LONG GROVE – It’s heartbreaking to know there are hundreds of military veterans living right here in Lake County who are unable to enjoy a proper holiday meal, said Tom Gescheidle, owner and head chef at Smokin’ T’s BBQ in Long Grove.
“We often take for granted our ability to gather together as a family and enjoy a home-cooked meal during the holidays," Gescheidle said.
Since 2008, Smokin’ T’s, supported by a host of community volunteers, has been committed to making the season brighter for veterans in need, many of whom are unemployed, disabled and on welfare.
Gescheidle said the annual Military Meal Deal Program is an opportunity for his restaurant, customers and community groups to give back.
On Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve, more than 6,000 pounds of fully cooked meals will be delivered to the homes of about 150 veterans to enjoy with their families.
“We prepare the entire meal at the restaurant,” said Gescheidle, who opened his family business in 2007. “It takes hundreds of hours. My team of 15 staff members work around the clock during the 48 hours prior to delivery.”
A complete holiday meal includes a whole smoked turkey, cooked in one of Smokin’ T’s multiple smokers; sage stuffing and giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, petite corn muffins, green beans and mushrooms, and pumpkin pies with whipped cream. The meal is completely cooked and delivered to the veteran families to be reheated at their convenience.
Gescheidle said it brings the staff and volunteers immense joy to know that as they sit down to their own holiday meal, a veteran in need is also enjoying a special experience with their family.
“It’s our turn to be their heroes,” Gescheidle said.
The veterans who receive the holiday meals are selected by the Veterans Assistance Commission of Lake County based on their participation in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“This is an opportunity that once a year, veterans can have their extended family at their home for Thanksgiving [or Christmas] dinner,” said Michael Peck, commission superintendent. “Let’s bring a veteran’s family together and put a smile on their faces with a real dinner.”
At a food festival a few months ago, Gescheidle said his family was working Smokin’ T’s booth when a woman came up to the counter and asked to speak to him.
“With tears in her eyes she said, ‘You don’t know me, but your family provided mine with a Christmas Eve dinner this past winter. You will never understand how much that meant to my husband and to our family,’” Gescheidle said.
“Moments like those make us want to do produce even more meals every year, and with everyone’s help we can continue to do so," he added.
It takes a community effort to make the Military Meal Deal Program a success.
Volunteers include members of the Lincolnshire and Lake Zurich Rotary Clubs, the Rotary Club of Long Grove, Kildeer and Hawthorne Woods, the American Legion and Stevenson High School’s Students Helping Soldiers Club, which has been delivering Thanksgiving Day meals for years.
The students arrive at Smokin’ T’s at about 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day to load up the meals for delivery. It takes them a few hours to complete their run.
“We roll up in a bus with 14 kids. The veterans love it,” said Stephanie Bush, club coordinator. “There’s a few homes we’ve been to a couple times over the years and they love when we get there.”
“They come to the door with smiles on their faces," Bush said. "It makes the whole experience worthwhile.”
Bush said it’s a great opportunity for the students to experience the satisfaction of helping people face-to-face, as opposed to making donations or holding fundraisers, which the club, established after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, does as well.
Though Smokin’ T’s is thankful for their assistance, Bush said it’s really the restaurant that should be thanked.
“The meal they provide is just amazing. It takes a lot of willpower for the kids to keep their hands off during the bus ride,” she joked.
How to help
The cost to fully sponsor a Thanksgiving meal is $145, plus tax, while a full Christmas meal is $160, plus tax. Sponsors are acknowledged on a sponsor board at the front of Smokin’ T’s dining room to thank them for their generosity. Contact the restaurant at 847-726-0726 to become a sponsor.
Smaller donations are also appreciated. Donation buckets can be found at the counter of the restaurant, located at 3976 Route 22, Long Grove.
Gescheidle expects to have all of their veteran recipients signed up two days prior to Thanksgiving. Any donations to arrive after will go toward the Christmas Eve meal.
Volunteers are also needed to make meal deliveries on Thanksgiving Day. Those interested can sign up at the restaurant or call 847-726-0726. Visit www.smokintsbbq.com for more information.