SPRING HILL — Joe and Valerie Cuce were all smiles Wednesday afternoon, even though their restaurant hadn't earned a dime all day.
Instead of plying the cash register with green, customers at the Jersey Cafe paid with hugs, handshakes and personal blessings.
That's what you get when you fling your doors open and offer anyone who stops by a free meal.
For the owners of the 48-seat diner tucked inside the Western Way Plaza on State Road 50, the joy of giving was its own reward.
"I've never had a better day in my life," Valerie Cuce said as she tended the drink dispenser behind the counter. "It's a madhouse, but it's been wonderful."
Patrons began lining up well before the 7 a.m. opening to take advantage of the daylong offer. Anything on the menu was up for grabs — from pancakes, eggs and sausage to a heaping concoction known as "Hoboken hash."
Outside, server Lisa Boyle kept track of the crowd on her clipboard. Whenever a table emptied, new customers were ushered in. Waits were not terribly long.
Diners Toni Hunter, Patti Hobson and Mary Cunningham estimated their wait at about 35 minutes. But it was well worth it, they said.
"The food and the service has been terrific," Hunter said. "It's a nice gesture, especially for the retirees in the area."
Cuce, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., said he wanted to do the giveaway as a way to thank the Hernando County community for 25 years of business. This seemed like a good time to give back, he said, considering the sorry state of the economy and all of the back-to-school shopping people have to do.
"That's all that this is about," Cuce said. "They gave me a career. That's something. I'm always thankful for that."
Media exposure on radio, television and through the newspaper helped get the word out to the hungry public. Cuce said the restaurant turned over several times during the breakfast and lunch hours. He estimated that he had enough food on hand to serve about 500 patrons.
"We're running low on some things," Cuce said about four hours before the 8 p.m. closing hour. "I'm hoping we'll last."
Cuce declined to talk about how much the giveaway was costing him. He said customers were gracious throughout the day, and many tipped their servers generously.
The only glitch involved the restaurant's ice machine, which couldn't keep up with the demand, forcing periodic runs to the store to replenish the supply.
Ben Barrett, an occasional customer at the eatery, said that the giveaway exemplified the Cuces' reputation for generosity and hospitality.
"These are good people," he said. "They've always taken care of their customers. That's why people keep coming back."
Cuce said he wants to keep the spirit going and is planning soon to roll back menu prices to 2005 levels, about a 20 percent reduction from what they were.
Said Cuce: "I never got into this business for the money. I'm happy and I'm comfortable. Now I want to give something back."
Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.