It was the most ballyhooed beef barley soup Eula Rampi ever ate.
After the balloons and bell-ringing, the pictures and the escort to her table, Rampi caught her breath long enough to enjoy the 100,000th meal served by Community Café volunteers.
“I’ve been (here) one other time,” said the Fort Mill resident. “We came back as a group. It’s wonderful what they do here.”
The Lake Wylie Lutheran Church site had the honor early in its Friday lunch service. Rampi, on her way to a card game with friends, was lucky No. 36. The Phyllises made sure of it.
Phyllis Shvidrik began on drinks, then recruited Phyllis Hagman, who spent time delivering for the volunteer-run Café, which serves free, fresh-cooked meals weekly. Now both – there are three Phyllises most Fridays – click a counter and greet guests as they enter.
“You feel like you’re serving people,” said Shvidrik, an original Café volunteer.
The first Community Cafe opened in January 2010 at River Hills Community Church in Lake Wylie. Staff and members there wanted to help as lean economic years took their toll. They had a shared vision not only of free lunches, but of people sitting around the same table who ordinarily wouldn’t come together.
Since then they’ve closed their original location and opened two more, at Lake Wylie Christian Assembly and Lake Wylie Lutheran. In 2011, volunteers started up a Cafe at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Fort Mill, then turned it over to the church after a little more than a year and 10,000 meals.
Judy and Bob Tilley didn’t get to serve Rampi on Friday. They washed her dishes.
“I’m glad to contribute,” Bob Tilley said. “It’s something I can do, and we’re pretty good at it.”
The Tilleys began washing dishes with the Café within six months of the first free lunch. Bob Tilly said he doesn’t mind doing something most people don’t enjoy at their own homes, let alone for strangers by the hundreds of dirty dishes each week.
“I get to do them at home, too,” he said. “She cooks, I clean up.”
Attention Friday rested on the landmark beef and barley vegetable soup, grilled cheese sandwich and salad plate. Ask volunteers privately, and they direct all attention to founder and head chef Don Murfin. He’d rather focus on the community not just of diners, but volunteers and supporters.
“We try to really make it feel like home,” Murfin said.
Café kitchens deliver to children without homes and seniors who can’t leave the homes they’re in. Adults with special needs sit beside others who only need an extra napkin, a drink or dessert from the long table on the left, or a listening ear.
Senior groups come by the busload. They’ve had people who couldn’t pay if they wanted to, and others who pay more than market price on a soup and sandwich lunch as they pass the donation pot. So far, the Cafés haven’t run out of money. They served toward their next 100,000 just as soon as Rampi took her seat.
Between the two Cafés, volunteers have served up as many as 800 meals in a week. New partnerships form, like one where the Fort Mill Care Center provides names for lunch delivery. Through September, the Cafés surpassed their entire 2013 meal total in 2014, with three full months remaining. Not bad, Murfin said, considering volunteers never entirely know what to expect from a given service.
“You never know,” he said. “We just always prepare like we’ll have a lot to serve.”
How many are 100,000 meals?
Nearby Tega Cay Elementary School opened in August with 724 students. Serving that many lunches every school day, cafeteria staff won’t pass out their sixth-digit plate until April 7, 2015.
If every licensed restaurant, bakery, grocery store and gas station grill in South Carolina brought five meals to a covered dish social, they’d still be about 15,000 meals shy of 100,000.
Or try this one. If the same person ate three meals a day on his way to the 100,000 mark, it would take him more than 91 years.
Slice it any way, and Friday’s milestone is one small plate for the kitchen, one giant helping for the community.
“It’s a lot,” Murfin said.
“It’s a lot of meals.”