In the kitchen a fruit-overflowing cherry pie cools on parchment paper. The kitchen manager made this one, but usually Sherri Miller, the granddaughter of the diner’s original owners, back when it was called John’s Health Center in the 1950’s, volunteers her talents to make the homemade desserts. She has a full-time job and four kids, but in between basketball games she comes in and makes butterscotch, blueberry and pecan-vinegar pies. A group of Ellsworth locals, including pastors from three of the area churches, take turns being hosts. All eight of the waitresses—Jan, Dar, Rhonda, Marybeth, Deb, Sue, Clarissa and Julie—are volunteers. Ditto with the dishwashers.

Two of The Front Porch’s only four employees, Gloria Tackett and Jan Rasmussen, are preparing for the $4 senior lunch, hot turkey sandwiches today. Jan, the kitchen manager, finely dices celery—stalks and leaves and all—for the homemade stuffing. Gloria peels potatoes and drops them into the kettle. “I’m going to fill it up, just in case,” she tells Jan. The Thursday lunches just started, and they get anywhere from 10 to 29 seniors for chicken à la king, ham and macaroni and cheese or breakfast-for-lunch. Jan nods and says, “Gloria and I have been friends for years, so we agree on just about everything. We’ve both worked in town for years. This is my fourth time working in this diner. It’s Gloria’s fifth or sixth.”

“I’ve never worked in a kitchen quite so clean,” Gloria says, remarkable, since they depend so much on volunteer help to do the dishes and the mopping up. “I’ve never seen a business like this. It’s a blessing,” she says, moving a pan of hardboiled eggs off the burner.

Out in the cafe, three men sit three abreast on the stools, quietly sipping coffee and somehow managing not to attack the homespun cinnamon rolls on a cake pedestal, or the giant cream pies (homemade with meringue peaks) sitting coyly on the counter in front of them. They’re all from Ellsworth and all war veterans—Cairn served in Vietnam, William fought in WWII and Al in Korea, but Al doesn’t like to talk about that. He does, eventually, succumb to a cinnamon roll.

At the big table in the front window, the winter sun warms the coverall-ed backs of Rick Pierson and Ralph Hines. They’re logging out at Jerry Ross’s property between here and Central Lake, says Hines, “getting the ash before the bore does,” and it’s break time. Two actual lumberjacks, but neither ordered pancakes. “Let’s have one more,” says Rick, when Dar comes over with the pot of coffee—fair-trade from Guatemala—the same way people order one more brew when the pub is cozy and the conversation is good.

Today The Front Porch is a place to come in from the cold. And evidently for true confessions: I overhear the man at the cash register say that his son wore a dress to school this week. “And lemme tell ya’, he makes a really ugly girl,” he says.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski