Rifle restaurant serves up plenty of holiday spirit | PostIndependent.com

Rifle restaurant serves up plenty of holiday spirit

John Gardner
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Citizen Telegram

Grady Hazelton sees a lot of familiar faces in his restaurant. Most of them, if not all, he probably knows by name.

Having been open for longer than five years, WingNutz Bar and Grill, in north Rifle, is a popular hangout for many Rifle residents, and Hazelton couldn’t imagine a better place to work. Several of the WingNutz staff have been with Hazelton since he opened.

“That’s pretty unusual in the restaurant business,” Hazelton said.

Growing up in New Castle and graduating from Rifle High School, Hazelton, brother of Post Independent photographer Kelley Cox, is as familiar a face in Rifle as many of the patrons at his restaurant are to him. Being active in the community is a big part of who he is, and it’s why he feels it’s important to give back, anyway he can.

“It’s being part of a community,” he said. “I don’t want to sound sappy, but this community supports us. They are our good customers, and our good friends.”

So he provides free meals to those who need a little extra to get through the holidays.

Everybody knows that the holiday season, with family gatherings filled with joy for many, can be difficult and lonely times for others.

That’s why the WingNutz family steps up during the holidays to provide a fully-cooked ham dinner with all the trimmings to those who may need a helping hand.

“We just want to do something for the community,” he said.

Last year was the first year that the WingNutz crew decided to provide the dinners. At first, he expected to have a dozen people or so sign up for the meals, but that wasn’t the case. In all, Hazelton and crew prepared holiday dinners for between 35 and 40 families, he said. Enough single plate meals for about 145 people. The response he received was not what he expected.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We didn’t really have a goal, we were just hoping to help a few people out.

“It’s just one of those deals where the economy is bad, and it was really starting to affect people,” he said.

Feeling the effects of the economy himself, Hazelton had second thoughts about it. But it didn’t stop him from going through with it because there was no better time to help.

“We thought that maybe it wasn’t a good time for us to do it, financially,” he admitted. “But then we thought, well, there’s probably not a better time to do it than now.”

When the WingNutz crew decided to do the holiday dinners, it wasn’t going to be a one-time thing. From the beginning, Hazelton and crew were going to make this a Christmas Eve tradition.

“It’s kind of a neat thing because it’s our customers who help us with it,” he said.

Some people donate time, helping deliver the meals, some help prepare the meals, while others donate money to help pay for the meals. But most of the food is purchased by WingNutz.

“We basically do it ourselves,” Hazelton said.

Most of the folks that helped out last year, to deliver the meals, are back this year, too. It’s that community thing that comes to mind again.

“We just want to do something for the community, and our customers are right along with us,” he said.

“That is the great thing about the people who work here,” he said. “There are quite a few of them who want to help out.”

Hazelton said that one week before Christmas Eve, he already had about 30 families signed up for meals. He expected to have about the same number as last year, if not more.

He expected the operation to run a little more smoothly than last year.

“We learned a couple of things that we’ve changed for this year,” Hazelton said.

Hazelton opens the restaurant Christmas Eve for business as usual. Then, in mid-afternoon, the doors are closed, and he and the crew begin preparing the meals for delivery.

“We try to prepare as much as we can early on,” he said.

The hams are precooked to make it easier, and side dishes such as potatoes are prepared in advance. They package them all up, heat up the meal if needed and deliver them to anyone who has signed up.

“You don’t really know if you are dealing with someone who’s down on their luck or if it’s someone who doesn’t have a house,” he said.

So, he covers all his bases. The meals are packaged so they can be eaten right then, warm and with utensils, or they can be saved for a Christmas meal.

On Christmas Eve, many families will be around the tree, huddled by the fire and gathered with family anticipating Christmas morning, while Hazelton and crew will be out, delivering dinner to some 40 families.

It’s just being a part of a community, according to Hazelton, and it’s something that he hopes will never change.

“It’s something we plan on continuing,” he said.

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