Dave Forbes and Barry Groton

Dave Forbes and Barry Groton enjoy lunch at the Hebron Family Restaurant, a family-run enterprise on Hebron's Main Street. "The restaurant is the pillar of this town, a big gathering spot," says customer Roy Vaughn, who often visits three times a day. (Sun photo by Jerry Jackson / May 28, 2003)

This is the first in a series of stories about restaurants around the state that help define their communities.

HEBRON - Chances are excellent that in any given week every resident of this town, population 806, has eaten at the Hebron Family Restaurant - or at least driven past the place and recognized the cars in the parking lot.

It is the only restaurant in town, sitting smack-dab in the heart of Main Street. The restaurant is also the focal point of the community, a family-run enterprise, part business, part civic institution, a place where the locals go to see each other.

It is one of five such restaurants scattered around Maryland that I visited in the past months. These restaurants do more than dispense meals. They are gathering points, landmarks on the local scene, places to grab a cup of hot coffee, homemade food and the latest opinion.

Hebron sits just west of Salisbury, a turn off Route 50 that most Baltimore folks whiz past on their way to or from Ocean City.

The restaurant is a simple gray frame structure across the street from the volunteer fire department and the town grocery store, just up the street from the outdoor carnival that lights up Hebron nights in the summer. Except for the paved parking lot in lieu of a front yard, the Hebron Family Restaurant looks a lot like the neat homes lining Main Street.

The Lions Club meets there on Wednesday nights. A Bible study group gathers there on Monday mornings. A few years ago, the entire congregation of Gateway Church of Christ met there on Sunday mornings while its church was being built out on Route 50.

The bulletin board in the restaurant vestibule reads like the "what's happening" column of a small-town newspaper. There are business cards of tradesmen looking for work, a notice of a Snethen Methodist Church social, a hello from a state Senate candidate and an offer of reward money for anyone with valuable information about the robbery of a Peninsula State Bank.

"The restaurant is the pillar of this town, a big gathering spot," said Roy Vaughn, 54, who operates Hebron Auto and Truck body shop and often visits the restaurant three times a day.

Most of the folks who live in Hebron drive to jobs outside of town. Many stop by the restaurant for a quick meal before hitting the road. The restaurant is open every day except Sunday.

Like many patrons, Vaughn knows the pattern of Hebron Family Restaurant specials, and makes his plans accordingly. He rarely misses rib night on Thursdays.

Gloria Senkbeil, who along with her daughter Sharon and her husband, Bill, operates the restaurant, describes a different rhythm to the restaurant's life. For her the day is a series of customers from different segments of the community who arrive, like clockwork, at different times.

The first on the scene are the farmers, she said. Officially the restaurant doesn't open until 6 a.m. Often Senkbeil is there at 5:30 a.m., rolling out the dough for the buttermilk biscuits, getting the kitchen ready for cook Tammi Knight and kitchen manager Marsha Deya.

This is homemade food, where the biscuits and pies are made from scratch, where the chicken that is served later in the day with chicken and dumplings goes in the pot that morning. The portions are generous, the flavors are straightforward, the turnip greens, cooked with country ham, are outstanding.

While Senkbeil is working in the kitchen, there is often a rap at the restaurant's front door, a regular wanting coffee. She obliges. "If I see somebody I know," she said, "I open up. By 6 or 7 the place is full of farmers."

She has a soft spot in her heart for farmers. She married one. For 35 years her husband, Bill, ran a farm a mile outside Hebron, growing beans, barley and corn. The Senkbeils came from generations of farmers, families that came to America from Germany, settling in Herminie, Pa., before buying land in Wicomico County.

More than a decade ago, the harsh economics of agriculture combined with Bill's heart problems forced the couple to look for another line of work.

In November 1992, they bought the restaurant from a resident of New York state who, according to Gloria Senkbeil, had plans to move to Hebron, but never did. Before that, the restaurant had been run by Miriam Phippin of Hebron, and many old-timers still refer to the restaurant as "Phippin's."

"We thought the restaurant business would be interesting," Gloria Senkbeil said. Mostly it has been, she added. The hours are long, but she enjoys talking to customers, including the coffee sippers, who linger after the breakfast rush has passed.