No room at the inn: Hilton Head community Christmas dinner needs new location

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comAugust 20, 2013 

In this file photo, Hilton Head Island resident Michael Harrison, right, laughs with volunteers Marcie Cavanaugh, left, and John Yannett, center, during the 10th annual Community Christmas Day Dinner at The Beach House.

For the second time in as many years, organizers of a free community Christmas dinner on Hilton Head Island find themselves with no room at the inn.

Dinner organizers last year moved back to Hilton Head's Holiday Inn Resort -- now The Beach House -- after a $5 million renovation forced them into tight quarters at Aunt Chiladas Easy Street Cafe in 2011.

Co-organizer Lois Willig of Bluffton said Monday that The Beach House told her in June of plans for further renovations, leaving it without sufficient space to host the 2013 dinner, which celebrated 10 years last year. Willig said the resort offered the group use of its ballroom but could not provide its commercial kitchen or dining area.

An attempt Monday to reach the resort's director of sales was not successful.

"We were surprised and shocked, as we had been under the impression ... that everyone was pleased with the arrangement, including the (resort's) owners," Willig said. "Last year's dinner was a huge success, and the location was ideal. It met all of our space requirements."

She and other volunteers have been scrambling to find a new location in time to host this year's dinner, but so far, they have turned up nothing.

The Beach House "was apologetic and were very gracious in helping us pursue other avenues, including providing leads on a new location," Willig said. "Unfortunately, we have not had luck yet finding a venue. The restaurants and churches we have looked at are not large enough."

The group requires space to seat at least 150, along with a reception area, space for two buffet lines, commercial kitchen, ample parking and wheelchair accessibility.

Nearly 400 volunteers last year provided food to about 1,000 diners from southern Beaufort County and area visitors, Willig said.

"More restaurants are open on Christmas Day than 10 years ago, but those willing to help are just too small," she said, including Aunt Chiladas.

"We made do in that 'pinch year,' and they were very pleased and gracious to help us out, but it was way too small," Willig said. "We signed volunteers in next door at (Pedals Bicycles.)"

The clock is ticking. Willig said organizers have about three weeks to find a location.

"We should be soliciting for food right now, but can't do that if we don't know if we'll have a place to hold the dinner," she said. "We are really behind the ball."

There have been many sleepless nights, she said.

"A lot of people count on this dinner to help them get through the holiday -- from the homeless to residents and visitors who are away from family and wish to be around others and have a traditional, family Christmas dinner," Willig said. "... I am heartsick thinking we won't be able to provide this avenue for everyone to be able to celebrate Christmas."

Monetary and in-kind donations from individuals and businesses pay for the dinner. Offerings by guests also help Meals on Wheels and Second Helpings, a local charity that picks up extra food from restaurants and grocery stores to distribute to the needy.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at

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