'Firehouse cafes' have hot meals for cold residents

HOLLIS – “I’m a terrible cook, and they don’t know,” Sue Towne joked while she and Judy McCoy counted out 140 taco shells. “They don’t care, as long as it’s hot.”

Since Friday, Sue, fire chief Rick Towne’s wife, Judy, the wife of the town’s emergency management director, Don McCoy, and several other women have been preparing hot lunches and suppers for crews from the public utilities, police and fire departments, at the town fire department’s kitchen, unofficially known as the Firehouse Cafe.

Sue Towne is the cafe’s kitchen manager. It’s a job, she said, she inherited from her mother-in-law, who was also a fire chief’s wife.

“My mother-in-law started in the ’60s and ’70s making bologna sandwiches,” Towne said.

It was Monday morning and she and Judy McCoy were opening boxes of taco shells and placing them on cookie sheets. On the counter were boxes of rice and jars of salsa and jalapeno peppers. In the refrigerator were packages of cheese and containers of sour cream.

The menu at the “cafe” has included spaghetti and meatballs, subs, homemade pea soup served with grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, American chop suey and other foods chosen to provide nutrition, energy and comfort for up to 50 guests, including not only emergency service personnel, but also residents without power who have stopped by the station to warm up, use the hot showers and fill jugs with potable water the fire department has made available to the public.

Police Lt. Jay Sartel of the Hollis Police Department has been working long hours since the Dec. 11 ice storm disabled the community and most of the state’s southern tier.

To compensate for the lost sleep, he drinks coffee, poured hot, but often turning lukewarm while he attends twice-daily emergency operations meetings, takes calls, and responds to other police business.

It has been the hot meals, however, prepared and served at the cafe, that have provided the high-test fuel Sartel and other public-safety workers and emergency crews have relied on to keep going. Sartel said the kitchen has even offered take-out.

Towne and McCoy couldn’t say on Monday how many meals they had prepared since the storm hit.

Breakfast has been available on a help-yourself basis at the fire station, while lunches and dinners have been sit-down or take-out options.

“You don’t think about what goes on behind the scenes,” Towne said as she bustled about the firehouse kitchen. “Almost half a million people are without power.”

About 12 miles west on Route 130, volunteers at the Brookline Fire Station, located next door to the town hall, were operating another firehouse cafe, similar in purpose and design.

That effort has been headed up by Sheryl Corey, wife of fire chief Charles Corey Sr.

Sheryl Corey also operates the fire department’s communications radio.

On Friday morning, Corey and her crew prepared egg sandwiches and coffee for about 25 town public works employees who arrived at the station around 5:30 a.m., after working all night.

“You’ve gotta keep them going,” Sheryl Corey said. “Keep them nourished and well-hydrated so they can be at the top of their game.” Like her counterpart in Hollis, Corey resisted taking credit for the food service, even though she has professional experience. She used to run the town school services program.

Sunday night, for example, Corey said she and her volunteers fed between 60 and 65 guests, a combination of utility company crews, police and fire personnel, ambulance service staff, public works employees and town residents seeking a hot meal.

On Monday, more than 50 of the dinner guests were local residents without power, she added. Work crews and residents have also warmed up, showered and had something to eat inside the town’s safety complex where the ambulance service is based.

Corey, who grew up in Brookline, said she she’s been happy to help out.

“I don’t do it because I have to. I do it because I want to,” she said.

“People need someplace to go and something to eat.”