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Eating well for less

It’s not a restaurant, but for $4 a meal, volunteers at the Columbia Senior Center promise a friendly dining experience
Wednesday, April 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:34 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 27, 2008

Some call it the best kept secret in town. Others call it a great place to eat, socialize and relax. And for $4, everyone calls it a great deal.

If you walk into the Columbia Senior Center Monday through Friday from 10:45 a.m. to 1 p.m., your stomach will tell you that you have reached the right place. Immediately, you are greeted with smiling faces and friendly “hello.” The fresh food fragrance and live music coming from the dining hall lead you to a ticket table where you can pay a friendly volunteer and receive a red ticket.

On the menu

For $4, you get a choice of two entrees such as pork with mushrooms, fried chicken or Spanish rice with beef; a full salad bar; side dishes such as mashed potatoes with gravy and baked beans; vegetables including corn with broccoli and buttered carrots; soup of the day, ranging from chicken noodle to tomato to creamy pasta with ham; rolls with butter; and desserts including cake, pudding, cobblers and ice cream. On request, the center also offers alternative desserts for diabetics, including fat-free, no-sugar-added vanilla and chocolate ice cream. And to wash it all down, a full drink station with milk, soft drinks, tea and coffee is available.

A place to meet friends

“You can see and make friends at the same time you enjoy a decent meal at a reasonable price,” said Richard Wesley, a member of the Senior Center’s board of directors.

Wesley eats at the center three to four times a week. After retiring in 2000, he and his wife came to Columbia from Greenville, Miss., to be closer to his two sons and six grandchildren. Wesley said it was hard coming to Columbia not knowing anyone but family. He said that when he saw the senior center’s sign, he decided to check it out. He was instantly welcomed and introduced to many people, and soon, had made a good group of friends.

“We’re making new friends every day,” Wesley said.

Volunteers

Wesley said he is proud of the fact that the center is completely self-supportive.

“It’s self-sufficient,” he said. “It’s all carried on by volunteers.”

In 2002, the center honored its volunteers, who had put in more than 1 million hours of work. The only paid employees at the center are the cook, janitor and dishwasher. Wesley said the center breaks even from the lunches.

Otto Ortmeyer, who will be 91 next month, credits bingo for the creation of the center.

“That is what paid for this,” Ortmeyer said.

Ortmeyer is one of the defining volunteers of the Senior Center. He went to Jefferson City to help the center obtain its bingo license and in 1995 helped the center move from its Parkade Plaza location to its current 1121 Business Loop 70 E. spot by taking nine gallon-sized jars of pennies to the bank. Each jar held $40.

“I took them to the bank myself,” Ortmeyer said.

Ortmeyer eats at the center six days a week. On the seventh day, he works bingo. In 10 years, he has only missed bingo 25 times.

Ortmeyer said he greatly enjoys the center’s lunch, and he has seen a lot of additions to the center since the move. He said he sometimes offers new suggestions for meals and ideas.

For head chef Jeff Landreth, that’s just fine. Landreth has been the chef at the center for five years. He said he enjoys working there because of the friendly atmosphere and the freedom to do what he wants.

“I do everything from sweet and sour pork to hand-breaded catfish on Fridays,” Landreth said.

Working Hard

On a busy day, it is not uncommon for Landreth to feed 130 people within two hours. Landreth said the busiest days are Sundays, Mondays and Fridays. On Monday, fried chicken, one of the diners’ favorites, is served; and on Friday, Landreth’s hand-breaded catfish is available.

“Both of those meal offerings are quite popular,” Wesley said.

On Sundays, the center offers a more elaborate meal from 11 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. for $6. It includes a roast beef entree plus another entree and all of the weekly available sides. As an added bonus, professional piano player Vicki King entertains diners.

“Sunday is pretty well-populated,” Gayle Adams said, a member of the board of directors and head of the dance committee.

Adams and his wife, Lila, eat at the center three times a week and enjoy the ambiance and good conversations with friends.

“People get up and walk around and talk to other people,” Adams said.

The center can seat about 200 people. The decorated, carpeted dining room is full with about 30 four-seat tables and has two long tables that can seat about 15 people. Highchairs are available for the younger guests. Soon after eating, diners’ trays are cleared and their tables cleaned, all while they relax and digest.

“After it’s over, you just leave it on the table and have volunteers that pick it up,” Adams said.

Landreth is proud of the center’s cleanliness.

“According to the Health Department, I have one of the cleanest kitchens in Columbia,” Landreth said.

So if you enjoy eating good, affordable food in a clean and friendly environment, the Columbia Senior Center is the place for you.

“We are rather pleased to have this facility here,” Wesley said. “We’ve found the environment to be one that you’re not crowded and you’re not rushed.”

According to Alex Riddles, who eats at the center four times a week, all ages are welcome to eat. Frank Oncken, who has been coming to the center for three years, said that although the center already serves a good group of people, it is not as many as it should be.

“A lot of younger people think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to eat with those old people,’” Oncken said.

But for the price and amount of food, more people might want to start checking it out.

“It’s $4 a meal, no tax, no tip,” Wesley said. “I mean, you can’t beat this.”

Oncken agrees.

“It’s a good thing for this town to have a place like this,” he said.


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