Winter Storm Elliott, a COVID pandemic, and some burnt turkey were some of the hurdles thrown in the way for Rick Mancuso and his crew to continue with their free Christmas dinners for the last 30-plus years.
But those things never dampened the spirits of Mancuso, fellow organizer Joseph Teresi Jr. and their family members to prepare and serve up some turkey, mashed potatoes and fixings to hundreds of community members year after year, Mancuso said. And actually, the pandemic forced them to streamline the operation, which ended up serving even more people.
“We used to do a sit-down when it was at Mancuso’s Restaurant. Then, with the pandemic, we did a drive-through at T.F. Brown’s. For the last four years, we have done it that way and served 350 meals,” Mancuso said. “Giving back is something I enjoy doing. Joe was involved from the beginning with everything. He and I have been friends since we were kids. My brother Ben was most instrumental when it began at Mancuso’s. Then, he ended up moving to Rochester.
“It’s great. I mean, I’m really happy and pleased that we have the opportunity to do it. And we’re thankful to the community that supports it. Christmas has a lot of meaning, to everyone,” he said. “It’s a wonderful time for us to be able to be grateful and thankful, and to try and help others that are interested in having a meal or a little cheer themselves on a day that maybe might not be as promising for them, happy for them.”
Community service has been a tenet of the Mancuso family, and the kids all watched and followed their role models, parents Benjamin — a larger-than-life staple of Rotary shows and member of the children’s foundation, Lion’s Club and other local organizations — and Mercedes, by also getting involved. Rick, his wife Julie, their children and now their grandchildren have all evolved into the tradition of either prepping, cooking, packaging, handing out and/or cleaning up the Christmas meal every Dec. 25.
“They all set aside their Christmas Day, knowing that we do this first, and then we get together as a family, with our dinnertime at four o'clock or so,” he said.
Teresi, his wife Mary Beth, and his family have also all been integrally involved in the process. It was at Teresi’s nudging that Mancuso talked about the 30-plus anniversary, though Mancuso couldn’t help but joke that his good friend was out of town and unavailable to share in the interview.
Another component is T.F.’s staff, which helps out to prepare the meal in the days leading up to the dinner, Mancuso said. It’s definitely a team effort, he said.
“A large part of it is, they do a magnificent job of prepping it all,” he said. “I may come in the morning and get it all ready, but they spend up to Christmas Eve prepping it all.”
How much are we talking about? More than 100 pounds of turkey breast, 150 pounds of mashed potatoes and stuffing each and about the same of cranberry sauce. While that traditional crimson holiday sauce has been debated about whether it comes from a can or is made fresh, Mancuso isn’t ambivalent: “Ocean Spray makes a great cranberry sauce,” he said.
Some vendors donate products while T.F.’s covers the remainder of the cost. The event is “open to anyone and everyone,” he said and predominantly attracts families with some couples as well.
When asked if it seems as though it’s been 30 years, he initially said, “It doesn’t seem long.”
“But when you think about it, it is long,” he said. “When you see the kids growing up, that’s when you notice the time. I hope that I’m passing on the legacy my mom and dad passed on to us, in terms of being involved in your community, helping others, lifting others, I think that’s important. And when I’m gone, hopefully, they continue to do the same in their community. It doesn’t have to be this, whatever it may be.”
Another sign of the times is the prices — of food, deliveries, gas — “things have certainly changed through the years,” he said. But that hasn’t been the focus of these dinners. No way he could tally the vast amounts of volunteers who have pitched in to help — hundreds, he said — that included the Lions Club early on.
Snafus? There’ve been a few.
“One year, I burned the turkey, mom was with me,” he said. “ We pulled a rabbit out of our hat. It’s a great day, and you overcome.”
They have also overcome terrible weather — the blizzard of 2022 when most all roads were shut down — and the coronavirus that caused even more severe shutdowns for restaurants and schools and government buildings. That’s when Mancuso shifted to outdoor food service, along with other restaurants, and it ended up being a mixed blessing that catered to more of the community.
“We would have had to be here from morning to night to serve that many people,” he said.
They went from sit-down dinners of around 80 at a time to two shifts of about 200 packaged meals at a time delivered to one’s vehicle outside the East Main Street site. Mancuso also has a raffle of a couple of bicycles for kids for an extra fun bonus.
Letters go out to the local schools to let people know about the dinner, and pre-registration is required so that organizers can be prepared with enough food. Register by Tuesday with Tammy at 585-345-1000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Select either noon to 1 p.m. or 1 to 2 p.m. pick-up time, and include last name, phone number and number of adults and children.
T.F. Brown’s is also hosting its annual Ugly Sweater Contest from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at 214 E. Main St., Batavia. Bring a new unwrapped toy to benefit Don Carroll’s Toys for Kids, and you will receive a free beverage. Entertainment will be provided by the DSP Jazz Trio.