A side of love & a touch of home in Chelmsford
By Rita Savard
Henry Cauthen was in the mood for coffee and biscuits.
“Go to Jessie’s,” a friend suggested.
When he finally made his way there, the retired U.S. Army vet found more than delicious home-style cooking at the cozy diner tucked in a corner of Chelmsford’s Central Square.
At Jessie’s Place, dinner is occasionally free and comes with a family at no extra charge.
On the second Monday of every month, beginning at 5pm, meals are on the house for anyone who walks through the door. All you have to do is show up with an appetite.
Think of it as sort of a private stimulus plan, says Tim Holden, a Tewksbury firefighter who volunteers on second Mondays.
“It’s not a feed the hungry thing,” Holden says. “It’s a feed everybody thing. No matter who you are or where you come from, it’s nice — even if only for a day — to get something for nothing.”
Jessie’s owner, Jessica Kelley, known by locals from her days as a bartender and waitress at the former Chelmsford landmark, Skip’s Restaurant, says the once-a-month freebie is a way to pay homage to the folks who keep her in business.
About a year ago, she started hauling over food for community dinners at The Chelmsford Street Baptist Church in Lowell. But in the end, she found it easier to serve the food fresh and piping hot from her own kitchen. The restaurant’s setting also helped draw a much more diverse crowd.
“My family grew up without having much of anything,” Kelley says. “That can be a really embarrassing thing for people. Even though I’d be starving, I remember not taking the free lunch at school because I didn’t want to be singled out. When you open your door to everybody, I think that actually helps those who might need it the most, feel better about taking it. Suddenly, everybody is on the same level.”
Even for those who can afford to buy dinner, Kelley adds “we all work hard and everybody deserves a special treat once in a while.”
Her infectious optimism draws good will like moths to a flame.
Locals like landscaper Bruce Cumming, Jessie’s bar manager Kayla Schenk, longtime friend Val Gikas, and many other behind-the-scenes and anonymous donors, all give time and money to keep the dinners going.
Not having to worry about feeding the cash register, customers pay for their meals with hugs, handshakes and personal blessings. And many tend to tip servers generously.
At 5 o’clock on the dot, a line of patrons starts streaming in. A lawyer and a blue-collar laborer. A doctor, an auto mechanic, a pre-school teacher. Retirees and students. Some guests collect unemployment. Some make six-figure salaries. Above all, a sign reads: Enter as strangers, leave as friends.
Yelling over the clank of silverware and the hum of conversation, Holden gives everyone walking through the door a hearty football coach’s welcome. Some faces are new, some he’s known for years.
“It’s happy hour for people who like to eat,” says Kathy Wright, of Lowell, who, along with her 15-year-old daughter, Patricia, keeps coming back for the community vibe.
By 6 o’clock, all 55 chairs are full. Waitresses shuttle steaming plates of pot roast, honey fried chicken and award-winning clam chowder from one smiling customer to the next.
Oscar Forero, his wife Barbara and their 9-year-old daughter, Amanda, say their first time coming in won’t be the last.
“When you hear the words ‘free dinner,’ your mind tends to paint a different picture,” Barbara says. “This blew my expectations away. It’s nice to know there’s still some kindness in the world.”
Since his first meal, Henry Cauthen has become a regular at Jessie’s. The jokes and banter take him back to simpler times, when he was a just a kid growing up in a suburb of New Jersey.
He sips his coffee, takes a bite of pot roast and seems to drift for a moment.
“It definitely feels like being home,” he says. “You can always count on the food being good, a little bit of sass and a roomful of people treating you like one of their own.”
Jessie’s Place, 11 Central Sq., Chelmsford | Mon & Sun, 6am-2pm; Tues thru Sat, 6am-10pm. Lunch begins at 11am except for Sun; breakfast served every day until 2pm | jessiesplacerestaurant.com| 978-710-0765