It began with a blanket. When Neil Smith joined the Wounded Warrior Project, a monthly donation to the disabled veterans' charitable organization, he received a blanket — large, with white printing on a dark background — as a gift.
"It's nice to send in my donation," said Smith, who at first wasn't sure what to do with the blanket.
Then he had an idea. He hung it on the wall of his restaurant, The Crackpot Restaurant, at 8102 Loch Raven Blvd. A customer asked about it and the next thing Smith knew, he'd come up with a bunch of ideas that in 2013 morphed into the Heroes Table Restaurant, a program at the Crackpot.
On a splendid fall day, Smith sat in his restaurant and talked about the Heroes Table, which he has trademarked. An actual Heroes Table, seating four, does exist.
It is situated on one side of the restaurant's dining room, under the blanket, now framed and flanked by American flags. Accompanying it are three Purple Hearts and other military medals in display cases and baseball caps from the different military branches.
But more than the physical table and military memorabilia is the thought behind it. "I wanted to show my appreciation for their service," Smith, 72, a Towson resident, said of the men and women who have served in the United States military.
On his own initiative, he contacted the Loch Raven Community Living and Rehabilitation Center, a 120-bed facility that is part of the Veterans Administration (VA), to invite residents to a free lunch.
Linda Traylor, recreation therapist, VA Maryland Health Care System, situated at the Loch Raven facility, got Smith's call. "We have volunteers who come in Christmas and bring food. But I never heard of anything like this," said Traylor, who visited the restaurant before committing the veterans — mainly from the Korean and Vietnam wars, elderly and wheelchair-bound — for lunch, free or not.
The first lunch was in December of 2013, and there have been two per year since then.
"They love it. They love the food. They love the recognition. They feel appreciated. We have our own private waitress and Neil and the staff welcomes us so warmly," said Traylor, who makes arrangements to transport the veterans in the VA mobility vehicle.
"It's great for the VA to partner with a local business," she said. "We feel supported and cared about by the Towson community.
Judy Hensley has accompanied her uncle, Charles Pierson, a Loch Raven center resident, to the free lunches. The 93-year old, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, "loves that restaurant," she said.
"They do a wonderful job for the veterans. They come out and talk to the veterans," said Hensley, a Glen Burnie resident, who brings her uncle there on his own.
Smith said there are usually 18 to 20 people at each lunch, the veteran and his or her volunteer-helper. Lunch costs him about $100 per person and he tips the servers himself.
"They can order anything on the menu. I talk to them during the meal. At the end of lunch, the staff and I give each a handshake and say 'thank you' for your service," Smith said.
In addition to the lunch, the Heroes Table program includes recognition in the form of small metal plaques. A long wooden ledge, or chair rail, circles the restaurant's dining room.
Anyone who has served in the U.S. military can fill out a form and have a 3/4-inch-by-4-inch plaque engraved with their name and branch of service. The plaque is then attached to the "Heroes Ledge" that runs under the Wounded Warrior blanket.
"You don't have to have served in wartime or been stationed abroad," said Smith, who did not serve in the U.S. military himself.
Smith spent 10 years as a teacher and guidance counselor in Baltimore City middle and high schools. An uncle had opened The Crackpot Restaurant in 1972. In 1979, when it came up for sale, Smith, who by then had a business administration master's degree from Loyola University Maryland, bought it. He opened the adjacent Crackpot Liquor Store in 1995.
"I had no restaurant experience. I thought running a restaurant was simple. I didn't realize how demanding it was," said Smith, who has 40 full- and part-time employees and still works 60 to 70 hours a week himself.
Smith has been trying to publicize the Heroes Table Restaurant on his own. He has put notices in community newsletters, with some success. As word of the free lunches has spread, members of the community often stop by to meet and greet the veterans. The next lunch is scheduled for Nov.19, eight days after Veterans Day.
Still, Smith feels there is more he can do to honor the veterans. For a start, he would like to fill that 28-foot "Heroes Ledge" with more plaques.
"We've got 360 plaques on it now. It's about half-full," he said. "My goal is to fill the entire length."