Christmas as a Community

On December 1st, 2019, I had the pleasure of sitting down with my boss, keystone community member Thomas “Tommy” Hunter for an interview about “Tommy’s Annual Community Christmas Dinner.” While as of late, I have spent most of my Sunday’s at Tommy’s, it has normally been with an apron on while running plates of food to hungry students and Kingston locals. This Sunday, however, I had the chance to sit at the coveted back booth with a hot cup of coffee and Tommy himself. 

Having just gotten in from his morning workout, Tommy was all smiles as he made his way through the small, 1950’s-themed diner, taking time to stop at nearly every table and chat with guests. Due in part to the bitter cold as well as to the fact that many students have gone home to prepare for exams, most of the patrons in the diner were regulars, and greeted Tommy with the sort of familiarity that can truly only be found in small cities like Kingston. When he finally did make his way to the back booth--a favourite amongst guests and staff alike--I was nearly finished my second cup of coffee and my stomach was growling in anticipation of the breakfast I planned on ordering post-interview. After greetings and questions of how our days were going, we began the interview!

 

(Note: answers are based on what I was able to jot down and phrasing may not be exact.)

So, can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Absolutely! My name is Thomas Hunter, I was born and raised in Kingston--or rather just outside of Kingston, on a farm. I spent my early 20s travelling, and I’ve pretty much always worked in restaurants. I really enjoy hard core punk rock and I love motorcycles. My go-to drink is scotch, specifically Macallan Gold. 

What about Tommy’s? Can I get some background?

Essentially, Tommy’s is one big manifestation of my personality. It was definitely in the making for years. Growing up, my friends and I would hang out in Morrison’s, eating their 2-egg breakfast and playing games of euchre. The restaurant was opened on March 24, 2011. 

Why the ‘50’s theme?

Well you see, I’m a bit obsessed with ‘50’s and ‘60’s Americana: rockabilly, Harleys, rock‘n’roll, the food, drinking. And I mean, I have always loved diners and diner food; they’re simple, easy, and what I enjoy.

On average, how many students do you think you feed, per semester?

I have no clue, there are so many! We do have a solid foundation of locals [and regulars] though. 

I know it’s a hard question, but what is you all-time favourite menu item?

I can’t answer that--I mean, the answer changes all the time. I would say my favourite menu item is one that isn’t even on the menu yet. Like I mentioned, I grew up on a farm. Now, when we would ‘go to market’ to sell cattle, there were always these little joints that everyone would go to for lunch. My favourite thing to get was a “Hot Hamburger Sandwich,” which is essentially  beef patties on top of white bread, smothered in gravy and, sometimes, sauteed onions. We’re currently working on adding it to the menu at Tommy’s, and will be adding swiss cheese on top of it to make it extra decadent. 

What would you say are the top 3 most instagrammable things you can get at Tommy’s?

Definitely the Cream Cheese Pancake Club, milkshakes, and our Huevos Rancheros.

The Cream Cheese Pancake Club: “3 buttermilk pancakes stacked and layered with our banana cream cheese and fresh sliced berries. Topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberry and blueberry coulis.”

I think we’ve covered our bases in terms of the basics. Now, onto questions about the Christmas dinner and hampers. What got you started with this community event?

The Community Christmas Eve Dinner started 6 years ago, in 2013. So, I mean, I guess I can remember the exact moment when I decided I needed to do something. And so I was walking up Barrie St., and there’s this old church on Barrie that used to be a shelter, but I had walked by and noticed that it had been shut down as a shelter and had been purchased or leased and was being used by Queen’s as some sort of club. And when I saw that and I realized--and I knew that another shelter was close to being shut down--you know, I just thought, “What is there that I can do?” 

How many families do you think this helps every year?

Well, so last year [2018], we delivered 132 grocery hampers--so each grocery hamper contains a 15lb turkey, a 10lb bag of potatoes, dinner rolls, cranberries...everything you need for a Christmas dinner, including a frozen pie for you to cook it yourself. So, those families range from 2 to 14 people; anything over 6 people and we give you a second turkey or a second hamper. We’d rather people be left with too many leftovers after Christmas than none at all. On Christmas Eve last year, I think 118 people ate in the restaurant, and we delivered another 181 meals, so in total our number was around 740 people, last year. 

