SPRING HILL — Before she sat down for her coffee, pancakes and eggs at the Press Box Restaurant on Thursday morning, Nadine Seaver hauled a big white box into the back of the dining area.
The package encased a cornucopia of goods for needy families: spaghetti, canned chili, vegetables, peanut butter and grape jelly were among the items. Nearby, donated soups, cereal, ramen noodles and pounds of dry Kibbles 'n Bits overflowed boxes lined up against the wall.
"There's a lot of hungry people," Seaver said as she sat at a booth and sipped her coffee minutes later. "And kids have to have peanut butter and jelly."
The Press Box Restaurant, at 5242 Mariner Blvd. near Bali Lane, gave away more than 1,300 free meals Thursday to customers who brought in food for the Nativity Lutheran Church Food Pantry or the Humane Society of the Nature Coast.
Throughout the day, workers at the Food Pantry and the Humane Society came by at least four times each to clear the back of the restaurant of donated goods. The effort also raised $1,000 for the Humane Society.
Donna Marklinsky, owner of the restaurant, held the event to woo new customers and ramp up food donations for local charities, which she collects all year long in a box at the back of the restaurant. She said the economy has taken a toll on her donation boxes, and she hopes this event will remind people to bring nonperishable items when they come eat.
"This is more food than I've had in months," she said as she gestured toward the pile.
Customers who didn't know about the special and didn't bring donations could get free meals if they put $5 in the collection jar for the Humane Society. Alternatively, customers could promise to bring donations on the next visit.
Misty Rummel, who has worked as a cook at the restaurant for more than four months, briskly painted butter on toast and smacked grits into bowls as she explained that most of the morning customers were regulars.
The pace picked up in the afternoon when 106.3 FM radio broadcast live from the restaurant.
"There was a big, big wait at lunchtime," Marklinsky said as she rushed between tables at 4 p.m. "I'm so grateful."
Ellie and Don Paschky, who are retired and live in Spring Hill, eat at the Press Box about three times per week.
The Paschkys enjoy the sassy atmosphere (signs on the walls say things like, "Warning: Retiree knows it all and has the time to tell you). They also like that the owners remember their regular order of pancakes, eggs and sausage.
"They're lovely people," Ellie Paschky said. "They're really good-hearted."
Dawn Vincent, who brought her two kids on their way to school at Explorer K-8, lugged in five bags of assorted dog food.
Her son, Carl Blanchard-Vincent, 13, said his mom usually prepares cereal or scrambled eggs for breakfast. But on Thursday, the family decided to donate to the Humane Society and take advantage of the free meal.
The Press Box Restaurant, which has been open more than six years, has seen better times, Marklinsky said. She used to squeeze about 500 people per day into her tiny 1,200-square-foot space. Now, it's closer to 250 people, she said.
The restaurant is doing better than most, she said. But she spent $2,000 in extra food for the event with the hope that it would drum up some future business.
"I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't hoping to attract some new customers," she said. "But it works out for the people who come in here and eat, it works out for the people and animals who get donations. It works out for everybody."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or [email protected]