MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — No veteran who walks into Veteran’s Cafe has ever left hungry, whether or not they had the means to pay for their food, according to Gary Murray, who volunteers at the restaurant.
“Veterans come in and if they don’t have the money, I’ll feed them in a heartbeat,” said cafe owner Lou Mascherino.
But unless Mascherino is able to find a new location, the “safe” meeting place for military veterans to gather may have to close at the end of March. He said he was informed Jan. 31 that the new owners of the building that houses his cafe would like the business to leave.
Mascherino, a U.S. Army veteran, said the previous owner of the building walked away from the property and the bank took it over in November 2011. He learned there was a buyer interested a few months ago, but said he was told that the restaurant and museum would be able to stay in the building.
“Next thing we know, someone’s walking in with an eviction notice,” he said.
Chris Aranda, one of the cafe’s first customers and office manager at the Myrtle Beach Vet Center, said he was sad to hear the restaurant could be closing.
“It’s a meeting place for a lot of us,” he said, a U.S. Army combat veteran who was in Iraq in 2004. “Some vets who suffer from [post-traumatic stress disorder] are not very social in the community. It’s a place for them to go and feel comfortable.”
Mascherino said a few different PTSD groups meet at the cafe throughout the week because it offers a safe environment.
“We have veterans from all walks of life, all ages,” Mascherino said. “When they come in here it’s a place where they can talk – a lot don’t want to talk about what they did [in combat], but they will here ... because they’re comfortable and not on display.”
Mascherino said he started he business in 2009 after volunteering with the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center in Litter River. People with the nonprofit gave him the idea to open a restaurant and, having worked in restaurants for about 20 years, he decided to start the cafe with his wife, Rhonda.
Then his wife suggested that customers give the cafe photos of veterans and their families.
“It became a museum with photos, flags, newspaper clippings,” Mascherino said. “My big concern is [what will happen to] the museum. That is probably what made us what we are today – I’m sure it’s not my cooking.”
Mascherino said he’s hoping to find a new location for his restaurant. He said he’d prefer to stay in the same general area – next to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. Many times the veterans have to fast before having tests done and they stop in the cafe afterward to grab some food.
“It took us three years to start being able to get by,” Mascherino said. “If we move out of the area, we would have to start over and I don’t think we could handle all those losses again.”
He said he doesn’t mind giving food to needy veterans because it always comes back to him.
“I had a guy come in and put $20 on the counter and say, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’” Mascherino said. “He told me he’d been in here the December before and I’d given him food. He said, ‘Take this and feed three people with it.’”
Aranda said many veterans, himself included, would be upset if the cafe had close.
“It’s a healing place for our veterans who are returning from combat,” he said.