand for a moment, composed himself and then scratched his head. He leaned into me and whispered “Only about a thousand times.” I was shocked. Not only that I had asked him the question but at his answer as well. But in that moment I felt as if we shared something in common. Ronnie began to talk and I was listening.
“Son I never was good at much. I’m no carpenter. I can change the oil in my car, that’s about it. I’m not a real sharp fellow when it comes to the books either. But one thing I can do is cook. I cooked for my brothers growing up. My mom was very sickly and as the oldest it was my job to help her around the house. It didn’t bother me because I soon found out that nothing puts a smile on folks faces like a good meal. Now I don’t too much like the shopping and cleaning up part. But you have to take the good with the bad, you know. In those days not many men cooked. I admit I felt a little funny, cooking all the time. But I got so good at it that it seemed wherever I found myself folks wanted me to do the cooking. And that was fine by me.” Ronnie explained.
“When I came to this town would you believe there wasn’t a restaurant to speak of?” I came here to work at the saw mill. That was tough work in those days. I worked hard and long but my heart wasn’t in it. I decided that I would start a restaurant. I took all my savings, bought this little piece of property and started living my dream. Things went well. We grew. I had to hire some help and buy more tables and chairs. I started thinking about moving on. I could see myself owning one of those big fancy restaurants somewhere out there. I even went to conferences and read magazine articles. Did you know that I have had more folks than I can remember come by here and ask me to sell this place to them? I have even had a few offer me a job managing one of them nice places in the big city. I could probably make more money doing that than I am making running this place.” Ronnie continued.
“You don’t know how many times I have packed up and left in my mind!” Ronnie assured me. “You know how some of these folks are around here. Keeping Mrs. Jenkins satisfied is impossible. Her meal is too cold, too salty, or too small. I have no idea why she has kept coming back for the last 30 years. Old Clyde swears I’m the meanest thing around. He says I’m the reason no other restaurant can make it here. But in about 15 minutes he will be in his corner booth. And Mrs. lowery hasn’t even spoken to me since we burned the fried chicken for her daughter’s wedding reception” he chuckled. “Yes sir. I have left this old place in the dust many a time in my mind!”
“Forty-One years is a long time. What keeps you going?” I asked. The smile vanished from Ronnie’s face. I felt a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if he was going to tear up or even answer my question. He did tear up and thankfully he did answer my question as well. I was shocked by the simplicity of his answer. “I’m here because people need to eat” he paused for a moment and then continued “There is someone out there that would eat supper alone in a dark and lonely house tonight if this place wasn’t here. Someone will have a loved one pass away and they’ll need food for the family. Some hungry stranger will pass through this town. Someone will have too busy of a day to cook with work, school and football practice. And someone may just need a friend to talk to. I’m here because people need to eat and I know how to cook.”
As Ronnie went on he had my full attention “I stay here because a long time ago I discovered that I’m in the people business. I feel needed in this little town. I feel appreciated here. I believe that I’m making a difference. Look at you. You’re here every time you come to town.” He was right. And to be honest it wasn’t for the food. Ronnie was a decent cook. The place was clean, but I could get a better meal somewhere else. That’s when it hit me. I couldn’t get Ronnie anywhere else. I came here for him. He had become a part of my hometown that I missed. He was a part of my past that I appreciated. And he was right, it was because he had stayed so long that I appreciated him so much. Ronnie had decided to settle for a slower life in order to feed the hungry people of a small town.
The familiar jingle of the door bell sounded. Ronnie and I turned to see my father entering. An hour had passed so quickly. He and my father exchanged greetings. Ronnie took our orders and left us to visit. Dad asked “So you heading up to the pastor’s conference to get revived?” With a confident grin I replied “No dad, I think I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I’ll be needing that conference this year.” “Well you didn’t drive all the way up here to eat lunch did you?” he asked. “As crazy as it may seem dad, I think I did.”