While many downtown Denton streets were quiet and nearly empty Christmas morning, people began to gather outside Sweetwater Grill & Tavern at about 9:30 a.m. — more than an hour before the restaurant opened to serve a free Christmas lunch to the community.
Blocks from the eatery at Elm and Walnut streets, laughter and Beatles melodies could be heard from the crowded restaurant as volunteers in Santa hats opened the doors throughout the morning and afternoon.
When the restaurant opened at 11 a.m., people flooded the restaurant, filled almost every table and made a dent in trays full of turkey, ham, green bean casserole and assorted holiday treats, said Karen Meredith, co-owner of the longtime Denton establishment.
“We wanted to get as many people as we could in here to eat,” she said.
This is the second year the restaurant has put on the dinner, and Meredith estimated that everything in the operation doubled since 2012 — donations, volunteers, food and visitors. So many people wanted to help put on the dinner that they had to turn potential volunteers away, Meredith said.
It also helped that this year there wasn’t a snowstorm, added local business owner Andre J. “Frenchy” Rheault, who was in charge of photography for the day.
“This year was well advertised, ... but there was a raging blizzard that was going on last year,” he said. “It was extremely cold and windy, which would have a tendency to keep the numbers down. That was the biggest difference.”
Several local businesses helped make the event larger than last year, Meredith said. With help raising funds and donated products like Jupiter House coffee and Beth Marie’s ice cream, the community came together to help those in need.
“What I like the most about this is the involvement of the community,” she said. “It’s a really nice collaboration and I think community’s so important, and I think this is really a great example of what Denton comes together to do.”
For diners, it was a chance to enjoy some warmth and feel the Christmas spirit. Denton resident Susie Lewis said she wasn’t able to spend Christmas with her family this year and will celebrate later this week. Going to Sweetwater was a way to have a hot meal and enjoy her community, she said.
“It’s a wonderful event,” Lewis said. “If I didn’t have anywhere like this to go, I’d be sitting at home watching ... stale movies. I can pass on the food, but the joy of being around other people is what I’m most appreciative for.”
Meredith, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Jim, said it was a way to combine their family, friends and community into one holiday event.
“We’ve had to make some adjustments with our family — we have nine grandkids and we raised four kids and their spouses — so we have a large family and they’ve embraced this,” she said. “This is totally different. We still have our Christmas, but now we finish our Christmas here and celebrate with the community and that makes me happy.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.