BRATTLEBORO — When Charlie Slate drove his wife to work on Christmas morning in 1981 only to realize no restaurants were open, he didn't foresee the free breakfast he offered to cook the next year would attract 50 people. Or grow into an annual gathering. Or live on after his death.
Or that it would anticipate feeding upward of 1,000 people and mark its 40th year this year - and that it would likely be its last because of the snowballing success.
Patrons of the Charlie Slate Memorial Christmas Breakfast this Sunday at American Legion Post 5 on Linden Street will sit down to a seemingly simple plate of food. What they won't see: A behind-the-scenes crew of 60 volunteers who wake as early as 2:30 a.m. to prepare 3,200 sausage links, 1,920 hash browns, 270 dozen of eggs, 140 pounds of pancake mix, and 14 pounds of coffee.
“It's absolutely amazing how much it has grown into this massive breakfast,” Slate's granddaughter Jadi Flynn said this week.
“There's so much planning and preparation that goes into this,” added Megan Walker, Flynn's daughter and Slate's great-granddaughter.
So much so, the family can't foresee how the event can continue, what with rising costs and a reduced crew of third- and fourth-generation organizers. (Walker, for example, is moving three hours away, from southernmost Vermont to northernmost New Hampshire.)
This year, all have decided, may be the pitch-perfect time to go out on a high note.
Charlie Slate, a car salesman for three decades, began the breakfast in 1982 when he welcomed everyone - from people who were homeless to those who were simply hungry and not wanting to cook.
“I'm alone on Christmas Day because my wife works,” he told the Reformer at the time. “I have places to go, and I just felt bad for people who have no place.”
The tradition grew as Slate passed his spatula on to area resident Francis Willette in 1997 and fellow local Deirdre Baker a decade later. But continuing the effort has been challenging.
Consider Baker. When the working mother began, she figured she'd give it five years. After her fourth in 2010, she wondered if her plate was too full, as she couldn't shake a stuffy nose.
Seeing a doctor, Baker discovered she had sinus cancer. To reach it, surgeons had to sacrifice her right eye in one operation that morphed into a half-dozen, followed by six weeks of daily three-hour trips for radiation.
Wearing an eye patch, Baker nevertheless oversaw her fifth breakfast. Once disease-free, she was ready to pass on the task of coordinating volunteers and contributions to Slate's daughter Judy Flynn.
Then Flynn was diagnosed with cancer.
Flynn, like Baker, was determined to beat it. But a week before Christmas 2013, Flynn died unexpectedly, leaving Baker to head efforts one more time before training the current mother-daughter duo to take over in 2014.
The two, facing such obstacles as a 2017 storm that dropped nearly a foot of snow, nonetheless have led the breakfast to new heights. In 2019, their volunteer crew served up a record 903 meals.
After a pandemic pause in 2020 and 2021, Flynn and Walker are back to celebrate the breakfast's 40th on Sunday from 8 to 11 a.m. at 32 Linden St. The event will honor Slate's wife, Arlene, who died last December at age 95.
But unlike past years, the retiring organizers aren't looking to pass on the tradition.
Said Flynn: “We don't want somebody to feel obligated-”
And Walker: “-and then walk into something that's so much bigger than they initially thought.”
Then again, they won't turn down an offer from a succession team that can prove its competence and commitment.
In the meantime, organizers hope to go out by serving a record 1,000 meals.
To help meet the goal, Brattleboro residents who are homebound or working the holiday can request an in-town Christmas delivery by calling or texting 802-258-0481 by Dec. 23.
“It's just such a wonderful feeling to be able to do this,” Flynn said. “Some people think it's only for people who need a free breakfast.”
It's not, Walker stressed: “It's for everyone.”