At Catalina restaurant, Thanksgiving comes early for 300 - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

At Catalina restaurant, Thanksgiving comes early for 300

Claire's has served a free meal for 19 years

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Posted: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 1:21 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Thanksgiving comes a day early at Claire's Cafe and Gallery in Catalina, thanks to owners Claire and Steve Johnson.

It's been that way for the past 19 years.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25, more than 300 traditional Thanksgiving meals — including 50 Meals on Wheels deliveries — were served to firefighters, ranchers, shut-ins, emergency medical technicians, travelers and local people from Catalina, Oro Valley, SaddleBrooke and as far away as San Manuel and Mammoth.

The dinner was free and open to everybody. For the customers the only requirement — be in good spirits and bring a hearty appetite. Easy to do at Claire's; at 10 a.m., people were lined up at the door.

"This is what Thanksgiving is all about," said Claire. "For us, it's a very joyous time. This area is a community in transition; it used to be the place where if your barn burned down, everybody pitched in to rebuild a new one and helped feed your family. We are just trying to maintain that tradition."

Feeding people is something that Claire Johnson has been doing for a long time. In Chicago, she was a chef, ran a food co-op and had a soup kitchen. Claire and Steve opened up Claire's Cafe in 1986 and have been at the same location ever since.

"This was originally a very small place called Dina's Cafe when we started," said Claire. "It was only as big as our front room. As the years progressed, we just kept expanding and absorbing the back rooms."

Bell Waller has been coming to Claire's for years; in fact she calls herself Claire's first retired employee. Everybody calls her "Mom." She's sitting with her friend Buzz Barr. "This is the greatest thing in the world," said Barr.

"You do your job and I'll do mine," says Bunkii — no last name, just Bunkii — "it's a small town in Louisiana." Bunkii has little time to answer a few questions in between pouring coffee, serving food and dishing out desserts.

"Why do you like working at Claire's?"

"I get to be mean to people for three minutes a day," she jokes. Bunkii's been working here for over 10 years. She calls everybody "Kid." She pours another cup of coffee and advises: "save some room for dessert, Kid."

Cooks Monty Ray and George Harrison have been here since 4 o'clock in the morning, and worked the past two nights before that. Barbara Lovelace is slicing pumpkin and blueberry pies. Andy Sunell is the other waitress.

Steve Johnson is bussing tables, helping out, keeping it low-key. You would never guess he owns the place.

Claire Johnson is in her element — sitting newcomers, greeting old friends, cooking, serving, clearing, and organizing — doing what needs to be done. The Captain of the Ship. Nobody looks frazzled, hurried or rushed. You say you're gluten intolerant — no problem, two minutes later, dinner is served.

"This was one of our best year's ever, good thing we cooked over 170 pounds of turkey," said Steve.

"I believe we are the only ones that do a free Thanksgiving meal for the community from here to River Road," said Claire.

Asked about memorable years past: "We've had some people who have come every year. Two years ago, a barbershop quartet came in and sang for two hours. One year, two opera stars on the way to Phoenix dropped in and sang arias. Last year a harp and flute player played."

Thanks. Giving. At Claire's those words are as meaningful and sweet as blueberry pie.

"It's just what we do," said Claire.

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