Barbecue brothers serve Christmas feast to masses

Joe Pena talks about why he has hosted a complimentary Christmas meal annually for the past four years.

Ron Law thought he'd be spending Christmas alone. With a son in prison, and much of his family either deceased, or out-of-touch, Law wasn't sure anyone would be around to join him at the dinner table.

But last week, the 69-year-old Yoakum retiree read an advertisement about Fat Albert's BBQ and Ice House serving up a free dinner to "Christmas orphans," and decided to check it out.

"It's a very good meal," Law said Sunday, munching on a plate of Oreo cookies, and making small talk with table neighbors.

For the past four years, the restaurant has earned a reputation for preparing some of Yoakum's best barbecue fare.

But on Sunday, Fat Albert's owners Joe, Gerald and Phillip Pena, switched culinary gears, offering a traditional Christmas dinner to community members with nowhere to go on Christmas.

More than 400 plates of turkey, ham, dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce were prepared for those in need of a home-cooked meal.

"It's not just for the homeless. It's for anyone who doesn't have a place to go on Christmas," said Joe Pena, the event's key organizer. "It's for anyone needing companionship on Christmas."

Using the restaurant as a vessel for community service was on the menu four years ago, Pena said.

"We started the Christmas dinner the first year we were open ... our plans were always to open the restaurant and help the community in return," Pena said.

More than 40 volunteers donated their time to the Christmas feast; some served and prepared food, while others wished patrons a "Merry Christmas" as they entered and left the building.

"It's tremendous what they're doing. A lot of these people don't have anything to eat," volunteer Don Hale, said. "It brings tears to my eyes because some of these people are so excited to get something to eat."

For others, like Stratton resident Sheila Pope, the Christmas dinner provided an opportunity for Christmas conversation when family was out of town on Christmas.

"A friend told me about this, and I thought I'd come see how it is. The food was really good. It's a really nice, family atmosphere," said the 45-year-old Pope. "I've met a lot of nice people here. And I wasn't able to see my family today."

After the dinner, which started at 11 a.m. and concluded at 2 p.m., Pena said his own family would spend Christmas at the restaurant, celebrating and exchanging gifts.

Whatever food was left over was donated to the Bluebonnet Youth Ranch in Yoakum.

Pena said the restaurant started preparing food Friday to serve more than 400 people for Christmas. But they hope next year to expand the dinner, serving up plates of Christmas joy to an even greater number of "Christmas orphans."

"It's surprising there are so many without a place to go, and I'm sure there's a few more that we're not reaching," Pena said. "Hopefully, next year we'll be able to help 500 or 600 people."