Clara Kolessar’s Apple Watch buzzes. She looks at it and is hit with surprise.
“Oh, holy moly,” she says. “I just got another $500 donation.”
Kolessar, Busy Bee Cafe manager and owner’s daughter, says a person named “Jody” has just donated $500 to the diner. It’s not the first large donation the restaurant has received since changing its model to a pay-what-you-can after the wildfires that have struck parts of Springfield and its neighboring communities. She says Busy Bee has received at least four other $500 donations that day.
Awarded the Spirit of Springfield award earlier in 2020 and known for hosting free Thanksgiving meals for the past 14 years, the comfort food diner Busy Bee on Main Street has been overwhelmed with community support, Kolessar says.
The Holiday Farm Fire hit Lane County suddenly. On Sept. 7, historically hot, dry winds from the east that are believed to have knocked down power lines, sparking a wildfire that swiftly spread over more than 160,000 acres, resulting in evacuation notices for parts of Springfield in addition to the destruction of homes and businesses along the McKenzie River.
On the Wednesday morning after the fires began, Kolessar says she remembers making pancakes at home for her family. She was thinking about how blessed she was to have a home and a kitchen when so many Oregonians had been displaced.
She says that’s when she had to do something. She called her mom and the two agreed to meet at Busy Bee in 45 minutes to develop a plan on how to help people displaced by the fires or whoever just needed a warm meal.
The diner opened at 3:30 pm that day and posted its new pay-what-you-can model on Facebook. The post then quickly spread — since Sept. 9, it’s been shared more than 1,200 times.
“The idea was that it wasn’t just displaced people,” she says. “They could’ve been hauling people’s horses all day. They could have been working at one of the evacuation centers and weren’t up for cooking. We wanted to provide for anybody who was tired.”
Before the Holiday Farm Fire, Kolessar says she never knew how many of their regular customers lived in the Marcola and Mohawk area. But she found out how many of her friends and family lived in that area when it became a Level 3 evacuation area. And that’s what helped move the diner into mobilizing, she adds.
Kolessar says she heard from some regular customers that the diner’s program would be taken advantage of. But she says she replied that she’s not worried about someone not being straightforward because so many people are donating from the community and throughout the U.S.
“Every time I turn around I’m getting this delightful message on my Apple Watch, telling me that someone is sending me money,” she adds.
Posted on a window by the front door of the diner is a handwritten sign in permanent marker that says if you need a meal or if you’ve lost your home, hot meals are available — and the diner is accepting donations, but it’s not necessary to pay.
But some customers are still surprised when they check out at the front register and find out their meal is donation only. She says she’s seen people who have disbelief, but some do struggle with pride in not being able to pay for their meal.
The transactions can get emotional, she says. She recalls a family talking about how much they could afford at the diner. The 8 year old heard her parents talking, so she went to her piggy bank, got the biggest bill she had in it and wanted to add to the donations.
“How amazing is it that you’re teaching your kids this,” she says. “You didn’t have to sit down and give them a lesson. You got to watch them do this.”
And Kolessar adds that her 11-year-old daughter has been helping out at the diner, washing dishes, bussing tables and delivering food.
Donations that initially came in helped the diner extend its payment model for a few more days. The initially planned to run the program for a few days, but extended it through the weekend when the donations continued to come in. Kolessar says the diner is discussing bringing food to people in places that aren’t receiving as many donations.
“Some are saying there are churches where people are parked,” she says. “They’ve got RVs and motorhomes but aren’t plugged in, so they’re just staying there.”
Busy Bee is one of several restaurants that have opened kitchens to people impacted by the fires. Restaurants like Plank Town, Against the Grain and Royal India Cuisine have offered meals at respite centers. Whether it’s restaurants giving food or people offering free travel for horses, Kolessar says a silver lining of the wildfires is that people are setting aside divisiveness and are coming together.
During the pay-what-you-can period at Busy Bee Cafe, Kolessar says she worked a lot more hours than she normally does — her shifts went from 5 am to after 9 pm. But what helps her get through the long hours is knowing that she and the rest of the staff get to know they’re helping people who may have lost everything.
“I want to look back at here and now and be proud of whatever I did,” she says. “Most people will say, ‘I could’ve done more.’ But I did something.”
Busy Bee Cafe is at 2152 Main Street in Springfield. Find them on Facebook for up-to-date hours.