Now, it didn’t start out with so many. The first year, we strictly did a dinner at Tommy’s and we fed about 118 people that year. A little old lady called me the next year, two months before Christmas, and said that she really wanted to come to the Christmas dinner, but she was unable to because she has vision problems and no mode of transportation, so she can’t cook for herself and she also has no family to help get her anywhere...so she was telling us that she was going to try and find a way to get up to the restaurant for the dinner. I told her that if that was an issue, we were going to bring dinner to her, which was immediately when we decided to start doing deliveries. Deliveries, right from year one, have surpassed the number of dinners in the restaurant, for a variety of reasons. A lot of people aren’t able to get out here; a lot of them are low-income and don’t have a car, and a lot of people are very, very old and can barely leave their apartments at all. We also have some people that have extreme social anxiety. There’s actually one gentleman who, we know to go around the back of his house and leave the food in his barbecue, knock on the door, and we leave, because he doesn’t want to see people. 

Tommy and Jon, the head chef at Tommy’s.

[At this point, a mother and her daughter (approx. 5) walk by the back booth, and Tommy turns to her with the biggest smile, taking an impromptu break from the interview to speak to the little girl and ask her: “How was swimming today?” The little girl and her mother come into Tommy’s nearly every Sunday between swimming lessons and gymnastics to get breakfast, which is usually pancakes or a grilled cheese sandwich. Knowing his regulars and being able to remember things about them like their go-to order or what extracurriculars they are participating in is part of what makes Tommy such a fantastic restauranter and community member.]

 

Sorry about that, where was I?

Deliveries and social anxiety:

Yeah, so I mean, like I said, delivery has surpassed eating in the restaurant every year. But you know, there’s a lot of people that don’t have homes for us to deliver to. They stay in shelters, so it’s nice for them to come in, and when they do come in, I have a big pep talk with my volunteers every year and I say, “You’re not to treat it [the dinner]  like it’s a soup kitchen...I want them treated like they’re in a fine dining restaurant.” From the time they come in to the time they leave, we treat them like they are in a 5-star restaurant and in the manner that these folks are paying $500 for their meal. We try and give them a little bit of a service and a dignity that they might not get regularly waiting in line at a soup kitchen...that being said, we don’t serve alcohol [during this event]. The regular kitchen is closed, and the only food we serve is the dinner. 

Do you have any goals you’re hoping to meet this year with the dinner or with donations?

No, I mean...my thought is, if less people need it, the better. If less people in Kingston are using it, maybe people are doing better. But that’s not the case, it grows every single year. And last year, we didn’t even have the restaurant. We closed down because of the flood. So last year--and I mean we don’t call this a Tommy’s event, it’s a community event--we didn’t even have a restaurant to use, so I had the local salon down the road, autohouse Kingston, Inkwell tattoo shop [they all had a deep freezer]. We had drop-off points all around Kingston [for donations]...and then luckily, because I have so many good friends in this industry, I had other friends that own restaurants give me their restaurant [space and kitchen] to host the dinner. So yeah, I mean, there’s no goals. We just say [that] we don’t want to ever have to say “no” to a family that says they need help. If someone’s going to ask for help, we want to be able to say “yes”. Last year, we hit the point where we were a week before hamper delivers, and we were short--we had less than a fifth of what was required to make our dinners happen. So I just put a bit of a plea on Facebook [for more donations], and in 2 and a half days, 56 hours after that post, I had raised an additional $4400 and had received an extra 50 frozen turkeys dropped off. 

You mentioned before that the dinner is run with the help of volunteers...are they usually your employees? Friends? Family?

No, actually. I mean, my employees work super, super hard and I don’t expect them to be here on Christmas Eve. A lot of them go away, you know students going away from Christmas, back to Toronto or wherever...so to be honest with you, none of my employees have ever been there, because a lot of them are from out-of-town, and that’s okay! To be honest, on average I’d say I turn down 50 to 100 volunteers every year. The Christmas Eve volunteers have been the same volunteers since year one...a couple people have stopped because [of changed commitments], but they don’t have to feel bad because there are so many volunteers. A lot of the volunteers, while they aren’t employees, they are ex-employees, so they know the kitchen [and restaurant] really well. I work in the kitchen with two of my former employees, and Trigger--from The Drunken Trigger--and my wife [Marni] help direct the front-of-house operation [with a couple of servers].

