For more than a decade, one Sussex County man has given up his Thanksgiving Day – and a slice of his own income – to feed hundreds of neighbors.
“And I'm going to do it as long as I live,” Ronald White said.
It doesn't matter if a person is struggling or simply doesn't feel like cooking, White doesn't care. He just wants people to eat – and eat well.
“I've got a good heart,” he said. “You have to.”
The 53-year-old owner of the Southern Grill in Ellendale also works fulltime as a building chief at Milford Middle School, runs a small trucking business and is his blind wife's full-time caretaker.
Most days he is up before the sun. He goes from one job to the next, but it’s highly unlikely any complaints ever slip out. His work, whether it's in the kitchen or behind the scenes at school, takes up all his waking hours.
The free dinner will be held from 12-6 p.m., Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 23, at Mount Zion AME Church at 18211 Beach Highway in Ellendale. All are welcome.
People who live nearby but are unable to leave their homes can request a delivery by calling the church at 302-422-4030 or Southern Grill at 302-422-9090.
All monetary donations will be passed on to the church or Easter Seals.
Except when he's spending time helping others, like he is during the days leading up to Thanksgiving, when he and his staff prepare and cook 30 large turkeys, pounds of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, string beans, collard greens, roast beef, ham, pies, cakes and everything in between.
“It's just amazing,” he said, adding that he expects at least 700 neighbors and strangers to gather for a warm meal and conversation. “It's one big feast where you come in, get your plate and get to know each other. Before they leave, it's like one big family.”
White covers the whole cost of the meal; all donations are passed on to the church or other charitable organizations like Easter Seals.
“Everything is straight from the heart of the Southern Grill,” he said. “We accept nothing.”
White said he started learning to love cooking when he was 9 years old, when the owner of Mildred's Country Kitchen – which was housed in the same spot as Southern Grill – came scurrying down the street looking for a helping hand.
Mildred, whom White said he lovingly called his “white mama,” was actually looking for his older brother to help clean tables and do other chores. But she found Ronald instead, and he got to work.
At home, he would throw on an apron and help his grandmother in the kitchen as the aroma of baked biscuits and cakes filled the house.
“If it has something to do with the kitchen, I love it,” he said. “It's about putting smiles on people's faces.”
Southern Grill is one of the only remaining places customers can get muskrat – diners rejoiced to hear the delicacy would be on the menu in mid-November. White said whatever he's serving, he focuses on high-quality food and fresh ingredients, which, paired with affordable prices, keep customers coming back for more.
White has a few motorcycles and a used boat he gets to enjoy a handful of times throughout the summer, but other than that, his life is dedicated to those who cross his path.
“I have been blessed over and over and over again,” he said. His family helped foster White's big heart by teaching him the importance of giving.
“The family was just give, give, give,” he said, remembering donating his own clothing or shoes to those in need. As a young boy, he was hesitant at times, but he has embraced lessons learned at an early age.
Through his work at the middle school, he said, he has noticed some students have to wear the same clothes every day. He knows that could have an effect on their ability to learn and be confident, so each year he secretly adopts a family and buys the kids new clothes.
There was even a time he would identify those children in need, so he'd go on a shopping trip for them. Then he'd leave it on the doorstep, ring the bell and run off before anyone knew it was him.
That giving spirit is contagious. White said one of his customers donates $500 every month to cover meals at the Southern Grill for people who are hungry, veterans and first responders – whoever is in need.
Sitting at a table at his restaurant on Main Street before the dinner rush descends, White jokes that his employees tease him for showing up to work dressed like a dishwasher, but he's a simple, down-to-earth guy. He admits the most he's ever spent on a pair of blue jeans is about $20.
He doesn't drive a fancy car or live in a big house – he actually lives right across the street from his restaurant – because he finds more value in investing in the people around him than collecting material things.
“It's been a long road, but it's been beautiful,” he said. “There's still good people out there.”