LYNN — You can’t spend long sitting with George Markos on a Thanksgiving morning before someone swings by to say “thank you.” Most proffer a handshake and a smile. Others marvel at the number of volunteers working behind the counter of his restaurant, Brothers Deli, serving hundreds of free turkey dinners to those who walk in during the blustery Thursday holiday.
Jerome Sanfacon took it a step further, and sat down across from George.
“I’m still practicing Greek a little bit,” he said before tucking into the gravy-covered turkey, mashed potatoes, and squash on his plate.
George smiled, and the two exchanged short pleasantries in his native tongue.
“These people here, they are not customers today,” George said of the people dining all around him. “They are not strange people. They are all a part of us. On one day, we all get together and celebrate a beautiful day.”
It’s been this way for 25 years. George started the annual tradition in 1993, the year his father died, according to his wife, Eva.
“He decided that for Thanksgiving, from now on, (we) would feed anyone who wanted to come,” she said. “It was for whoever didn’t have anywhere else to go. We have regular customers who come in and eat because they don’t have other company. And they thank us because they would be home alone.”
For Eva, who lost her father, George Koukounaris, earlier this year, the celebration is bittersweet. Koukounaris was a legendary figure in Lynn, having built several projects, including the Market Street plaza where Brothers is located.
“It’s a great city. My dad did a lot of real estate in this city,” she said. “He loved this city, and we love this city. We love Lynn.”
The deli is full, but the line never reaches very far beyond the front door. Like magic, a table seems to open up just as a guest walks into the dining room with a heaping plate. More volunteers, younger than the ones working the service line, swarm to clean tables before the departing diner ever gets a foot on the parking lot outside.
Another volunteer drops by the table to greet George.
“What can I say about George? He’s phenomenal,” said Cesar Archilla, a Malden District Court judge. “He’s completely selfless. And he does it all the time. It’s a continuous thing for years.”
For weeks prior to Thanksgiving, Brothers has been prepping turkey dinners and distributing them to groups across the city. Over the years George reckons he’s served more than 50,000 plates to Lynners looking for a meal.
“The last two weeks we did about 550-600 plates to other organizations that we gave away,” George said. “And you figure today we’ll do about 700 plates.”
Another volunteer walks in and comes to the table. It’s U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, who has made a quick turn serving at Brothers part of his own Thanksgiving tradition.
“I’m very good at carving turkey because they taught me,” Moulton said.
As the clock crept toward 11 a.m., George admitted he’d been awake since Wednesday morning, working a full day at the restaurant and then staying overnight to be with the volunteers who helped prep a thousand pounds of potatoes and vegetables, and dozens of turkeys. He won’t get to bed before 7:30 p.m.
“I stay awake with black coffee all day today,” he said.
“We have Thanksgiving without him, but we have Thanksgiving here,” Eva said. “My whole family comes through, and we clean after. My nieces and my sisters, when everybody leaves we do all the behind-the-scenes cleaning. So that’s how we spend Thanksgiving.”
Another interruption: a small, blond boy came to say goodbye to George. He’d been chipping in, helping to clear tables with the older volunteers, but it was time to go home.
“I might come here next year, OK?” he asked, his head barely clearing the table.
“Any time you want,” George said.