Tommy and his wife, Marni. 

What is the last day to make a donation to the Community Christmas Eve Dinner or the grocery hampers?

In terms of food for the hampers, the last day to donate would be December 19th. Otherwise, we take donations right up until the Christmas Eve dinner itself. Any extra donations that come in--even, people just show up with random stuff the day of the event--we will make sure people receive it! Last year, we had enough extra money that we ended up doing care packages for everyone, and “keep-warm” packages for people. So throughout January, on really cold days, we would drive around and give out these packages, [which had] full thermals, a toque, gloves, wool socks, and some granola bars, to people on the street. Last year our extra food--we had 36 turkeys left--went to Next Church. They work a lot with street people, and they use those turkeys all throughout the winter and host free Sunday dinners. 

Do you directly partner with any businesses or organizations in Kingston to run the Christmas Eve dinner? 

Partner, not so much, but we have a couple of key donors who always go above and beyond. So last year, the dinner became so big that just me doing it by myself, just became a lot. So, Autohouse Kingston has partnered with us and has taken on half of the administrative end of things...he’s the one in charge of receiving all the orders, responding to all the messages, and also laying out the map so we can send our drivers in the right direction [for deliveries]...And then there are some other businesses in town like Eastern Real Estate--he is always our biggest charitable donor. He calls us the day before and says “what do you need” and he covers it, no questions asked.  

That’s amazing! Okay, so two more questions. What is your ideal Christmas dinner and dessert?

Oh man, alright, I’ll be honest, everyone [says they] “love” turkey, but no. No one loves turkey; people love anything that covered in butter, salt, pepper, cranberries, and gravy. For my family, we have a small family dinner, and we immediately get some nice ribeye steaks. I’m going for a ribeye steak over turkey any day of the week. [In terms of dessert], so this is super not fancy, but President’s Choice comes out with, every year a month before Christmas, with this chocolate and candy cane ice cream, and I eat just an absurd amount of that. 

Finally, do you have any advice for entrepreneurs or young people who also want to start a restaurant or want to start doing something so big with community outreach? 

Well, those are two different questions completely. I mean, if you want to start a restaurant, you need to [have worked] in a restaurant. I’ve seen a lot of people get into restaurants later in life who had gone to university and gotten a certain career, and then decided to stop that career and open a restaurant. And restaurants are a difficult thing, you know 85% fail in Canada in the first 5 years, and 35% fail in year one. When you go and open a restaurant, you are almost guaranteed to fail, so you have to love what you do. And I mean, I’m not very good at many things, but I’m good with people, I’m good at bartending, and I’m good at cooking, so it makes sense for me to be in restaurants. This is a true thing, every general manager or owner I’ve met, including myself, who wasn’t just some rich kid, started in the dishpit. I started at McDonald’s, and I was so excited to advance beyond that and be in the dishpit at an actual restaurant. In regards to community outreach, that’s a tough one. I mean, there’s always places to volunteer, but being a business owner puts me in a unique situation in that I’m just a Facebook post away from starting a charity event. But just look around, there’s always someone that needs help. If someone wants to volunteer, reach out; there’s always someone looking for volunteers or for donations. A lot of it is fundraising, and I’m not saying that you can just throw money at problems, but money does solve a lot of problems...people need compassion, but they also need food. 

Thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Well I appreciate this interview, and if it helps us raise some more money to put towards the dinner then that’s awesome. You know, we’re still looking to raise some money for the event, so anywhere that you can share it is great. But you know, I also know that a lot of Queen’s students don’t fit that cliche of being a rich student--I know that a lot of students are hungry, so don’t be ashamed to come in for dinner on Christmas Eve! It’s from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM, and it’s a free dinner, come in and enjoy it!

If you would like to make a donation to Tommy’s for their 6th annual Christmas Eve dinner and/or grocery hampers, or would even like to attend, please check out their event page on Facebook for all of the details.