March 17, 2010

Best of holiday Traditions


SACO — For most restaurants, the operative word on Christmas Day is \"closed.\"

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Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Leon "Joe" Hadiaris with his daughter Jenny at the Saco Dairy Queen where they were cutting potatoes in preperation for providing dinner for hundreds who would otherwise go without this Christmas. This is the 11th year that the Hadiaris family has provided Christmas dinner for the community.

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Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Leon "Joe" Hadiaris and his daughter Jenny Hadiaris cut potatoes at the Saco Dairy Queen in preperation for providing dinner for hundreds who would otherwise go without this Christmas. This is the 11th year that the Hadiaris family has provided Christmas dinner for the community at Traditions Italian Ristorante in Saco.

Not so at Traditions Italian Ristorante, a cozy, upscale eatery on Main Street.

Beginning at 1 p.m. today, diners will line up by the dozen for their choice of roasted stuffed chicken or ham with raisin sauce, along with mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, cranberry sauce, hot rolls and a slice of any one of the numerous pies lining the bar (which, alas, will be closed).

By late afternoon, 200 or more people will have been served. Another 75 scattered throughout the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach area will receive the same meals, piping hot, delivered right to their doors.

And the bill? Forget about it.

How about a tip? Not necessary.

It\'s all free.

\"The people are great – they\'re so appreciative and so grateful,\" said Leon \"Joe\" Hadiaris, sitting in the near-empty restaurant Wednesday afternoon. \"You wish you could do more.\"

As if he\'s not already doing enough.

It all started back in 1999. Hadiaris was in upstate New York with his wife, Sue, and daughter, Jenny, to see his son, J.D., play hockey for Colby College against Skidmore College.

Stopping into a restaurant for a quick bite, he noticed several newspaper clippings on the wall – all about how the business\'s owner put on free dinners every Thanksgiving and Christmas for those with no place else to go.

\"We should do that,\" Joe told Sue. \"For Christmas.\"

\"Joe, we have kids,\" Sue replied. \"How about the Saturday before Christmas?\"

\"No,\" replied Joe. \"It has to be Christmas.\"

A bit of background: Decades ago, Joe\'s father and uncles owned and operated what was then The Plaza restaurant, at Main and Water streets. Joe bought the business in 1981 and ran it until 1996.

Two years later, Joe leased the property to Dave Kerry, Doug Murray and Jeff Ross, who spruced the place up and renamed it Traditions.

Returning home from that trip to New York, Joe stopped by to tell Kerry about the free holiday dinners.

\"You think that\'s something we might be able to do here?\" he asked.

\"You own this place, don\'t you?\" replied Kerry.

And so it began.

Every Christmas since – this is the 11th – Kerry and his partners have turned their restaurant over to the Hadiaris family for what Kerry aptly calls \"what Christmas is all about.\"

\"These folks,\" said Kerry, \"they do it completely the way it\'s supposed to be done.\"

Amen to that.

The Hadiarises\' goal: To ensure that nobody in this neck of the woods has to spent Christmas Day alone or hungry (or both). And to do it with a sense of dignity and grace – right down to reservations and table service – that make every diner feel like, somehow, on this day, they too have been blessed.

There\'s the family with four kids who come every year – the gratitude in the parents\' eyes is a Christmas carol unto itself.

There\'s the elderly lady who shows up in her finest fur coat – on her way out one year, she took Sue\'s hand and said quietly, \"You\'ll never know how much this meant to me.\"

There\'s the homeless woman who wears four coats and often sleeps on park benches downtown. One year, walking into the restaurant with a rose someone had left beside her, she announced, \"Santa came while I was asleep!\"

There\'s the young guy who wandered in one year with neither a reservation nor a clue what was going on.

\"Oh no,\" he said, turning to leave after realizing what he\'d walked into. \"I\'m a student at UNE and I didn\'t have anywhere else to go. I\'m just looking for an open restaurant.\"

\"That\'s exactly why we\'re here,\" Sue told him. \"Sit down.\"

He did. And when he was finished, the stranger sitting next to him gave him a ride back to campus.

Then there\'s the elderly woman who called last week and asked if it\'s true that the Hadiarises deliver.

\"Well, we do try to encourage people to come as much as possible,\" Sue told her. \"Can you make it down to the restaurant?\"

\"It would be hard,\" the woman replied apologetically. \"I\'m 89 and I\'m an invalid. And my sister is 92.\"

\"We deliver,\" replied Sue.

Truth be told, it takes far more than Joe, Sue and their two now-grown kids (Jenny works for an investment bank in New York City; J.D. is a local lawyer) to pull this off.

For starters, every last morsel of food is donated. Performance Food Group (the restaurant\'s distributor), provides the entrees, Country Kitchen-Lepage Bakeries drops off the rolls, and all of the pies are baked by the employees at Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution.

And the work force, well, let\'s just call that a family reunion: J.D.\'s new bride, Ari, has joined the ranks; Mike and Kathy (Sue\'s sister) Coster come from Falmouth with their kids, Jack and Maggie; Dan and Patty (also Sue\'s sister) Parker come from Cumberland with daughters Libby and Anna.

Also reporting for duty each year are the Hadiarises\' neighbors, Dr. Les Tripp and his wife, Mary Alice – when Uncle Dan cut himself on the ham slicer a few years back, Doc Tripp sutured him up right on the spot, slipped a sterile rubber glove over the wound and sent Dan back to work in the kitchen.

\"It\'s like a well-oiled machine,\" said Jenny, who oversees the home-delivery operation. \"We\'ve got J.D. mashing potatoes, Patty serves the stuffing, Dad\'s cooking the chickens, Mike is the dishwasher \"

In other words, the Hadiarises actually aren\'t giving up their family Christmas at all. They just happen to invite a couple hundred other guests who otherwise might not be so lucky.

And, after 10 years and counting, they can\'t imagine spending this day any other way.

\"You walk out the door at the end of the day and you\'re greasy and dirty and sweaty,\" said Sue. \"You feel exhausted, but you feel sooo good.\"

As she spoke, an elderly woman walked into the restaurant.

\"Could I put my name down for Christmas?\" she asked tentatively.

\"Absolutely you can,\" Sue said, jumping up. \"You\'ve been here before!\"

\"Yes,\" the woman said with a smile. \"I was here last year.\"

\"Wonderful!\" said Sue. \"And how many would you like a reservation for?\"

\"Just one,\" said the woman, who said her name was Teresa. \"For right when you start.\"

\"That\'s 1 o\'clock, Teresa,\" Sue said warmly, penciling her name into the reservation book. \"We\'ll look for you then.\"

As Teresa left, Sue looked over at her husband. \"I\'m just so proud of him,\" she said. \"I never would have thought of this.\"

Joe, whose days are normally consumed teaching alternative education at Thornton Academy and owning and operating the local Dairy Queen (it\'s his day-before staging area for the Christmas dinner), waves away such platitudes.

The \"real heroes,\" he said, are the volunteers who report day in and day out at the soup kitchens, the food pantries, the shelters and other places where the need never ends.

The way Joe looks at it, this is just his family\'s way of giving them a much-deserved day off – and in the process appreciating that the most valuable Christmas gifts don\'t always come with colorful bows and fancy wrapping paper.

\"This just costs us a little bit of our time,\" Joe said. \"Everybody can give that.\"

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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