Cafe helps veterans rebuild their lives 1 plate at a time
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent June 15, 2014 4:18PM
Terrell Junigan, an Army Reserve veteran and Miller resident, helps part-owner Bessie Hitchcock get some dinner rolls for customers at the Veterans Cafe and Grill in Merrillville. | Karen Caffarini~for Sun-Times Media
If you go
What: Veterans Cafe and Grill
Where: 7805 Taft St., Merrillville
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Saturday
Phone: (219) 750-9018
Interesting fact: A portion of the proceeds from the restaurant are used to asssist homeless military veterans.
Updated: July 17, 2014 6:02AM
MERRILLVILLE — One of the town’s newest eateries, Veterans Cafe and Grill, serves up more than home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients.
Operated in large part by and for veterans, the restaurant exudes patriotic pride and helps support those who once served in the armed forces and are now in search of employment, new skills, and for some, a home.
“A portion of the proceeds generated by the restaurant are used to assist homeless veterans,” said part-owner Bessie Hitchcock, who also is director of operations for Veterans Life Changing Services in Gary, a transition house for veterans, and the wife of a veteran.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says on its website that as many as 25 percent of all homeless people are veterans.
Hitchcock said the restaurant, which sports red, white and blue decor with military posters hanging on the walls, employs six veterans who work as cooks and wait staff.
“Part of our mission is helping veterans get back on their feet. Our motto is ‘Helping to heal with a hand up not a handout,” said Brian Cody, one of the cooks, a part-owner and Marine Corps veteran.
Cody was homeless and barely able to walk from an injury when he met Hitchcock through Veterans Life Changing Services three years ago. He recuperated there and started catering meals. He has a culinary arts degree and worked in food service while in the military. Hitchcock said she has catering experience.
The two decided to open a restaurant at which veterans can learn cooking and entrepreneurial skills. They received support from the town, which agreed to waive the normal fees as they went through the process of seeking special exception approval. After months of redecorating work, the restaurant opened in early May.
Terrell Junigan, a 33-year-old veteran of the Army Reserves and Miller resident, was serving customers on a recent evening. He said he was doing case management at Veterans Life Changing Services when Hitchcock asked him if he could help out at the cafe.
Junigan, a full-time business management student at Indiana University Northwest, said he believes the restaurant concept is a good one.
“It’s hard for some veterans to find work here because of the economy and the area we live in,” Junigan said. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of jobs here, and the ones that are here, it’s kind of who you know to get them,”
Zak Green, 17, isn’t a veteran, but he works there as a kitchen assistant, and his brother, Rusty Storey, 20, who is a Navy veteran, works as a cook. Both live in Lowell.
“This helps veterans a lot. They’re making donations to veteran charities,” Zak Green said.
The restaurant serves lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday and is open for breakfast, too, Friday through Sunday. The breakfast menu has entrees with names including Master Sergeant’s breakfast or Captain’s breakfast. There is a buffet on Wednesdays and a buffet with a Southern flare on Sundays that includes barbecue ribs, yams, collard greens and peach cobbler, among other dishes. Its signature dish is the macaroni and cheese, Hitchcock said.
Regina Rader lives and works in Gary, but drove to Merrillville to pick up dinner at the cafe one night.
“I think it’s great that they’re helping veterans get on their feet, My son and grandson were in the service. I truly support what they’re doing,” Rader said.