Plates of food flew out the window at a faster-than-usual pace last Wednesday at Claire’s Café in Catalina.

By 11:30 a.m., the restaurant had served more than 300 patrons, with an expectation of serving hundreds more by the end of the day. A great day for any restaurant — except on this day Claire’s didn’t charge a single dime for any plate of food.

“The purpose of this is camaraderie and community,” said Claire Johnson, who owns Claire’s Café with her husband Steve.

This Thanksgiving marks the 20th year running the Johnsons have opened their doors and their kitchen for a free holiday feast for anyone who walks in. The couple has run the restaurant at 16050 N. Oracle Road for 25 years.

“This is my most joyous day,” Claire said.

That joy is plain to see. Claire moves frantically through the kitchen into the dining room, greeting customers along the way.

“Thank you, folks,” Claire called to a leaving couple.

Regular customer Margit Bennett said the good food and Claire’s great attitude has kept her coming back.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Bennett said. “She’s a joy.”

Claire talks in rapid spurts, carrying on conversations with customers grateful for the free meal, and frantic employees calling for more pots of coffee and pitchers of tea.

She asks others about their families in a way that reveals a long familiarity with people beyond the typical diner-patron connection.

“We probably know about 90 percent of everyone’s names,” she said.

Steve said many of the regular customers have become almost like family.

“We like to say ‘thanks’ once a year,” Steve said.

Plus, he said the free Thanksgiving dinner gives folks the chance to meet people they might not otherwise know.

“The people who need it get to sit with the people who don’t need it,” Steve said.

Claire insists the act of generosity is not charity. A Chicago native, giving was ingrained in her decades ago.

“This is a passion,” she said. “I used to have soup kitchen in Chicago.”

The restaurant’s vendors also stepped in to lend a hand, donating paper plates and other products to ease the costs, which Claire estimates were more than $3,000 just for the food.

“I made 60 pounds of green beans,” she said. “I’m not going to run out.” Just in case, the kitchen staff already had fired up some carrots if the beans ran low.

The restaurant bought 54 whole turkeys and 135 pound of additional boneless cuts for the day. More than 500 people stopped in for the free meal, and some 60 more had it delivered.

As if the free food wasn’t enough, the restaurant collected cash donations for the Community Food Bank. By the end of the day, Claire’s collected more than $400 for the food bank.

Claire’s Café

16140 N. Oracle Road


Open Daily 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Community Food Bank

3003 S. Country Club Road


11734 W. Grier Road



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