LONG BEACH - The food was warm, the pie delicious and the presents aplenty at the free annual Christmas meal at The Reef restaurant Tuesday.
On Christmas, nearly 2,200 residents of Long Beach - young and elderly, homeless and families - gathered for the event in its 10th year at The Reef, but dating back elsewhere for much longer. John Tallichet, whose father founded the Specialty Restaurants chain, says his family has been offering free holiday meals at various restaurants for over 40 years.
When he was a boy, Tallichet said his late father, David, would cart the family to multiple restaurants he owned on Christmas day for the events.
Before moving the dinner to The Reef, the Tallichets hosted a Christmas meal at their Pieces of Eight restaurant, now Shanghai Red's, in San Pedro.
The Johnson family of Long Beach - Mark and Sherri and their two adult children Jeff and Sarah - have come to the annual meal for the last six Christmases.
Sharing the table with them Tuesday were Angela and Dick Rodriguez - both Iraq veterans - and their small children, Ben, 5, and Timmy, 3, who were attending for the first time.
The Rodriguez family fell on hard times after Dick returned from his third tour of duty. They live in a permanent housing facility, but neither have had much luck finding employment.
"This event means the world to us," Angela said. "We had nowhere to go this year - no money for a Christmas dinner or presents for the boys."
Also at the table was a man who only gave his first name, Bill, who had come, cold, from near the Long Beach Police Department, where he said he has taken up residence on the street for the past three years. Bill, a veteran, said he hasn't had a warm plate of food in months, and it's been years since he has laid his head on a soft pillow in a warm bed.
They are people from very different backgrounds, who, under other circumstances, would be unlikely to meet. But on this day they were sharing in the holiday spirit and eating well from the Reef's delicious buffet spread, hosted by the Tallichets and the Salvation Army.
"Sherri and I have been coming here for six years," Mark Johnson said. "It is a tradition, we know Santa (aka Alan Katz), we know a lot of the families that come year in and year out and it just makes our day special."
"There are no words to express my thanks for events like this," Bill said.
"This might be my only meal this week, it might be the only time that someone strikes up a real conversation with me. It almost feels like I have a family."
Five-year old Ben said that besides Santa, the best part was his new remote-control car. He wouldn't release his tight grip and couldn't stop smiling.
The gifts, which the children could pick up on their way out, were from the Long Beach Fire Department, which has collected gifts through the "Spark of Love" campaign.
Katz, who plays Santa, said seeing familiar faces and the pure joy from the children is what Christmas is all about.
"These families are economically challenged," he said. "They are struggling to stay afloat and providing them one day to feel special - a warm meal, presents, the works - this all overwhelms me, it's so special."
The meal, which is the same offered to paying clients later in the day for $31.
In addition to the Salvation Army, which provided a large band playing and singing Christmas music, there were hundreds of volunteers from various groups throughout Long Beach, not to mention the firefighters who hauled in dozens of huge boxes of toys for the kids.
Will Nash, with the Long Beach Fire Department, said they received thousands of dollars in donations this year. He said he is grateful to the community who came out in droves to support the toy drive that has been in place for over 40 years.
"I am always very impressed with the turnout," Nash said. "A lot of families are struggling and to be able to make a little boy or girl's Christmas by providing them with a toy, that's what it is all about - it makes you feel good inside."
Other volunteers included the East Spring Street Business Association, who with the help of other groups, gathered over 2,000 pairs of socks to distribute and spent much of the year knitting hats and scarves.
Tallichet said there was enough food for 3,000, and within the first hour, more than 1,000 people had passed through the meal line, which never slowed.
"This started with my Dad, he was a big believer in this, he looked forward to it every Christmas," he said. "We are Long Beach natives, we feel like part of the community and this is really important to our family. We treat each and every person who walks through the door like one of our best guests - we want them to feel like everyday people and really just enjoy themselves."