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Nothing can stop woman's holiday tradition

CLEARWATER — She rose early Wednesday, pulled on black slacks and a hat with a leopard print band. By 6 a.m., she was driving through the dark to her downtown diner.

Angie Chaconas, 74, had promised her son she would slow down. But there were hams to bake, pork to roast, stuffing to make — and 20 turkeys ready for the oven.

For Thanksgiving, she planned to serve 500 people at Angie's Restaurant. Plus at least 130 more who would knock on her back door.

"I'm not sure I'm strong enough to get down to the bus station today," she said about 9 a.m. She turned to the dishwasher.

"Jude, after lunch, can you go hand out some fliers?"

• • •

Angie's Restaurant sits on the corner of Cleveland Street and Myrtle Avenue, a quick walk from the post office. Angie and her husband, Gus, opened it 35 years ago. Their three kids helped them gut the former chicken shack, install wide windows, build wooden booths.

The menu hasn't changed much over the years. You can still order breakfast all day. And $5.95 still buys a hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and a roll.

The servers know all the regulars by name: the lawyers wearing pressed suits and silk ties; moms feeding toddlers; old men in grease-stained jumpsuits. "Mr. Leroy," Leroy Mitchell, has eaten at least one meal at Angie's every day since it opened. "I just like the cooking, and the people are family," the retired security guard said, sopping up grits with his toast.

Though he's 79 — older than Angie — he calls her Mom. Everyone does.

"She looks after all of us," said Debora Harris, who has been waiting tables for three months. "Every day when I go home, she packs me soup so I'll have something to eat.

"And watching the way that woman works, knowing how she's hurting — there's just no way any of us can ever call in sick."

• • •

Angie grew up in Greece during World War II. Her father, a chef, was sent to fight, leaving her mom with seven young children. She remembers being hungry, her stomach aching so badly she couldn't sleep.

"Roll over," her mother would say. "Press your fist against your belly and it won't hurt so much."

When Angie was a teenager, her family moved to Chicago where her dad opened a drive-in. She ran the register and waited tables. He taught her to carve beef.

When you own your own restaurant, he told her, your family never goes hungry.

Angie married her high school sweetheart, Gus, and together they ran a diner in Chicago before moving their family to Florida in 1971. They bought a luncheonette in Dunedin, then the Clearwater cafe. For years, Angie's Restaurant was open 24/7. "When you're open all night," she said, "you get all kinds of characters."

Old ladies wheeling in on walkers, counting nickels for a cup of coffee. Men just off the Greyhound, with empty stomachs and wallets.

"In the early days, Mom would give them a pot to scrub or potatoes to peel before she fed them," said her youngest son, Louis, 46. "But after a while there got to be too many of them to put them all to work. So she'd just serve up their meals and send them out with leftovers."

• • •

The first few Thanksgivings, Angie didn't advertise. She would serve one homeless person a plate of turkey with all the fixings, and two more would show up.

Some of the paying customers complained about the smell, so she asked the folks getting free food to eat out back.

"They come in groups, some ask for 6 or 7 plates, for their friends," Angie said. She gives them as many as they want. "They can't eat more than one or two, so the rest must be to share."

About 30 years ago, she started handing out fliers. She would walk around bus depot, see someone sleeping on the bench and say, "Come have Thanksgiving with us. Just knock on the back door and a hot meal will be waiting."

While her children and grandchildren are feasting at home, Angie is in the restaurant ladling food into foam trays. Turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, corn, buttered rolls, a cup of soup, even a piece of homemade pie.

When her husband died of lung cancer 11 years ago, Angie gave the restaurant to her son, Louis. "Yes, I own it," he said. "But mom's still in charge."

He wanted to close the diner for Thanksgiving this year. His mom needed a rest. She looked so pale.

Instead, Angie decided they should stay open four hours longer, from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m. "More people are hungry this year," she said. "And no one should have to hold their stomach to keep it from hurting."

• • •

By noon Wednesday, she had rolled out the pie crusts, chopped turkey necks for the gravy and showed her cook how to stuff a duck.

She was exhausted.

"I'm going to sit down for a minute," she told the dishwasher.

She shuffled off to the restaurant office to rest. She had promised her son she wouldn't overdo it.

In June, Angie learned she has breast cancer. The six-hour chemo sessions stole her thick blond hair but didn't kill the tumor.

She was supposed to have a mastectomy last Friday. But she told the doctor it would have to wait until December. She's expecting people for Thanksgiving.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

Nothing can stop woman's holiday tradition 11/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 30, 2008 12:00am]
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