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The heart of Hebron

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.

"They sit for two or three hours, sipping coffee. They go from table to table, finding out what is going on. We're glad to have them," she said.

At 11 a.m. the menu switches over to lunch - off with the scrapple and eggs, on with the homemade chicken salad - and the lunch crowd, including some of the men from the volunteer firehouse across the street, fills up the four booths and the nine tables.

Supper, which is served only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, starts at 4 o'clock. Thursday night is spaghetti and ribs night, Friday chicken and dumplings, and Saturday, known by the regulars as "steak night," features prime rib. The most costly item on the menu, a seafood platter, is $14.95.

It gets busy on steak nights, and folks who know each other and some who don't share tables.

Lately, there has been a bit of a growth spurt with folks from Salisbury moving into town, and some of the regulars have noted that every once in a while, they will show up at the Hebron Family Restaurant and not recognize everyone in the room.

"It used to be I knew everybody," said Vaughn, who has been a patron of the restaurant for the past 15 years. "It is not quite like that now. But if you come here and you get a cup of coffee, you're still gonna get talked to."

One of the fixtures of the restaurant and the town is Hilda Townsend. She has lived in Hebron for a little more than 75 years, most of them in a house on Church Street, right around the corner from the restaurant.

Years ago, she drove a school bus. Now, at the age of 91, she is still driving herself around the back roads of the Eastern Shore. "I went over to [the MVA in] Salisbury, and they renewed me for five years," she said, adding that she wasn't sure she would be around for the next license-renewal time. She has pretty much stopped cooking and several times a day eats at the restaurant, where she is treated royally.

"As soon as they see my old Taurus come in the parking lot, they put my cup of coffee and glass of water on my table," she said.

Townsend likes the restaurant's breakfast fare, "I usually have the home fries with creamed chipped beef or pancakes with scrapple." And she likes "to socialize." This spring, when she turned 91, the restaurant staff baked her a birthday cake.

Sitting in the restaurant, she likes to tell stories, such as how she almost got a speeding ticket. She was coming back to Hebron from one of her weekend excursions to Laurel, Del. To get on the road leading into Hebron, she had to scoot across U.S. 50, a busy, four-lane highway, and, "I put my foot on the gas and never took it off," she said.

A Maryland state trooper noticed her speed and trailed her into town. As is her habit, she drove to the Hebron restaurant for supper. He followed her to the parking lot.

"He poked his head in the car door and told me I was going 42 in a 25 zone," Townsend recalled. "I told him I had trouble getting across the highway. And I said I am not a horse-and-buggy person. I don't piddle-paddle around."

The trooper, she reported, let her off with a warning. He could see that she was among friends.

Next: Saving the Towne Restaurant in Oakland

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