With a three hour line wrapped around the shopping center leading out to the intersections of Western Boulevard, Crain Highway and Plaza Way, restaurant owner Iossif Mario Gressis turns to address his small team of volunteers.

Credit: Catherine Wilson / The Southern Maryland Chronicle

“Let’s get 80 Marines ready!” Gressis told his diligent staff before turning to a member of his crew to tell them to halt the lines of cars outside the door. “We are feeding the Marines,” he said with determination.

Gressis and his family are the owners of three successful restaurants in Southern Maryland and for the last five years, they have devoted their Thanksgiving to give back to the community. This year the event was held at Lucianna’s Steakhouse in Waldorf, MD where hundreds of people gathered safely in their cars to receive a free Thanksgiving meal.    

The event was born out of a need to share Gressis’ entrepreneurial success with the public and to prevent people from having to spend Thanksgiving alone and hungry. In years past strangers would be seated with one another and they would share a meal together, Gressis said.

What started as a community event to bring people from all backgrounds together quickly grew into a holiday tradition that people look forward to every year – one that they tried to uphold in the face of Covid-19.

In light of the pandemic, Gressis had to alter the event to account for social distancing while still being able to serve as many people as possible. Those wishing to participate were instructed to call ahead and make a reservation and upon arrival, the packaged meals would be delivered to their cars.

Runners working to deliver meals as quickly as possible Credit: Catherine Wilson / The Southern Maryland Chronicle

With several people unable to be with their families during the holiday or unable to afford a Thanksgiving meal, demand for the packaged dinners was high.

“Our idea was no one would go through Thanksgiving without being able to feed their family,” Lucy, Gressis’ wife said.

With long lines and fewer volunteers due to Covid-19 limitations, donations were more important this year than ever before.

One of the volunteers, Arline Arnold of The Arnold House has been lending a hand for the last three years. Arnold has been responsible for countless donations and volunteers from her non-profit organization that specializes in feeding people in the community.

“[We give] anything he needs to make this possible,” Arnold said.

Those that benefitted most from the event were senior citizens, who couldn’t leave their homes in fear of spreading the virus, and first responders, who can’t find the time to cook a Thanksgiving meal while on duty.

Members of the Charles County Emergency Services collect their meals to deliver to other stations. Credit: Catherine Wilson / The Southern Maryland Chronicle

Frank and Renee Nelson waited in the three-hour-long line to try something different this Thanksgiving while also making an effort to pick up an additional meal for an elderly neighbor who couldn’t leave the house.  

“It’s an awesome thing they are doing for the community,” Renee Nelson said.

Gressis immigrated from Greece at the age of 12 and attributes his passion for helping people to his Greek roots.

“In Greece, we have this word called philotimo and the Greeks are known for it. It [means] help a friend out,” Gressis said.

One of the biggest ways Gressis and his family does this is by embracing the Greek love of food and sharing it with people.

Gressis’ has spent his life surrounded by food. After dropping out of school in the 10th grade Gressis spent his time in the restaurant business learning the tricks of the trade. Before reaching the age of 20 he switched gears to ice cream trucks and catering. After gaining some attention for his culinary skills at local fairs and festival grounds Gressis decided to open up his first restaurant with his mother. From there the business grew and Gressis added a few more restaurants, including Lucianna’s Steakhouse, which opened in August.

“Food is a lot of fun. There are so many different ways to make food. And when you get it right, and you’re actually selling it and people are buying it from you it’s just a great feeling,” Gressis said.

Despite being out $10,000 for a tent that the town of La Plata would not let him put up to save the jobs of his staff, Gressis devoted his time, money, and resources to feeding people this Thanksgiving, including the Marines.

“68 packed up,” the voice of one of the volunteers yelled behind a mask as sweat pooled beneath his shirt. “69,” he amended quickly as another tray of food was handed down, packed into a bag, and put into a box.

“11 to go!” Gressis shouted from his place in the middle of the assembly line.

The next few meals got packaged up and placed in the box to be taken to the car waiting outside so it could be delivered into the hands of 80 Marines stranded on the base due to the Covid-19 travel ban.

“8-0,” the volunteer with the box said as he laid down the last bag of food.

“Marines complete,” Gressis announced to his fatigued workers, his eyes shining with accomplishment.  

“Oorah,” the volunteers cried without leaving their posts to resume the orders of those still waiting in their cars.

Dozens of cars wait patiently for their meals. Credit: Catherine Wilson / The Southern Maryland Chronicle

Over the span of several hours Gressis and his tireless team worked to make Thanksgiving possible for 2,500 people in the Southern Maryland area.

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